Site visit: Jebel Jais Mountain Road, UAE
General Mechanic Company, FAMCO, and Volvo Group discuss the construction techniques, machinery, and commercial vehicles required to blaze a trail to the summit of the UAE’s highest mountain, Jebel Jais
At approximately 1,910m above sea level, Jebel Jais is the tallest mountain in the UAE. Located east of the border between the Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah (RAK) and the Sultanate of Oman, the summit of Jebel Jais has, historically, been off limits to everybody except intrepid mountaineers and a herd of hardy goats.
General Mechanic Company (GMC) is in the process of changing this situation. After being appointed by RAK’s Public Works and Services Department (PWSD) as the project’s main contractor approximately a decade ago, the construction firm began to blaze a trail to the mountain’s peak.
Jebel Jais Mountain Road is being built over three phases. Phase 1, which was completed by GMC in 2013, comprises a 30km stretch of highway with one retaining wall. Phase 2, which the contractor is working on at present, is a 6km section with seven retaining walls. Phase 3, the contract for which is due to be awarded before the end of the year, will feature six retaining walls and five hairpin bends within a distance of just 3.5km to 4km. As with any mountain road, the higher you go, the harder construction becomes.
Yaghoub Alipour Vaezi, project manager at GMC’s RAK branch, was dispatched to the Jebel Jais Mountain Road site in 2009. Even for Vaezi, an industry veteran of 25 years, this development represented a significant undertaking.
“I have worked on a variety of projects during my career: airports, highway tunnelling, railway tunnelling, roads, and more,” he begins. “GMC has also conducted challenging projects here in the UAE. For example, the highway on both sides of the Kalba tunnel was constructed by our team; this was also a mountainous road.
“However, when I compare these projects to Jebel Jais Mountain Road, I would say that [the latter] has been more challenging. Here, we are blocked. Gaining access to different locations, and transferring machinery from one point to another, is very difficult. It can take months.”
The machinery-related challenges for a project of this type are not limited to logistics alone. Reliability and maintenance are also key considerations. Downtime can seriously hamper progress on challenging projects like Jebel Jais Mountain Road, so GMC was not willing to take any chances when it came to equipment selection.
“If we were unsure about a brand of machinery, we could not have used it here,” explains Vaezi. “One broken-down machine can block an area of road and prevent other activities from taking place. If we were working in a flat, open space, it wouldn’t matter so much; we could trial lesser-known brands. But at Jebel Jais, we didn’t have time for such trials. We needed equipment that was robust and reliable.”
For this reason, GMC turned to two of its tried-and-tested partners: Volvo Group and its official UAE distributor, FAMCO. The contractor already owned a number of Volvo units when the project began, and had used FAMCO for aftersales support.
Although GMC has used multiple brands during the course of the Jebel Jais Mountain Road project, Volvo Construction Equipment (Volvo CE) and Volvo Trucks comprised the lion’s share of its mechanised workhorses. In total, FAMCO supplied and maintained 50 Volvo CE units and 33 Volvo Trucks for the road build.
The Volvo CE units that have been utilised include EC700, EC480, EC460, EC380, EC360, EC290, and EC210 crawler excavators; SD110 soil compactors; A35F and A35E articulated haulers; L120F and L180G wheel loaders; and Volvo breakers. Volvo Trucks’ FMX370 tippers, meanwhile, have facilitated the transportation of materials.
Shahir El Essawy, business director at Volvo CE, tells Construction Week: “These machines were carefully selected for their durability and reliability within extreme and challenging operating conditions, as well as for their built-in safety features.
“At Volvo CE, we have a site-simulation programme that allows us to identify the [best-suited] machines and models based on project conditions and required [levels of] productivity,” he adds.
Jan-Erik Thoren, business team director at Volvo Trucks Middle East, adds: “For eight years, a fleet of more than 30 Volvo FMX models has worked around the clock to carry the 5.5 million cubic metres of rocks and aggregates required to build a 36km [stretch of] Jebel Jais Mountain Road. Despite challenges, such as rugged terrain, steep slopes, loose rocks, and extreme weather conditions, the fleet has supported this ambitious project without any major breakdowns or accidents.”
It seems GMC approached FAMCO at an opportune time – just when the distributor’s rental activities were starting to take shape.
“We were happy to learn that FAMCO had a rental division,” says Vaezi. “If you only require equipment for a matter of months, it isn’t economical to go out and buy it. So we decided to use FAMCO’s reliable rental machinery [at Jebel Jais Mountain Road] – not just for months; sometimes for years.”
Nigel Johnson, FAMCO Group’s senior managing director, says that the project was one of the first supported by his team on a rental basis.
“This project has significant importance for us as it was the first to be undertaken by FAMCO’s Rental & Used Equipment division,” he recounts. “At the time, equipment rental was new to contractors in this market. FAMCO offered an [attractive] option to [GMC], meeting its requirement for a large fleet of machinery and trucks to support a critical and challenging project.
“We provided the contractor with much-needed resources that helped to save on capital expenditure, reflecting positively on the project’s budget and delivery timelines. FAMCO did not only supply machinery and trucks; it also provided operators and drivers, outstanding aftersales support, and the flexibility to ensure optimum uptime and a smooth flow of operations.”
Indeed, aftersales support was a key consideration for GMC. Vaezi explains: “FAMCO offered an advantage in the form of its RAK-based team. Unlike other suppliers, its technicians didn’t have to travel from Dubai. This was very important because we could not afford to wait.
“Another advantage was that the majority of Volvo parts are available through FAMCO locally, with short lead times. For other brands, it can take weeks or even months for parts to arrive. In comparison, FAMCO is faster.”
GMC is now nearing the end of Jebel Jais Mountain Road’s Phase 2. “As per the contract, the current 6km portion is due to complete by 1 June, 2017, but we are anticipating an early finish,” says Vaezi. “Within approximately four months, we [expect to be] awarded another stage of the project. We will continue from the 36km mark to the [mountain’s summit]. There are plans to develop a resort in this area, including villas and hotels.
“The design [for Phase 3] has not yet been finalised, but this section of the road should be between 3.5km and 4km long. It will be even more challenging than the previous phases because most of the road will be located above retaining walls.
“[Phase 3] of Jebel Jais Mountain Road should take around 18 to 20 months to construct. We expect to complete the project in September 2019, approximately,” Vaezi reveals.
At the peak of construction activities, a multi-brand fleet of 105 machines and commercial vehicles, and 305 construction professionals, were working on Jebel Jais Mountain Road. Preliminary estimates conducted by the project’s former consultant suggested that 2.5 million cubic metres of material would need to be cut from the mountain. In actuality, 5.5 million cubic metres have been removed so far. Moreover, RAK’s PWSD has invested approximately $81.7m (AED300m) into the project to date, compared to an initial estimate of $31.3m (AED115m), according to GMC’s Vaezi. Nevertheless, he tells Construction Week that the long-term benefits of this megaproject are clear to see.
“I read that Jebel Jais Mountain Road, which is yet to complete, is the most visited area [in the UAE] outside of [its] cities. Imagine what it will be like in the future, when facilities have been developed [at the summit]. I’m sure that many more people will come,” he says.
“I am told that previously, nobody could go further than our base camp [at 4km]. The path was blocked, even to people with 4x4 vehicles. They said it was impossible to go further, but we have proved otherwise.
“With this road, RAK has opened up a new area for itself. The emirate has made itself bigger,” Vaezi concludes.