The Trans-Arabian Pipeline — or Tapline — has been officially recognized as Saudi Arabia’s first industrial heritage site. This is the story of how the 70-year-old oil pipeline won its place in history — and in the affections of those who worked on it.
The Tapline, located in the northern Saudi Arabian desert, is considered a historical feat of engineering that brought energy to Europe in the aftermath of World War II.
When it began operations in 1950, it was the world’s largest oil pipeline system. It carried billions of barrels of crude oil 1,648 kilometers (km) from Abqaiq on the Arabian Gulf to the Mediterranean port of Sidon in Lebanon, marking a pivotal moment for both the Kingdom and the legacy of Aramco.
But the Tapline was always much more than the sum of its physical parts. Its success was thanks to the dedication of an adventurous and resourceful team of engineers, mechanics, and technicians, drawn from all over the world.
Now, 31 years after it was decommissioned, the Tapline has cemented its place in the history books as Saudi Arabia’s first officially recognized industrial heritage site.
The lifeline of the Tapline was a series of main pumping stations, located 250-300 kilometers apart, and substations and microwave sites for telecommunications along the route.
From blueprint to reality
As World War II approached its final days, it became clear that the reconstruction of Europe would need a steady and cost-effective supply of crude oil. Previously, it was a nine-day, 5,800- km voyage by ship from Saudi Arabia through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean; a long and costly journey that would not accommodate the expected surge in crude oil demand.
In 1944, Aramco founded the Trans-Arabian Pipeline Company as a joint venture between Aramco and other leading international oil companies, and so began an 18-month planning phase. The vast distances involved, the lack of facilities, the extreme temperatures, and challenging terrain meant building the Tapline was one of the biggest strategic decisions the company would make during this time.
Building the 1,648 kilometer long Tapline was an engineering and logistical marvel, and provided needed energy to the nations of Europe and beyond after World War II.
An epic construction project
The logistics of construction was immense: 305,000 tons of steel pipes were transported by ship, and six pumping stations were to be built along the 1,648-km route, which also needed to be paved.
The pumping stations — at Nariya, Qaisumah, Rafha, Badanah, and Turaif in Saudi Arabia, and Qaryatain in Jordan — were designed to push the oil up to the pipeline’s maximum point of elevation, 907 meters above sea level.
Work on the massive project began in 1947, and after three years of construction by more than 16,000 workers, the final joint of the Tapline was welded on September 25, 1950.
Pipeline to performance
The Tapline was a success. In 1951, the first full year in which the pipeline was operational, Aramco’s production rose to 278 million barrels, and more than one-third of it flowed through the Tapline.
It proved to be a long, steel artery of energy to the Western markets, both accelerating Aramco’s development and growth during the 1950s, as well as fulfilling global post-war needs by providing a reliable, cost-effective source of crude oil.
Developing the Kingdom
The Tapline forever changed Saudi Arabia’s northern region, bringing facilities and prosperity along its route. Around the six original pumping stations, new communities sprang up, each with homes, schools, and dining halls built for the families of people working on the Tapline. By the mid-1960s, these communities had expanded to include mosques, shops, leisure facilities, theaters, and playgrounds — and together had become home to more than 5,000 people.
Although the Tapline has been out of service for decades, the towns it sparked still thrive today, e.g., Turaif, which did not exist in 1945, is now a port of entry into Saudi Arabia.
The Tapline remained a key component of Aramco’s oil delivery network for more than 40 years, until a new generation of larger and more cost-effective supertankers reduced the Tapline’s economic advantages. Pumping was discontinued, but the pipeline continued to transport smaller quantities of oil up until 1990.
The Tapline was completely decommissioned and finally “de-cruded,” or cleaned out, in 2001.
The Tapline had a capacity to pump 500,000 barrels of oil per day, from the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia to the Mediterranean Sea.
The Tapline today
Today, the story of the Tapline is well-known to those who worked on it or live near it, with fond memories of the challenges and unique experience of working on the 1,648-km pipeline.
In December 2020, the Kingdom’s Ministry of Culture selected it as Saudi Arabia’s first industrial heritage site, while surveys are underway to propose it as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The physical pipeline still runs parallel to the highway in northern Saudi Arabia — aptly named the Tapline Road. In its current, unused state, the sheer size of the Tapline creates challenges for those working to preserve and celebrate it. Although the original main pumping stations have long been dismantled, the pipeline remains a monument to ingenuity, vision, and determination, and is one of the milestones of Aramco’s legacy.
Late last year, the Saudi Heritage Commission announced that the Trans- Arabian Pipeline, also known as the Tapline, had been named a National Industrial Heritage site. This designation highlights the important role for the construction and maintenance of the Tapline in developing the communities of the Northern Region of Saudi Arabia, as well as providing secure and cost-effective delivery of hydrocarbons to customers in Europe and beyond following World War II.
With construction beginning in 1948, starting in Abqaiq to Qatif Junction and onward to Qaisumah, the 1,200-kilometer Tapline eventually stretched across the north of the Kingdom through Rafha, Badanah (later called Ar-Ar), and Turaif before reaching the terminus a few kilometers south of the ancient city of Sidon in Lebanon.
The Arabian Sun reached out to former Tapline employees and dependents to tell us their stories about life in one of the world’s most important pipeline projects.
Mohamad El Chami,
Tapline telecommunication specialist,
In March of 1982, I came to Turaif, which was the main site of the operations. I was a telecommunications specialist. Our duty was to maintain the microwave system, the telecoms equipment at each station along the route. For the main pump stations, there were 250-300 kilometers (km) between each site. There was 150 km between each substation, and 50 km between each microwave site. Our job was to maintain all that equipment, and as the youngest person on the team, I used to travel on a daily basis.
The connection between the Tapline camp and the Saudis living in all the villages and cities along the route was really close. The Saudis always talked about us, because many of them worked with us. They used to invite us to their weddings. I lived in Turaif for four years, then lived in Badanah until 1990, and then left Tapline in 1990. Every place along Tapline was a good place to live, because it’s not about the place itself, it’s about the people you live with.
Hudaib Al Hajri,
Northern Area Pipelines
I joined the Tapline decommissioning activity as an operations Foreman early in 1999, and served with them until 2015, both at the Saudi Arabian and Jordanian sites.
During the Tapline construction, there was no asphalt road, only a sandy and rocky road. The old Tapline retirees tell us that it was a very hard road to travel, and the traveling was very difficult, especially for long distances.
The Tapline transformed everything in the Northern Borders area. The people who lived in that area were hired to do jobs at the Tapline, and those jobs brought prosperity to the communities along the Tapline. The Tapline also built hospitals, schools, and other facilities in different locations, and wherever there was a Tapline camp, there would be local communities that grew up alongside them.
During the decommissioning period, we were ready to face any problem that came up, and immediately resolved issues in a very short time. Because of the long distances, and the importance of a quick response, we kept materials and all the spare parts at each main pump station so we could do our repairs and maintenance in a timely manner.
Saud B. Al-Sharhan,
Group Leader at Northern Area Pipelines
The Tapline is a great engineering structure that is considered one of the largest engineering structures in the world. The nature of the desert is difficult. The construction was carried out in various weather conditions, as well as in different geographical settings. And at its height, there were three different governments sharing the custodianship of the land through which the Tapline ran — in Lebanon, Jordan, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
I’m an operations engineer at Berri and Safaniyah, and my responsibilities include protecting the lands around the Tapline from encroachment. The Tapline runs 1,298 km in the Kingdom, and the pipeline owns the land 200 meters in width for the full length. That’s one-third of the land in the Kingdom of Bahrain. So for Aramco engineers, the Tapline is one of the milestones to be proud of.
— The Arabian Sun: June 2, 2021 | Vol. LXXVI, No. 21