A cut above

CMME joins Al-Falah on the high road out of Fujairah as it carves a route from the port to the heart of the UAE.

CMME joins Al-Falah on the high road out of Fujairah

CMME joins Al-Falah on the high road out of Fujairah

Part quarrying operation, part road building, contractor Al-Falah is currently taking on the formidable task of constructing a truck route through the mountains that lie to the west of the UAE city of Fujairah.

The road is being built to ease congestion into Fujairah’s port. The city itself provides an open water access point to the Indian Ocean for the oil and gas industry and is thriving as the UAE looks to form a gateway from its Gulf-locked metropolises of Abu Dhabi and Dubai to global trade. In the event of another Gulf war or an Iranian blocking of the Strait of Hormuz, Fujairah would also be its lifeline to the rest of the world.

While the Gulf coast cities have the advantage of space to build their infrastructure and roads and can afford expansive six-lane highways, the more frugal Fujairah is penned in by mountains on almost all sides. Both existing routes westward travel through passes that can cope with truck traffic but there simply isn’t the room to push more traffic through the suburbs. As freight traffic continues to grow, the port’s location at the remote end of the city presents city planners with a challenge. How can they allow it to grow without leaving its residents living in smoggy gridlock? The new high road out of town is – hopefully – the answer.

To reach one of the peaks, CMME is taken on a wadi bash through the flat basin that forms a channel at the inland stretch of the road. Dotted along the sides are ramshackled homes, half rock and half wood and metal detritus. Greeting us are a few people and many goats.

Those that live here still cling onto their goat-herding traditions but that is about to change. Their houses are each daubed with a large red cross that marks them out for demolition. The modern world that brought them the aerials and satellite dishes that sit precariously on their roofs is bringing the city on the other side with it. Progress waits for no man. Or goat.
Somewhere on the other side of the limestone ridges that rise above us is another flat plain and access to the port. As we ride deeper into the valley we’re told that we should make sure that everything and everyone is belted down. Ahead the track below will soon be scaling the mountain sides above us. We’re in for a rocky ride.

Taming the mountain
Al-Falah’s work on the project can be described as cut and fill on the grandest of scales. The route selected takes in the lower peaks of a natural pass but with the entrances to the valley close to sea level it is using a fleet of excavators armed with breakers and buckets to scrape and remove from the mountain’s sides. ADTs take the material and clear the way; Al-Falah is taking down a mountain bit by bit.
Early morning blasts are being used to not only create a route but to also provide much of the material that will be used in the construction of the road. This process is overseen by the local authority; and one of the Al-Falah team in our SUV suggests that Fujairah has been highly supportive to the operation within the emirate.

He explains: “Our CEO was supposed to be with us this afternoon but he’s had to go to an award ceremony. The mayor of Fujairah is going to present him with the contractor of the year award.”

With the amount of activity underway the road up the mountain is surprisingly smoothed out although bumpy. As we ride upwards, our host from Al-Falah rumbles on the investment in equipment it has taken to get this far.

“In the last year, we have taken $30 million worth of equipment from (local Caterpillar dealer) Al-Bahar,” he comments. “We expect to be able to use them again on our next jobs.”

The operation is not solely dependent on Cat kit, however, with Atlas Copco machines deployed on piling duty and Hitachi excavators also mounted on the shelves of the operation. Our driver points at a Cat 3DR bulldozer moving a wedge of rock, clearing a path as we climb upwards.

“That’s actually an older one,” he says at it rolls by. “Out of the 3 million tonnes of rock we have to move 1.2 million is being used as fill.
The remaining 800,000 will have to be used to protect the edge (from landslides).”

After several minutes working our way up a track we reach a ridge overlooking the valley behind us and ahead several other ridges and shelves where the excavation work is being done in earnest. After a short drive down the other side, and back up another vertical rise we stop and take in a view of the machines in action.

In the distance between two hills, the edge of Fujairah’s port can be seen. With the path of the road far below us, it is almost unimaginable that within two years that trucks will be hauling themselves through here.

For the time being, the seven 39.5t 740B articulated trucks that are being loaded by the 336D excavators will be almost exclusively negotiating the pass. Once fully loaded the trucks shift the rock to one end of the route for sorting. 130,000 journeys will be require to fully clear the route. With summer approaching, they face months of tireless work and arduous tasks.

Having invested in new kit, Al-Falah is banking on running the equipment for long hours. While Caterpillar recommends 250 hours engine oil schedules, the contractor is keeping to 150 hours. It is a significant drop but one following the self-confessed machinery obsessed CEO’s own philosophy on looking after his investment. According to his supplier Al-Bahar, he knows” these machines better than us”.

Meeting him sadly requires descending from our vantage point and journeying back down to the valley and the site office situated close to the finish line on the road to Dubai. Sitting with him you get the sense he would prefer to be back on the mountain rather than sitting with a journalist. Having seen the view from up top, it is completely understandable. Looking up at chart on the wall he gives an overview of the operation. Blast by blast.

“In March we did 14 blasts,” he begins. “We have a programme for drilling and blasting. We need to keep the production moving. We need to finish.”

At a rate of almost a blast every two days it is a rate that would be unusual even at the busiest of quarries. Having seen the size of the task at hand – and the extent of how much rock is still needed to be excavator – it is understandable why he is keeping such a tight schedule even if the completion date is not due for another 12 months. In total 10,000m3 will need to be shifted. (“This is why we need help from our suppliers for our machines,” he jokes.)

Al-Falah was begun as company in the Lebanon in the mid-1990s but quickly began looking further afield for business. It is just ten years since Al-Falah began operation as a road contractor in the UAE, but he is proud of how the company is now perceived as the mountain road builder in Fujairah.

A recently completed project in Masafi typifies why it is now being trusted with major projects in the northern emirates. Building a service road in a remote location, Al-Falah entered into the contract not knowing the type of material was going to be excavated. One kilometre in and facing 150m high rock faces of possibly hard rock the task appeared daunting. In a year it was completed. “Just last month,” he says proudly.

Despite the shift abroad he sees similarities between his home country and his company’s new home.

“It is the same environment, like these mountains. Although is not the same rock as here you have gravel and limestone, but it is the same kind of job.”

He adds that his current fleet of 40 machines will need to be expanded to more than 50 as work accelerated. He doesn’t like holding onto for too long in case they lose their value. We keeps them in good condition and then gets rid of them. For a company that specialises in the very toughest jobs, it is almost unbelievable that his strict service routines means he has never had an engine of transmission failure.

“I kept some 749As from 2007 for three years, and then sold them on. After 10,000 hours they were gone. I don’t like to maintain workshops. I like the 740Bs… I need ten more!”

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