Overview: In a country once accessible only via the camel caravan, Saudi Arabia has made rapid improvements in its transportation and communications networks through its five-year developmental plans. Improvements in roads, railroads, airports, and telecommunications have come rapidly since 1970. However, with agricultural and industrial development, traffic also has increased rapidly. Continuing improvements will be necessary to allow for long-term economic growth as well as to decrease congestion and preserve the quality of urban life.
Roads: Currently, Saudi Arabia is served by more than 156,000 kilometers of roads, about one-third of which are paved and the rest, improved earth. This network is vital not only for use by private citizens, but also to allow the oil industry to grow and prosper. There were numerous geographical challenges to creating a comprehensive road system in Saudi Arabia. The extreme heat and drastic elevation changes in the southwestern portion of the kingdom required highly developed engineering technologies combined with a significant financial commitment from the government. The Trans-Arabian Highway serves to link Saudi Arabia’s major cities—Ad Dammam, Riyadh, Jiddah, Mecca, and Medina. Most villages in Saudi Arabia, even in remote areas, are now connected to the larger road network. The road system also has connected Saudi Arabia more closely to its neighbors, both literally and diplomatically. The King Fahd Causeway, completed in 1986, connects Saudi Arabia to Bahrain. Whereas the emphasis has largely shifted to maintaining the network of roads already in place, one future project under consideration is a causeway that would link Saudi Arabia to Egypt, thus connecting the eastern and western Arab worlds.
The International Road Federation reported a decline, by nearly half, of the number of automobiles on the road in Saudi Arabia between 1991 and 1996 (from 5,103,205 to 2,935,000). Yet, the Saudi government continues to express concern over the growth of traffic congestion and to plan for future improvements to the road network.
Railroads: Saudi Arabia has 1,392 kilometers of railroads, all at a standardized 1.435-meter gauge. In 2001, 790,000 passengers traveled on Saudi trains. In addition, Saudi trains carried 1.5 million tons of cargo. In comparison to the other means of transport in the country, however, railroads remain relatively undeveloped. The difficult terrain has made laying track a costly endeavor. Currently, the country’s most significant railroad is one that covers 570 kilometers between Riyadh and Ad Dammam, linking the capital with a significant port and industrial city. The Saudi Railways Organization (SRO), which oversees the country’s railroad network, is planning three news lines that would add nearly 3,000 kilometers to the rail network. The lines would connect Jiddah to Ad Dammam; Al Jubayl, Riyadh, and Hazm al Jalamid; and Jiddah to Mecca, Medina, and Yanbu. The government plans to transfer two of these lines to private ownership while maintaining control of the industrial line extending northward from Al Jubayl. The SRO owns 59 diesel locomotives, 58 passenger cars, and 2,340 freight cars.
Ports: Saudi Arabia has 21 modern ports, with the major Red Sea ports located in Jiddah, Yanbu, and Jizan. On the Persian Gulf, Ad Dammam and Al Jubayl are Saudi Arabia’s most significant port cities. In 2004 the industrial ports at Al Jubayl, Jiddah, and Yanbu each handled more than 30 million tons of cargo. Together, they handled more than 80 percent of the kingdom’s cargo. The Jiddah Islamic Port, as it is officially titled, also serves as the main entry port for pilgrims arriving to visit Mecca and Medina. The port at Ad Dammam, like the one in Jiddah, has a fully equipped repair yard. The newest major port to be completed is located on the northern end of the Red Sea at Dhiba. It serves as the closest port to the Suez Canal and Egyptian ports. The Saudi government, through its port authority, regulates all ports. Privatization is being attempted, as in most sectors of the economy, at a gradual pace. In 1999 some of the service aspects of port operation, including maintenance and management of docks, were opened to private contracts.
Inland Waterways: Saudi Arabia has no permanent rivers to serve as waterways.
Civil Aviation and Airports: According to U.S. government statistics, the cumulative number of airports in Saudi Arabia is 206. This total includes those with paved runways (72), unpaved runways (129), and heliports (5). Saudi Arabia has four major international airports, located in Jiddah, Riyadh, Al Hufuf, and Dhahran. King Abd al Aziz International Airport serves Jiddah and currently handles about 13 million passengers annually. Plans exist for expansion in Jiddah to include a Hajj Terminal to further accommodate Muslim pilgrims. King Khalid International Airport serves the capital city of Riyadh. It currently has the capacity to handle 7.5 million passengers annually, but there are plans for expansion. A system of 24 regional airports serves to connect the remote regions of the country to the international airports, and consequently to the rest of the world. Currently, Saudi Arabian Airlines is the major operator for the region. With a fleet of more than 100 aircraft, it transports more than 10 million passengers annually and is the largest airline company in the Middle East.
Pipelines: According to U.S. estimates, Saudi Arabia has a total of 9,413 kilometers of pipeline. This total includes pipeline designated for: condensate, 212 kilometers; gas, 1,780 kilometers; liquid petroleum, 1,191 kilometers; oil, 5,068 kilometers, and other refined products, 1,162 kilometers.
Telecommunications: King Abd al Aziz deserves much of the credit for modernizing Saudi Arabia’s communications network in the 1930s, when he established an extensive telegraph system and set the precedent for making communications a governmental priority. Since that time, the government claims to have spent more than US$23 billion to improve its communications system. In 1998 Saudi Arabia’s telecommunications industry was largely privatized. The sector is now dominated by the Saudi Telecommunications Company, which employs more than 70,000 Saudis. The governmental oversight body is the Ministry of Telecommunications and Information Technology.
Statistics gathered in 1998 showed that there were 43 AM, 31 FM, and 2 short-wave radio stations in operation in Saudi Arabia, and Saudis had about 6.3 million radios (in 1997). The Saudi government commissioned the American National Broadcasting Corporation to create the first Saudi television network in 1964. Currently, two television channels broadcast in Saudi Arabia—one in English and one in Arabic, with 117 stations providing coverage throughout the country. Estimates from 2000 show that Saudis had 5.7 million television sets.
Saudi Arabia has a modern and expanding telephone system, with more than 3.5 million main lines in use in 2003. The technology used for domestic lines includes microwave radio relay, coaxial cable, and fiber-optic cable stems. Seven “earth stations” are linked to the Intelstat Satellite System, which allows Saudi citizens direct dialing access to more than 200 countries around the globe. According to 2002 statistics, Saudi Arabia had 151 telephone mainlines per 1,000 people. As in many regions of the world, mobile and cellular phones have become increasingly popular in the last decade. It is estimated that in 2003 more than 7 million cellular phones were in use in Saudi Arabia. In 2003, 228 cellular subscribers per 1,000 inhabitants were registered, compared with only 1 per 1,000 in 1990.
The use of personal computers and the Internet has increased rapidly in the early 2000s. Internet service first became available in Saudi Arabia in 1999. With access routed through a state server, the government, as it has in many industries, took a prominent role in the technological and economic development of the Internet. As of 2003, 21 Internet service providers served more than 1.5 million Saudi Internet users. Additionally, Saudi Arabia had an estimated 15,000 Internet hosts. The number of Saudis who own and use personal computers continues to rise, from 1.3 million in 2000 to 3 million in 2002.