How a royal visit to a Frisco shipyard cemented US-Saudi relations

Left photo: Stephen Bechtel Sr., Prince Faisal bin Abdul Aziz , Abdallah Balkhair and Ebrahim Alsulaiman Alaquil aboard Bechtel’s shipyard in 1944 San Francisco, California. (Via social media) Right Photo: An employee walks in a phosphate storage facility in the Maaden Aluminium Factory  in Ras Al-Khair Industrial area near Jubail. (File photo)
Updated 29 March 2018

How a royal visit to a Frisco shipyard cemented US-Saudi relations

JEDDAH: It was 1944, World War II was coming to an end, and Stephen Bechtel Sr. was welcoming a young Saudi prince to his shipyard along the shores of San Francisco Bay.
His name was Prince Faisal bin Abdul Aziz and he was the future heir to the Kingdom’s throne. The meeting led to a 75-year business relationship based on friendship, loyalty and trust between Saudi Arabia and the US.
Onboard Prince Faisal surveyed construction of ships and marine tankers being built during the war. Notes were taken, and three years later in 1947, King Abdul Aziz invited the heads of Bechtel Corporation to Riyadh to put ink to paper on a host of lucrative construction projects.
Following a successful refinery expansion in Ras Tanura, Bechtel began work on a coastal railroad, a deepwater pier along Jeddah’s port, and a power plant in the capital. Bechtel built all three without incident, the first of many successful projects that would transform Saudi Arabia in the decades that were to follow.
“I cannot help but foresee tremendous possibilities pointing toward potentially the biggest development of natural resources ever undertaken,” Bechtel said in 1947.
At that time, his company had been working in the Kingdom for three years.
Saudi Arabia was only a decade into its discovery of oil, and daily production was approaching 250,000 barrels — and climbing. The Kingdom had found the natural resource that would lead it to becoming an economic superpower, and with this newfound wealth, modernization was in order.
The Bechtel Corporation offered a large-scale, efficient, project-management construction company to play a role in this rapid change.
Demand for oil rose in the aftermath of World War II, and Saudi Arabia needed a way to transport that oil to European markets. The Saudi royal family, happy with the construction work of their new American business partners, presented them with the blueprint for the Trans-Arabian pipeline. At the time, it was the largest oil pipeline in the world. Bechtel completed it in 1950 — an impressive 750-mile pipeline in only three years.
Even more remarkable, this project included a standstill period in 1948 during the first Arab-Israeli War. The pipeline began in Saudi Arabia, crossed through Jordan and Syria, and ended in the port of Sidon, south of Beirut, Lebanon. Maximum oil capacity surpassed 500,000 barrels per day — an unprecedented amount at the time. The project required the importation of 265,000 tons of pipe and the construction of 1,200 miles of new roads.
Perhaps the most significant statistic was the 1,600 Americans who worked alongside the 1,200 Saudis. A mutual cooperation of understanding, vision and trust with a common goal.
After multiple visits to see King Abdul Aziz, and on understanding his grander vision for developing Saudi Arabia, Bechtel Corporation was commissioned to build airports, hospitals, hotels, piers, power plants, railways, radio towers and oil facilities around the Kingdom.
Bechtel’s reputation for quality construction work in Saudi Arabia began to spread throughout the Middle East and Africa. The company began building oil refineries in the UAE and Yemen, constructing pipelines between Iraq and Syria, as well as installing power plants in Egypt. Each completed project would earn subsequent contracts in the region.
Stephen Bechtel’s relationship with Prince Faisal, which started in 1944, would come full circle in 1973 after he became king. He invited Bechtel to discuss diversifying the Saudi economy away from solely petroleum-based revenue.
Bechtel advised King Faisal on the potential for using gas from the Kingdom’s oil fields to generate electricity. As a result, new industrial cities at Yanbu on the Red Sea, and Jubail on the Gulf coast, brought electricity to residents for the first time.
Bechtel also built King Khalid and King Fahd international airports in Riyadh and Dammam respectively.
Bechtel’s most lucrative year for signing contracts with Saudi Arabia was 1976 as they revealed plans for their grandest project to date. The Jubail Industrial City project would be the single largest commissioned project-management contract ever attempted by a construction company.
Bechtel spent more than 20 years constructing the industrial and manufacturing site along Saudi Arabia’s Gulf coast, at a cost of more than $40 billion. Saudi Arabia’s petrochemical industry had finally found a home.
Some 370 million cubic meters of sand was excavated as Bechtel transformed barren dunes into Jubail Industrial City. The city is now home to the world’s largest producers of petrochemicals.
Additional factories, an airport, residential homes, hospitals and clinics, mosques, a swimming marina and a five-million gallon desalination plant were subsequently built to support those working there.
Bechtel worked with their Saudi counterparts through thick and thin. During the First Gulf War, Bechtel provided unwavering support by managing the largest recovery of spilled oil in history, and in the process, protected Saudi drinking water facilities.
In the late 70s, Bechtel was accused of being complicit in the Arab boycott of Israel. Bechtel denied the charges and continued project management work within the Arabian Gulf.
Some 75 years since it first started working with the Kingdom, Bechtel is now involved in the mining and metals sector in Saudi Arabia, as well as building the Kingdom’s first metro system in Riyadh, a contract worth $10 billion.
Stephen Bechtel Jr. first visited Saudi Arabia with his father in 1948. He has since returned on many occasions through the years, acknowledging that: “The single most impressive change is not physical, but rather the improvement in the style of living of the average person in Saudi Arabia, the education, the health care. I attribute this to the philosophy and leadership of the royal family, and I’m proud that we could play a supporting role.”
His son, Riley Bechtel added: “From our very first job in the Kingdom, we learned the importance of honoring their culture and beliefs and conducting ourselves in a way that made us welcome in their community. We’ve never stopped working to be good citizens in Saudi Arabia.”
Currently, Bechtel is the largest construction company in the US and the eighth largest privately owned American company with a 2017 revenue of $33bn.
Much of Bechtel’s success though, was initially achieved through establishing a friendship and trust with the Saudi royal family. A bond that was first formed through a prince’s visit to a San Francisco shipyard in 1944.
Foreign laborers working at a Riyadh metro station construction site on a suspended bridge in the Saudi capital. (AFP/File photo) 

The fight to end child marriage

Updated 4 min 4 sec ago

The fight to end child marriage

  • Saudi Arabia’s Shoura Council has moved to abolish a practice that remains a hidden scandal in many parts of the world

RIYADH: When Saudi Arabia’s Shoura Council voted on Jan. 11 to ban child marriage in the Kingdom, it joined a global movement seeking to end a practice that is harmful not just to girls’ health — child brides are more likely to experience domestic violence and die in childbirth — but also to their future, as they are less likely to remain in school.

According to UNICEF, the term “child marriage” is used to refer to both formal marriages and informal unions in which a girl or boy lives with a partner before the age of 18. An informal union is one in which a couple live together for some time, intending to have a lasting relationship, but do not have a formal civil or religious ceremony.

The Shoura Council banned child marriages for both genders with the approval of two-thirds of its members.

The law was eight years in the making, and was put before the council at least five times in last year’s council sessions. The members voted to approve regulations limiting marriages of those under 18 years of age and banning marriages involving children under 15 years of age. The law was effective immediately.

Shoura Council member Dr. Hoda Al-Helaissi said the law is an important step in protecting children’s rights.

 “The idea was to protect girls more than anything, but also young boys,” he said. “You cannot expect a girl of 10 or 12 to understand what marital relations are, or for her body to correctly carry a baby. There are a lot of health issues involved.”

Al-Helaissi explained the reason behind the delay in approving the law. “The usual argument was that it took place in the days of the Prophet (Muhammad). But times have changed since the olden days, and we are not just talking about Islam. It was used as a bartering tool for (those in) poverty, where the fathers received dowries. 

“Things are completely different now,” he said. “The law gives them the possibility of an education and future.” 

Times are certainly changing in Saudi Arabia, which is modernizing under the Vision 2030 reform plan. And while the latest step is one of many taken recently to empower women, the Kingdom is not even among the 20 countries that have the highest absolute numbers of child marriages. 

Most child marriages take place in poverty-stricken countries in which families benefit financially from a daughter’s marriage, or in countries that adhere strictly to traditional norms. In many such countries, girls are viewed as a burden on families — in need of safeguarding to protect their honor — while boys are considered breadwinners. 

Child marriage is a generations-old custom still practiced today around the world in countries including India, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Indonesia and Mexico. The custom has often gone unquestioned in such places since it has been part of communities’ lives and identities for a long time.

Families marry their daughters in return for dowries, passing the responsibility of their daughter’s care to the husband. This eases the financial strain of impoverished families because they have one less mouth to feed. In conflict areas, many believe marriage is in the daughter’s best interest to protect her from physical or sexual harassment.  

India has by far the highest  number of child brides. Even though child marriage is technically illegal there, many are falling victim to the practice.

A study published in UNICEF’s “State of the World’s Children” report in 2017 estimated that there were more than 15 million women in India who married when they were children. 

According to a study carried out by Girls Not Brides — a global partnership of more than 1,000 civil society organizations committed to ending child marriage — 27 percent of Indian girls are married before the age of 18, and 7 percent by the age of 15. India is one of 12 countries selected to be part of the UN Population Fund and UNICEF’s Global Program to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage. 

Child marriage is not just restricted to the developing world, however. It is legal — taking judicial exceptions into account — in 49 US states. 

Child bride Sunita Bishnoi, 5, at her parents’ home near Jodpur in
India’s northwest. (AFP)

States often make exceptions to their minimum-age ruling if those below the age of 18 have parental consent, the approval of a judge, or are recognized as adults. And 25 states have no statutory minimum age for marriage to begin with, meaning that minors can legally marry other minors or adults.

Minors are most likely to get married in places that are rural and poor, said Nicholas Syrett, who combed through historical marriage records while researching his book “American Child Bride: A History of Minors and Marriage in the United States.”

He wrote: “Almost all the evidence indicates that girls in cities don’t get married young, that girls from middle class or wealthy families don’t get married young. This is a rural phenomenon and it is a phenomenon of poverty.”

According to Unchained at Last, an organization dedicated to ending forced and child marriage in the US, an estimated 248,000 children — some as young as 12 — were married between 2000 and 2015 in America.

The new law in Saudi Arabia is in keeping with the country’s existing child protection law, which applies to people under the age of 18, Jeddah-based divorce lawyer Bayan Zahran told Arab News. “Anyone under this age limit is considered to be under the child protection system,” she said. 

The new law confirms the view that minors cannot be expected to function as adults in a marriage, Zahran said, and will help prevent divorces that result from these dysfunctional partnerships.

Dr. Fawzia Aba Al-Khail, a member of the Shoura Council, emphasized the importance of the matter being debated thoroughly by the council — even if that meant taking a long time to pass the law. 

“The fact that a minority of the council’s (Islamic and judicial affairs) committee disagreed with passing the law shows they have a right to their opinion, and that the committee discusses (matters) intelligently, with a focus on human rights. 

“Yes, there have been many discussions before, but you need the majority, and the Shoura Council is made up of many different backgrounds … In passing this law, we have agreed to protect all minors.”