Oil age machines

Besides the construction boom, the region is also noted for its foray into oil and gas exploration. 

ANALYSIS, Business

Besides the construction boom, the region is also noted for its foray into oil and gas exploration. We take a look at the tech and trucks that bring wealth the Middle East, past, present and future.

Oil exploration is what the modern Middle East is built on, but most exciting to us are the giant trucks and drills needed to go and find the black sticky stuff.

Of course, technology has changed over the last hundred years, though the principle and rather inexact science of deciding where to sink a test-well remains the same.

While much of the mysterious seismic gadgets used to divine oil have little relevance to the construction industry, some of the technology used in trucks, drilling and training has crossed over into our constuction sector.

Back in the early twentieth century, there was a glorious rush as prospectors searched for the new ‘black gold', of which the most famous was a chap named Antony Lucas who in January 1901 struck a gusher at Spindletop, Texas, and so effectively ending the Victorian era by bringing in the change from a coal and steam powered economy to a modern oil age.

History doesn't recall what, if any heavy plant Lucas used to explore the landscape, but it is a fair bet that his truck was powered by four legs and his drill was a cable tool type.

However, he wasn't just a redneck who struck lucky - in fact it is known that he pioneered the use of mud instead of water to remove cuttings from the drill, a technique still in use today.

This had two benefits - Firstly, the cuttings would stick to the drill, and secondly using mud prevented the borehole from collapsing in on itself.

Over the years this technology has become more refined. Today, the would-be prospector can add either water or synthetic oil-based mud to the drill, and there is a whole science based around which type of ‘mud' gels the best under static conditions in relation to the type of rock being drilled.

This technology has found its way into boring deep piles for foundations for modern tall buildings.

Drilled piles face a number of engineering challenges in unstable ground. Very often it is necessary to employ a drilling agent such as bentonite, a sort of sticky clay, to keep the hole in one piece

In the early days of oil, internal combustion replaced manual drilling rigs. Cable tool rigs were the most common type. In construction, the majority of large diameter water supply wells, especially deep wells completed in bedrock aquifers, were completed using this drilling method.

Although this drilling method has largely been supplanted in recent years by other, faster drilling techniques, it is still the most practicable drilling method for large diameter, deep bedrock wells, and in widespread use for small rural water supply wells.

Also sometimes called "spudders", these rigs raise and drop a drill string to finely pulverize the subsurface materials.

The drill string is comprised of the upper drill rods, a set of "jars" and a drill bit. During the drilling process, the drill string is periodically removed from the borehole and a bailer is lowered to collect the drill cuttings. The bailer is a bucket-like tool with a trapdoor in the base.

If the borehole is dry, water is added so that the drill cuttings will flow into the bailer. When lifted, the bailer closes and the cuttings are then raised and removed. Since the drill string must be raised and lowered to advance the boring and casing is typically used to hold back upper soil materials and stabilize the borehole.

This type of rig is simple and cheap, but noisy, and more importantly very slow, which in a market where time is money, it has been rendered effectively obsolete. Howevers Since cable tool drilling does not use air to eject the drilling chips like a rotary, instead using a cable strung bailer, technically there is no limitation on depth.

All wheel drive

Perhaps the most iconic of the powerful trucks in the region is the Dodge Power Wagon. In the 1950s explorers would hurdle these ancient four-wheel drive machines over the dunes, looking for the elusive liquid.

The Power Wagon was similar in design to a 3/4 ton weapons carrier used in the war, with a 126 inch wheelbase and closed cab. The story is that the truck was named "Power Wagon" after a trucking magazine with the same name.

It was the first mass-produced all-wheel drive vehicle produced for civilian use.

Loaded up with shovels, drills and various pieces of crude detection gear, the trucks, which were usually bright red, became synonymous with the excitement of the early years of the oil industry.

Today, just about every industry in the Emirates keeps a pick up or two to hand, the majority of which are four wheel drives. Most found running to and from sites are from the major Japanese manufacturers, though there other players in the market.

Dodge still deal in crew-cab four wheel drives, though the firm mainly sells the vehicles as fashion accessories to private buyers.

In fact, the serious newcomers that threaten Japanese dominence are the Chinese. Manufacturers such as Great Wall have started shipping utility vehicles, mostly based on Japanese designs, to the UAE in vast quantities. Unlike heavy machinery, fleet managers rarely have contracts with car firms, preferring to buy on the basis of availability.

Assuming the Chinese can produce pick-ups with a good degree of reliability; expect to see more and more of them on site over the next few years.

Bigger trucks

The small Power Wagons were fine for trucking in explorers and their kit, but for the bigger paraphernalia associated with constructing a well-head, some heavier iron was required.

At the time, the only real choice was made by American firm Kenworth, who in 1951 was still a relatively small maker of specialised vehicles. Their biggest offering, was the 851 and it was with this truck that the company ‘struck oil'.

The 851 towered over everything else, with its 28 wheels, each twice the height of a person. 6x6 all-wheel drive was standard, These leviathans were powered by V8 Detroit Diesel engines and had the vital all-wheel drive on the tractor unit.

The American company had a surprise hit on their hands and they sold several thousand units to all-new clients in the Middle East.

Today, Kenworth trucks are still used around the world for oil and gas purposes. The much more modern 951 boasts a tier III engine as well as a much more luxurious cabin in comparison with its predecessors.

It can also handle loads of up to 70 tonnes in deep desert conditions. Other trucks from this maker, most notably the 500 series, are often seen with different types of body and used for carting all manner of goods about.

The very large rigs, though now old and battered, are in use in the construction sector, mainly in the northern Emirates for carting trailer loads of the huge rocks needed for offshore island projects.


The most common way to find oil today is to truck in the ‘thumpers' These trucks are so-called because they literally ‘thump' the ground with seismic resonance through large plates mounted beneath the vehicles.

These plates press on to the ground with hydraulic rams so that much of the weight most of its weight is on the plate which generates a low amplitude signal that causes the plate to vibrate the ground with the same signal.

Using complex technology, geologists then have some idea whether or not the liquid is down there. A great amount of money has been poured into this inexact science, but the same branches of geotechnical engineering and engineering geology (which are similar, but types of engineering and geology respectively) are now used into working out the lay of the land for building skyscrapers, bridges, embankments and other structures where ground conditions don't support code-based design.

The machines and devices for analysing these conditions, such as geophones and modern siezmic measuring gear, are highly complicated and require surveyors with extremely specialised knowledge, but it would be fair to say that most of the tall buildings in the Gulf would have been impossible without it, as the sandy conditions require special treatment.

Machines and technology continue to cross from one sector to another, but the next time someone tells you that the region is ‘built on oil'... well, they are right in more ways than one.

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