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King Khalid Military City, Hafar al Batin

By any standard, the scope of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ largest project for the Saudi Arabian government, the creation of King Khalid Military City (KKMC), was colossal. Planning for what became KKMC began in the 1960s when the US Army Corps of Engineers built new cantonments for the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Defense and Aviation (MODA) at Khamis Mushayt and Tabuk. The third cantonment, constructed on a site near Hafar al Batin, which became KKMC, dwarfed the two of them combined. MODA asked the Corps of Engineers to manage the creation of an entire city for seventy thousand inhabitants at a desert location forty miles from the nearest highway where no settlement of any kind existed. The area had no local labor force and no readily available construction materials other than aggregate. The coordination and sequencing of work in building the military city, from the earliest concept designs through completion of all construction, engaged the Army engineers for fifteen years.

Beginning in 1964, the Saudis had talked of three cantonments; but by the early 1970s, the third cantonment, planned for Qaysumah in north-central Saudi Arabia near the border with Iraq, had hardly advanced at all. Initially, the Saudis had thought that the cantonment at Qaysumah would be built after the facility at Khamis Mushayt; its predesign actually began before work on Tabuk. In December 1966, the US Army Corps of Engineers contracted with BATMED, a joint venture of three architect-engineer firms, for field work and master planning at Qaysumah.

Over time, priorities changed. BATMED also had the contract for a master plan at Tabuk, and the work on Tabuk took precedence. Still, the design for Qaysumah proceeded; in late September 1968, BATMED presented the master plan to Prince Sultan. Between 1968 and 1970, the work at Khamis Mushayt and at Tabuk took much longer than initially anticipated, slowing completion of the final plan for Qaysumah. Signs of Saudi interest in Qaysumah surfaced again in late 1971 and early 1972. When work resumed in February 1973, a technical team conducted field examinations and engineering evaluations at Khamis Mushayt and Tabuk to identify ways to improve the design for Qaysumah.

The team’s assessment indicated that the cost of adapting the earlier designs approached the cost of a complete redesign and creation of a new master plan. In May 1973, the US Army Corps of Engineers conducted an aerial survey of the area and concluded that the site near Qaysumah was inadequate. They recommended placing the cantonment at an alternate site, Hafar al Batin, southwest of the original site. The estimated total costs for the Hafar al Batin project were in the range of $8 billion to $15 billion, although later estimates were considerably less. The contemplated scope dwarfed any previous project undertaken by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers anywhere in the world.

In May 1975 MODA was briefed on a concept design and master plan for a one-brigade cantonment at Hafar al Batin. Prince Sultan, the Saudi minister of Defense and Aviation, approved the outlines of the concept design during the presentation, but he also said that he wanted to add two additional brigades to the military city. The Mediterranean Division estimated that redesigning for three brigades would expand total project costs dramatically — to over $3 billion.

The concept design for KKMC featured an inventive octagonal layout 1.7 miles in diameter with a dual-level plaza, the centrum, in the middle of the octagon. The design confined all vehicular traffic in the centrum to the lower level except that a ramp would lead to the main, ceremonial entrance to the military headquarters building. Common facilities and administrative office buildings encircled a central pool and fountain, providing an “oasis” to which residents could walk from either the residential or the office sectors. The main focus of the centrum was the Friday mosque designed to accommodate two thousand people. Other facilities located in the centrum around the oasis included a bank, the officers and enlisted clubs, a post office, the main theater, commissary facilities, and a motel to accommodate visitors.

The southern half of the octagon contained the facilities for three brigades arranged in three contiguous segments with troop housing, dining, recreational space, and administrative facilities in each segment. Maintenance facilities and vehicle parking filled the southern perimeter. Across the centrum on the north side, the designers located housing units and supporting facilities for about six thousand five hundred families. The plan called for small neighborhood mosques throughout the city. An oasis-like plaza provided a focal point for each neighborhood, with other facilities such as schools and shops placed around it.

In separate compounds outside the octagon, the designers placed supporting facilities. These included a 300-bed hospital and attendant facilities; various base maintenance facilities, utility plants, and warehouses; quarters for workers to be used during the construction phases; an airfield about six miles to the south; the engineer center and school just west of the city; and VIP quarters consisting of a sumptuous royal pavilion to accommodate the king and five villas for other Saudi royalty or distinguished guests.

By 1976–1977, the Corps estimated the cost of building KKMC at $8 billion. Upon signing the contract for KKMC in July 1977, the Morrison-Knudsen Saudi Arabia Consortium [MKSAC] began to organize and assemble its personnel. On 01 February 1978, the deputy prime minister, Crown Prince Fahd bin Abdulaziz, welcomed King Khalid to the celebration to dedicate the site. Between July 1979 and June 1980, MKSAC constructed three cement storage silos with a capacity of 4,535 metric tons each and a fourth silo that held 1,905 metric tons. MKSAC completed the first asphalt concrete plant in September 1979 and delivered the first asphalt for construction operations fourteen weeks later.

In August 1979, charges surfaced publicly that several MKSAC employees had engaged in a scheme to inflate prices for materials bought to support the KKMC construction and that they had accepted payments for their cooperation. The allegations touched off a number of newspaper articles around the United States and raised questions about kickbacks or illegal payments in business dealings in Saudi Arabia. No evidence suggests that the incident involved more than individual corruption.

By July 1980, the end of the three-year contract period, MKSAC had completed over 99 percent of the tasks assigned to it in the revised plan of August 1979. However laudable the achievement, the impression remained that throughout its three years of work MKSAC produced too little and too late. Even delays that were not entirely the consortium’s fault became its responsibility. Explanations for MKSAC’s failure to meet the targets of the contract are not hard to find. Many of the delays MKSAC encountered in building the precast concrete plants derive from proceeding simultaneously rather than sequentially with both design and construction. Saudi funding for the KKMC project consistently failed to match the amounts programmed.

Construction delays at KKMC recurred throughout the early 1980s. Some construction delays arose because the Saudis introduced changes that required modifications in the sequence and placing of facilities. MODA wanted mosques, for instance, at intervals around KKMC to minimize the walking distance for worshipers. In 1983 Saudi budget cutbacks were a necessary response to the declining price of oil and the resulting general economic squeeze.

By June 1984, contractors completed the family-housing units for the First Brigade. Because the brigade would arrive with about four thousand five hundred troops and with one thousand seven hundred to one thousand eight hundred families accompanying the troops, contractors working in the city on other facilities had to take special precautions. They separated areas of occupancy from areas of active construction by erecting temporary construction fences and temporary sidewalks. With the First Brigade in place and with 90 percent of the total construction completed, Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd dedicated King Khalid Military City. The ceremony, hosted by Prince Sultan, second deputy premier as well as minister of Defense and Aviation, took place on 6 April 1985. By May, contractors had completed all of the troop facilities and housing for the Second Brigade.

In 1976, only an isolated drilling rig marked the site in the middle of the desert. A decade and $6 billion later, the site supported a bustling city with a population of twenty-six thousand.

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Page last modified: 11-01-2013 17:20:05 ZULU