LONDON: At first glance, £17,500 might seem like a steep price to ask for the small red leatherette wallet, measuring just 15 by 20 cm, dated December 1948 and bearing the seemingly uninspiring legend “City of Jeddah water supply.”
But in fact, as a unique record of one of the most important infrastructure projects from the early years of Saudi Arabia, the wallet — containing five historically important hand-colored maps and plans — is a priceless memento of a key moment in the transformation of the Kingdom into a modern state.
Only one example of the set is known to exist. Marked “To A.A. from D.R.B.,” it is believed to have been a gift from the British engineer David Ross Balfour to Ahmad Ashmawi, the Saudi-born assistant director of the transformative Jeddah water project.
At the inauguration ceremony in 1947, it was Ashmawi who presented the scheme to Crown Prince Saud bin Abdul Aziz, the son of the Kingdom’s founder Ibn Saud, on behalf of his employer, the British company Gellatly, Hankey & Co., which oversaw the project for the king.
The drawings are being offered for sale by London dealer Peter Harrington, which has long specialized in rare books from or about the Middle East, along with a copy of the rarely available “History of Aziziah Water Supply Juddah, and Glimpses on the Sources of Water in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” written by Abdul Qaddous Al-Ansari and published in 1972.
The true significance of the documents in the red wallet, according to Raphael Cormack, a specialist researcher for Peter Harrington Rare Books, is that they show the determination of Ibn Saud to improve the quality of life for pilgrims to the Hejaz in the early days of the Kingdom.
“Prior to oil, the new Saudi Kingdom depended on revenues from the Hajj,” Cormack told Arab News, “and the improvement of facilities for pilgrims in the Hejaz was, therefore, of vital importance.”
Ibn Saud had inherited a creaking 19th-century Ottoman system that supplied water from wells at Al-Waziriya, and from a coal-fired seawater condenser that mainly benefitted the city’s expat community and those who could afford to pay for its exorbitantly priced water.
Jeddah was the main port of entry for thousands of pilgrims who each year traveled to the Holy City of Makkah. According to records published by the British India Office in 1937, 25,291 pilgrims arrived by sea in the Hejaz in 1934, the vast majority landing at Jeddah.
Here, supplies of water, provided by seawater condenser, often stagnant rainwater reservoirs and limited amounts of well water, were inadequate to meet the pilgrims’ needs.
Some water flowed 12 km from the spring at Al-Waziriya, but tests during the autumn of 1933 found the pipe to be “decayed and clogged with detritus” and that “the water arrived in the town cistern considerably polluted.”
After decades of neglect under the increasingly impoverished Ottoman empire and years of conflict between the Hashemites of Hejaz and the Saudis of the Nejd, Jeddah’s water supply was failing.
Ibn Saud finally defeated the forces of King Hussein’s short-lived Kingdom of the Hejaz in 1925, absorbing the territory into the Kingdom of Nejd to form Saudi Arabia.
From that moment the fortunes of Jeddah, and the wellbeing of the thousands of ship-borne pilgrims who passed through the port on pilgrimage to Madinah and Makkah, began to be transformed.
The first consequence of Ibn Saud’s rule, according to “Gellatly’s,” a 1962 history of the British company that helped to bring Ibn Saud’s vision to fruition, was that “tranquillity descended upon the territory around Jeddah … pilgrim routes to Makkah and Madinah were made safe for travelers” and “the law became firm and uniform.”
According to George Blake, the author of the history of the firm, which had been operating on both sides of the Red Sea since about 1884, Muslims “revered Ibn Saud as a combination of conqueror and man of impressive religious orthodoxy.”
But the king was also to show that “his qualifications had even greater dimensions (as) he sought to improve the prosperity and status of his country in relation to the rest of the world.”
Gellatly’s, which among its many enterprises had been operating a shipping business serving the pilgrimage trade in Jeddah since the mid-1880s, was well known to the king.
Ottoman authorities begin a three-year project to pipe water to Jeddah from a well at Al-Waziriya. It is soon sabotaged by owners of water tanks profiting from Jeddah’s water shortage.
Ottomans order a seawater filtration machine for Jeddah.
The Hejaz is absorbed into the Kingdom of Ibn Saud.
Jeddah seawater filtration machine breaks down; Ibn Saud imports a new one.
The first systematic survey of the Kingdom’s natural resources discovers a source of fresh water in springs in the foothills east of Jeddah in Wadi Fatima.
Ibn Saud orders an ambitious new water scheme, to be completed in time for Hajj in 1947.
Opening of Jeddah’s new water supply is marked by major celebrations.
The company had operated several offices in the region since the mid-1880s, in Khartoum and along the Red Sea in Jeddah, Suakin, Port Sudan, Massawa and Tokar, and ran a caravanserai (a resthouse for pilgrims arriving by camel caravan) in Jeddah, while, as shipping agents, it facilitated the movement of pilgrims by sea.
It had also played a crucial part in the early years of Ibn Saud’s unified reign following his absorption of the Hejaz in 1925.
Before oil was struck in 1933, the bulk of the government’s income was derived from the flow of overseas pilgrims, a precarious source of revenue often affected by events beyond the control of the Saudis, and when times grew hard Gellatly’s was there to arrange loans to tide over Ibn Saud.
It was, therefore, no surprise when in 1946 the king selected the company to play a key role in a major infrastructure project vital to the future of the Hajj.
The king’s determination to see Jeddah served by a modern water supply would not only ease the path of pilgrims bound for the holy cities, but would also change Jeddah beyond recognition, setting it on course to become the major vibrant city it is today.
Although as the nearest port to the holy city of Makkah, Jeddah was the natural gateway for pilgrims before the advent of widespread air travel, lack of fresh water had always hampered the expansion of the city and the growth of the pilgrimage industry.
Both had been held hostage by powerful groups of local businessmen who maintained water tanks around the city and charged exorbitant prices for the often dangerously filthy contents.
In 1884, the Ottoman authorities embarked on a plan to pipe water to Jeddah from a well at Al-Waziriya, about 12 km away.
According to a paper published in the journal Comparative Studies in Society and History in October 2015, it took 3,000 men more than three years to complete the project.
On its completion in 1888, wrote the author Michael Low, a specialist in late Ottoman and modern Middle Eastern history at Iowa State University, Jeddah “was graced by a new ornamental fountain, an ablutions station, a water depot, and a distribution reservoir and it appeared that the city had been rescued from the clutches of its water profiteers.”
But within two years “it was becoming increasingly difficult to fill the water depot and distribution reservoirs.” The scheme had been sabotaged.
“The spring’s rapid decline was no engineering malfunction; local tank owners, prevented from selling rainwater, had hatched a plot to ‘cancel’ the benefits of Jeddah’s new water supply by purposefully clogging the water pipes.”
The Ottoman authorities turned in desperation to expensive seawater filtration machines, two of which were ordered for Jeddah and Yanbu in 1907.
Both were up and running by 1911, but “when the Saudis conquered the short-lived Hashemite Kingdom of the Hejaz in 1925, they inherited Jeddah’s chronic water problems.”
Desalinated water, which provided only a fraction of the city’s daily needs, “was subject to frequent service disruptions.” Shortages of coal — caused first by Allied embargoes during World War I and then by the fighting in the Hejaz in 1924-1925 — led to firewood being used to power the Jeddah condenser which, irreparably damaged, finally broke down in 1927.
In 1926 and 1927, Ibn Saud imported two new machines, but distilled water remained an expensive luxury beyond the pockets of many and “Saudi leaders were desperate to rescue Jeddah from its dependency on condenser and tank water.”
A survey carried out by an American geologist in 1931 found “no geological evidence to justify the hope for flowing artesian wells” in the Hejaz, but Ibn Saud refused to give up.
Finally, in 1942, a US agricultural mission carried out the first systematic survey of the Kingdom’s water, geological, and agricultural resources — and discovered a source of fresh water in a series of springs in the foothills between 40 and 65 km east of the city in Wadi Fatima.
The surveyors concluded that the newfound source was “sufficient to relieve Jeddah’s chronic water troubles” and Ibn Saud turned to the British firm Gellatly’s to make it happen.
“One of the interesting things about this project,” explained Cormack, the specialist researcher, “is that it was pushed personally by Abdul Aziz to improve water security in time for the Hajj in 1947.”
It was a race against time, but it was a race that was won.
Gellatly’s, in turn, appointed the British civil engineering firm D. Balfour & Sons to design and lead the project, local contractors Mohammed and Abdullah bin Laden to excavate the trenches, and the Cairo-based Egyptian Company for Concrete Cement Works to lay the pipes.
David Ross Balfour, chosen to lead the project for his father’s firm, arrived in Jeddah on Nov. 21, 1946. As the beautifully drawn plans offered for sale in the red leatherette case show, Abu Shuaib, the well nearest to the city, was the first to be connected, and its water reached Jeddah on Nov. 15, 1947.
Success was celebrated just three days later with a ceremony led by Crown Prince Saud, who would succeed his father in 1953. Hundreds of local and foreign dignitaries were present for the celebrations, which included readings from the Qur’an, speeches, poetry, gunfire and a flypast by a formation of Saudi Dakota aircraft.
The water from other wells was added to the flow over the following years — full capacity was reached in December 1950 — and the impact of the project was both swift and remarkable, as a colorful passage in George Blake’s 1962 history of Gellatly’s recorded.
“Jeddah, partly due to that new and wonderful water supply, has now burst out of its ancient walls,” wrote author Blake just 15 years after the historic opening ceremony of Ibn Saud’s transformative waterworks. “They have literally come tumbling down as victims of the horns of plenty.”
Perhaps the most intriguing and historically important of the four planning documents in the presentation set of drawings now on offer is a plan of Jeddah, dated to 1947.
Drawn on a scale of 1:2,500, it shows in historically important detail a now-lost city, comprising a tight-knit configuration of buildings and streets still contained within walls that dated back in some parts to the 16th century.
As the city began rapidly to expand, the demolition of those walls would begin in the very year that water finally flowed into Jeddah from the Wadi Fatima.
SEARCH FOR OIL AND WATER
As a curious byproduct, Ibn Saud’s search for water for Jeddah would also lead to the discovery of another natural resource — one that would transform Saudi Arabia’s fortunes.
In 1930, at the request of Ibn Saud, the New York industrialist and Arabist Charles R. Crane visited Jeddah to see the water problem for himself. Crane then sent his chief geologist and engineer, Karl Twitchell, who had been working on a similar project in Yemen, to carry out a survey of the Hejaz’s water resources.
Unfortunately, this survey, carried out by Twitchell in April 1931, found “no geological evidence to justify the hope for flowing artesian wells.”
According to Michael Low, a specialist in late Ottoman and modern Middle Eastern history at Iowa State University, “the Saudis were disappointed but undaunted.
Recognizing the precariousness of relying on the pilgrimage as their principal revenue stream, they asked Twitchell to explore alternative possible sources of revenue” — and so it was that the search for water in the Hejaz opened the door to the transformative miracle of oil.
Twitchell believed there might be commercial quantities of oil in the Arabian Peninsula and the rest, as they say, is history.
In 1931, Ibn Saud asked the geologist to undertake a survey of Al-Ahsa and the Arabian Gulf coast, and it was there that the American “would encounter the oil-rich environment that would eventually ensure Saudi Arabia’s global might.”
Twitchell’s papers, now held at Princeton University Library, reveal that Ibn Saud feared that by drastically reducing the number of pilgrims, the Great Depression would wreck his plans for development.
In 1932, he asked Twitchell to find a US investor to fund oil exploration and, in May 1933, Saudi Arabia granted a concession to the Standard Oil Company of California, the first step toward the foundation of the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco), which today is the world’s largest oil firm.
Nevertheless, wrote Low in the journal Comparative Studies in Society and History in 2015, “this did not mean that oil instantly became the Saudis’ top priority.
They still believed that water was key to their consolidation of the peninsula.”