If all goes according to schedule, a supertanker will glide into this brand new deep-water port and industrial city on the Red Sea around July 10 and pick up the first load of 2.1 million barrels of oil pumped 750 miles across the Arabian Desert from the Saudi fields on the Persian Gulf.
The event, marking the emergence of Yanbu and the waterway as a second route for Saudi oil and gas exports, has taken on added significance in the wake of the Iranian-Iraqi war. This has raised serious concern in the West about the security of its vital oil supplies flowing from the gulf.
The government itself has taken ample note in its third, five-year plan of the "strategic advantage of major hydocarbon export facilities on the Red Sea." Its East-West pipeline will allow it to ship 1.85 million barrels a day, about 22 percent of its normal export rate of 8.5 million, to the West from this far closer and, it is hoped, safer port.
Interestingly, it located almost directly across from Ras Banas, the Egyptian military base that the United States hopes to use a staging area for its gulf-oriented Rapid Deployment Force aimed at portecting the West's oil lanes.
In the Saudi overall scheme of things, Yanbu is the smaller of the country's two new industrial "growth poles" and destined to become an ultramodern city for 150,000 over the next 20 years. Right now, however, it is mostly a gigantic, sand-and windblown construction site, with pipes and other materials piled up all over the place; bulldozers, dredges and backhoes busy at work, and its 17,000 mostly foreign inhabitants from 45 nations living in temporary housing.
Three thousand of them -- Filipinos and Koreans -- the crammed into container-like boxes on two barges anchored in the port, earning $750 a month while working on the Aramco-built pipeline.
Actually, there are two pipelines being built across the desert, one for oil and the other high-pressure one for gas. The latter will feed into "downstream" plants to produce natural gas liquids for export and other chemical derivatives for use by a 450,000-ton petrochemical plant, also going up here. In addition, there are three refineries being built, one for export (250,000 barrels per day), another for domestic use (170,00 a day) and a third for lubrication oil (5,000 a day).
There is also a crude terminal of floating-roof tanks capable of holding 1,85 million barrles and three crude and two liquid natural gas berths capable of taking supertankers.
The American role in all this is not negligible. In addition to the role of the four Arabian American Oil Co. (Aramco) building the liquid gas plant, Mobil is involved in the export refinery and the petrochemical plant and another U.S. consulting firm is in charge of managing the entire Yanbu project.
The industrial site is 10 miles south of old Yanbu, for centuries the port of the holy Islamic City of Medina and at one point the headquarters of Lawrence of Arabia. The new city, sitting astride an old salt marsh and behind a reef barrier, will eventually stretch for 15 miles along the coast and nearly four miles into the interior.
Enormous efforts are going into the planning of the city in the hope of attracting both Saudis and foreigners to live in this isolated spot. Saudi planners, who have studied Reston and Columbia along with other new American cities, have thought of the smallest details.
For example, schools will be located so that children will not have to cross streets, some of which will be in cobblestone to slow traffic within the complex of Reston-like that will make up each segment, housing 15,000 people.
"We want to make sure our industrial city is not an ugly one," explained Samir Nasser, assistant deputy project director on the Royal Commission, in charge of developing Yanbu. "We hope to create a living city that will be self-sufficient and maintain itself in the years to come."
Nasser is optimistic about Yanbu, the kingdom's accelerated industrialization and generally doing "in 50 years what it took you [in the West] centuries to do."
We are on schedule. In fact, we are ahead of schedule," he boasted.