A desert odyssey in search of Saudi Arabia’s hidden riches

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Many years ago, before this writer stumbled into the journalism trade, he pursued a variety of means of earning a living, one of which found him inside Arabia’s “Cradle of Gold.”

More on that later. But the memory of that incident has been inspired by talk of an “economic crisis” in Saudi Arabia, one so serious, we are told, that it could bring down the House of Saud — and therefore the quasi-state that bears its name.

Economics, of course, bears little resemblance to what it was decades ago when circumstances conspired to deposit me in the middle of the Arabian Peninsula, mere meters from what some say were the legendary mines of King Solomon. In those days, people and the entities they had developed over millennia, primarily businesses, corporations, and nation-states, based their wealth on the exploitation of natural resources, which were wrought into products that could be bought and sold by other people, businesses, and nation-states. Banks and financial instruments were simply tools to facilitate that trade.

No longer. Now, finance, stocks, bonds and so-called “fintech” are the foundation of economics, and commodities and products — and the humans who use them — just pawns in a Great Game. Money itself does not exist in any real sense; metal coins and paper notes are kept around to shore up people’s faith that the digits in the computers of the US Federal Reserve, the City of London, and the International Monetary Fund have some substance. At a time when “faith-based politics” is laughed at, and political Islam and the Christian right feared, the entire global economic system is based on faith.

There’s more than oil beneath Saudi’s sands

And yet, commodities do exist. People do still buy actual products such as automobiles, which are fueled by the remains of long-dead plants and animals dug up in places like Arabia, or scooped out of tar pits in Alberta. The fossil-fuel business remains the most important remaining extraction-based industry, and Saudi Arabia has long been a crucial cog in that machine. So much so that very few have noticed that the country sits on an enormous wealth of other underground resources, primarily metals, including gold.

The Arabic for “Cradle of Gold” is mahd al-dhahab, which gives its name to a small but wealthy city in Al Madinah region, in the Hejaz, western Saudi Arabia. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Saudi regime was expanding its national telephone system, giving priority to people with influence, and the town of Mahd adh Dhahab qualified.

At the time, vast areas of Saudi not only didn’t have telephones, they didn’t have highways. Mahd adh Dhahab today is connected to the Mecca-Medina highway, but back then, it was an island in the sand — sand that has covered a vast wealth of gold, copper and silver that has been mined for thousands of years, probably going back to the time of Solomon and the mysterious Queen of Sheba, who in fact may have actually been a female trade emissary from the Kingdom of Saba, in present-day Yemen.

My visit to the area was as a low-ranking surveyor (junior instrumentman) for a Canadian engineering company that had been contracted to map out routes of microwave towers that would bring telephones into the desert (this was long before cellular technology was making any inroads into the world of communication).

Modernizing the desert kingdom on a budget

We determined a reasonably accurate location for Mahd adh Dhahab from the best maps then available, took a compass bearing from the Medina area, and headed in that direction across the naked desert in our four-wheel-drive Chevrolet pickups and Suburbans. Along the route we staked out possible locations for microwave towers, trying to keep the number of towers — which would have a range of about 20 to 30 kilometers depending on terrain — to a minimum to save costs.

After reaching the town and making the acquaintance of the local authorities, we came across the compound of a foreign mining company, which, like the many similar compounds scattered across the country, was well equipped with recreational facilities and, most important, good food. What it was not equipped with, it seemed, was a reasonable complement of mine workers.

This was because, we were told, the purpose of the compound was not actually to extract any of the gold that lay in wait nearby, but to hold a place in the queue for the day when the Saudis gave their company the go-ahead to start mining. They had already been waiting for years and were prepared to wait years more, as the Saudis kept Solomon’s gold safely in reserve underground until the oil wells started to run dry.

Mahd adh Dhahab … was only the most famous “cradle of gold” in the country — there were many others, also on standby for a future oil drought, along with vast deposits of copper, zinc, phosphates and other valuable minerals

Mahd adh Dhahab, we found out later, was only the most famous “cradle of gold” in the country — there were many others, also on standby for a future oil drought, along with vast deposits of copper, zinc, phosphates and other valuable minerals.

About a decade and a half after our visit, the Saudi mining sector finally started opening up a little. The Saudi Arabian Mining Company (Ma’aden) was set up in 1997 to lead private investment in the sector and, according to Mining-Technology.com, “was followed in 2004 with the liberalization of mining and mineral laws to make private exploitation more attractive.”

As of 2014, the website reported, Mahd adh Dhahab was producing 100,000 ounces of gold a year. “In addition to gold, Ma’aden extracts around 900 tons of copper, 4,000 tons of zinc and 280,000 ounces of silver from the mine each year.”

That is on top of the estimated one million ounces or more of gold that it has yielded during the last 3,000 years. And apparently there is plenty more where that came from, so it might be premature to write off the Saudi economy just yet.

There is one more anecdote arising from my visit to that amazing place so many years ago. After we had eaten our fill of the mining company’s delicious imported grub, it was time to plan our trip to our next assignment. We had noticed what looked like the beginning of a dirt road construction, so we set out on that, mapping it along the way. I drove the lead vehicle and radioed back to the following crew any bend in the road I encountered, and the new compass direction.

At one point I announced, “I just encountered a paved highway.”

A paved road from nowhere to nowhere

My colleagues thought I was joking, but it was true — a ribbon of black asphalt stretched out ahead of me, for maybe 500 meters. Then a short bridge. Then 500 more meters of asphalt, which abruptly ended, depositing me back into undeveloped desert sands. We encountered no more road construction until we arrived at the main national highway network near Medina.

There, we came across another foreign compound, welcoming to Western visitors like all the others whose hospitality we exploited during our Saudi sojourn. We told the men there about our odd encounter with the single kilometer of paved road in the middle of the Hejazi desert, and they told us the story.

It seems that a senior cleric from Medina had traveled to Mahd adh Dhahab and had gotten stranded there when a wadi flooded. This was unacceptable, he declared — the faithful of Mahd adh Dhahab must be able to travel to the Holy City of Medina without having to worry about floods. So he used his influence with the House of Saud to arrange a contract with a European construction company to build a bridge over the offending wadi, with an appropriate length of smooth black asphalt leading up to either end of the bridge.

Even the Queen of Sheba would have been impressed.

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