Site Visit: High way to Jebel Jais

PMV travels to the highest road building site in UAE

Piles of aggregate waiting to be compacted that have been trucked from the crusher at the top of the hill. To the right, a JCB sits on a plateau creat
Piles of aggregate waiting to be compacted that have been trucked from the crusher at the top of the hill. To the right, a JCB sits on a plateau creat

PMV travels to the highest road building site in the United Arab Emirates, in Ras Al Khaimah, to visit an ambitious road building project that seeks to turn the mountain into a popular and accessible tourist destination.

By the standards of mountainous countries such as Switzerland, Nepal or India, 1900 metres may not seem like a particularly high mountain. But in the UAE, that’s roughly the height of its highest peak. Jebel Jais is located in the northern emirate of Ras Al Khaimah, some 25 kilometres from the turn off from the main town.

The site of occasional snow fall in the winter, the mountain is a designated as a tourist destination, with ambitious plans to build a resort on the mountain top (albeit plans that were hatched prior to the Global Financial Crisis).

The first order of business however, has been to build a road up the mountain. Contractors GMC have been at work on the project since 2005, and are nearing completion of the project.

Comprising of 36km of road, rising up to a height of 1700 metres (5577 feet), the massive work site has been a challenging undertaking, and a huge volume of cutting and backfilling has been required.

“This road is one of the special roads in the UAE, because it really mountainous,” says project manager Yaghoub Alipur Vaezi, of General Mechanic Company (GMC), RAK Branch.

The plans on the wall of his office show the twisting route of the road, and shaded areas indicate what has had to be cut away from the mountain to accommodate the roadway.

According to GMC’s website, the Mountain Road to Al – Jais contract was awarded in October 2004, by the Office of His Highness, Sheihk Saud Bin Saqr Al Qasimi, and was then worth AED: 115m ($31.3 million).

Work began in 2005, and is expected to be completed by the end of January. Due to the length of the project, inflation has meant that the initial price would now be much higher, and GMC have managed to renegotiate terms on a number of items in the contract. The total cost of the project is estimated at 300 million dirham, says Vaezi.

While the project duration was initially estimated to be 36 months, once work began it was realised that the amount of material to be cut far exceeded what had initially been estimated by examining aerial photos and maps, says Vaezi.

“The volume of cut, blasting, and taking material for filling or disposal areas, as per our original contract, was 2.5 million cubic metres. But later on, after finalising all drawings, it became 5.2 million m³ - more than double.”

Of that volume, 3.4m m³ of the cut material was used in the road construction, and the remaining 1.8m³ was extra.

This was disposed of in different areas along the roadway, creating areas which in the future can be used for parking or to build on. It was this extra volume of material that delayed the project, says Vaezi.

The mountain range at Jebel Jais is formed from sedimentary rocks, and on closer inspection can be seen to be a mixture of harder rocks and clay.

Vaezi says that this had to be taken into account, and in certain areas where there was harder rock, this was selected for backfill and for building the sub base and the road base, while the softer clay from other areas was disposed of.

The most challenging part of the project, says Vaezi, was the building of access roads to the work areas, narrow roads with high gradients, that had to be used to move the rollers, excavators and drills up into position. This included taking a 26 tonne roller up 30 degree slopes, which was certainly a challenging process.

Vaezi says that at times vehicles had to be used to tow the machines for extra power, but that overall he was very impressed with how the machines performed when driving up the access roads.

With the massive amount of material to be cut and drilled, the machines were required to put in a great number of hours on the project, especially the Furukawa hydraulic drills, used alongside the blasting for the cutting, and the BOMAG 26 tonne Deep Impact roller, supplied by Galadari Trucks and Heavy Equipment, used for the compaction of the backfill.

The 26 tonne BW 226 DI-4, with BOMAG’s Variocontrol, uses an exciter system within the drum, and the single drum roller with a polygonal drum can exert a centrifugal force of 530kN, and therefore can be used for much larger lift thicknesses than an ordinary drum roller. It proved invaluable in the role of compacting large areas of backfill says Vaezi.

One hazard in the area that has to be controlled is the destructive effect of heavy rainfall. A single night of heavy rain can be particularly damaging, and portions of the road from Ras Al Khaimah, before the start of the project, have had their surface washed away by heavy rainfall.

On the project, significant work has been undertaken to mitigate the effect of rainfall, and control the path any water will take down the slopes. Along the higher sections of the road, inside the road against the mountain is a drainage ditch, with culverts in certain areas to allow the water to run down.

At the lower extent of the road, a channel runs alongside the road, with grouted riprap used to shore up the wall of the road base, and a layer of 500mm boulders has been placed against this in the channel as a further protection measure. In the case of heavy rainfall, it is hoped that the water will folllow the paths created for it.

As much as GMC is tasked with building the road, shoring up sections of the slopes and reinforcing the road from below, as per the designer’s plans, is equally important.

Use is made of shotcrete and pre-tensioning to lock in portions of the face above the road; and backfill and techniques such as gabion boxes are used below the road for stabilisation.

Vaezi took us up the road, driving his Toyota Landcruiser at what felt like a high speed along a narrow strip of the outer edge of the road, periously close to the edge and certain doom.

At the time the bulk of the road was out of bounds, having been compacted and awaiting asphalting. Once the road has been finished, concrete barriers will be installed along its entire length.

As is the case in many of these types of projects, far from suppliers and raw materials, improvistion is required to keep costs down. A stationary crusher near the top of the project is being used to crush and screen aggregates for building the road base.

The use of materials from the mountain has been one of the largest money savers for the project; otherwise the material would have had to have been trucked from Fujairah, adding significant extra costs. The asphalt used in the project is being brought from Dubai.

As we reach the end of the construction site, Vaezi engages the high gear ratio and takes us along some of the rudimentary tracks that serve as access roads. The narrow and steep roads make it clear what a feat it must have been to bring machines up, for work to begin.

Jebel Jais is nothing like a granite mountain found in other parts of the world, and the lines of sediment that settled as it formed are clearly visible on the brown slopes.

It is like few other sites in the UAE, and sights include rudimentary houses for goat shepherds built into the hills. One pleasant factor about the mountain that should see its popularity soar among locals is that it is typically ten degrees colder than in the main cities in the UAE.

And any scepticism about whether Jebel Jais is attractive enough a destination to warrant the expense of a road being built will be quickly dispelled by the account of project manager Yaghoub Alipur Vaezi, who says that every weekend a number of people will try to cajole their way past the security guard on the gate, begging to be allowed to drive up the incomplete road, despite any risks to their personals safety. For some, the completion of the road and the eventual building of amenities can’t come soon enough.

What’s on the top?
In a country where temperatures hit 49 degrees⁰ in the summer, the promise of permanently cooler temperatures should not be downplayed. Nor should the allure of snow, which fell there in 2004 and in 2009, be ignored.

While Jebel Jais is currently home only to herds of goats and labourers on the road construction project, it’s clear that its peak and surrounding areas hold an appeal for visitors.

Plans drawn up in 2008 showed an extravagant series of box structures cantilevered off the slopes, planned to function as a hotel and resort, as well as cable cars and a ramp for launching paragliders.

There was also talk of an outdoor ski hill and golf course at the mountain’s summit. However it seems that recently the more likely plans are for the construction of a hotel on the peak, as well as plans for cable car that will take visitors directly up the mountain.

Whatever is eventually built, it seems that any attractions at the top, large or small, will be able to bank on a steady stream of visitors, drawn to the novelty of the scene.

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