Sea change for Saudi project

Saudi Arabia’s drive to establish itself as a tourist destination is taking another step forward with the construction of The Red Sea Project – with its own international airport.

Picture: The Red Sea Development Company

Its promoters describe it as ‘the world’s most ambitious and exciting hospitality project’. Situated between the cities of Umluj and Al Wajh on the west coast of Saudi Arabia, the Red Sea Project will be a luxury tourism destination within a 28,000skm area encompassing more than 200km of coastline, around 90 islands, and including ancient archaeological sites and unspoilt nature. Alan Dron reports.

Serving this will be latest in a group of new airports along Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast that will provide the entry points to several new resorts designed as part of the country’s Vision 2030 programme, diversifying the economy away from hydrocarbon production.

Red Sea International is being built at a record pace. In Europe, a new airport would take a minimum of a decade to plan, build and bring into service. In August, The Red Sea Development Company (TRSDC) awarded contracts to a joint venture between Saudi contractors Nesma & Partners Contracting and Almabani General Contractors for the construction of airside infrastructure works. The airport should be operational in around two years’ time.

“Land levelling work is already under way to prepare the airport for development and the project remains on schedule to support our plans to welcome the first guests to the destination by the end of 2022,” said TRSDC chief project delivery officer, Ian Williamson.

The airside contract covers the construction of a 3,700-metre runway, a separate runway for seaplane and helicopter operations, parallel and link taxiways, navigational aids, aerodrome ground lighting, helipads, roads, airside utilities, and associated buildings.

“Seaplanes will provide an option for travelling to the outer islands of the archipelago of more than 90 islands. They will ensure we can keep travel from the airport to any final Red Sea destination to below 40 minutes,” he explained.

The next major stage will come shortly, with contracts to be awarded for the airport’s terminal, hangars and other buildings by January 2021.

UK architects Foster + Partners are designing the terminal, whose shape will echo aspects of the surrounding landscape, which consists of a coastal plain with a dunescape leading to mountains.

The terminal will consist of five ‘pods’ with decentralised facilities and two gates each. One pod is dedicated for passengers going to the resorts using the seaplane facility and will also be used for VVIP movements.

Red Sea International will serve an estimated 1 million arriving tourists per year, with a peak throughput of 900 passengers an hour. Provision has been allowed for an additional terminal building at a later date.

It is being built “to the highest standards of sustainability, with visitors disembarking directly under the terminal canopy and walking through a naturally ventilated zone to minimise reliance on air conditioning”, said Williamson.

Together with the rest of the resort, the airport will rely totally on renewable energy through a combination of solar- and wind-generated power.

“Working with key environmental and sustainability partners like King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, we are looking at how we can use innovative technology to capture CO2 emissions in a bid to offset the carbon generated by flights,” Williamson added. “We are investigating a number of methods to not only sequester carbon but also potentially produce biofuel for refuelling aircraft.”