End of the line at the edge of history
Of all the UAE businesses associated with sulphur production, none are as intimately connected as Etihad Rail.
Phase one of the 264-kilometre portion of the country’s first major rail line was built specifically to carry elemental sulphur from the sour gasfields at Shah and Habshan in the Western Region to Ruwais port.
Since commercial operations began in 2014, Etihad Rail has moved more than 5 million tonnes of the element in its granulated, elemental form.
For Dr Mark Beech, head of coastal heritage and palaeontology with Abu Dhabi’s Tourism and Culture Authority, the rail terminal at Ruwais contains a pleasing historical coincidence, ending as it does near the site of some of the UAE’s oldest sulphur mines at Jebel Dhanna.
“This is not the first time that sulphur production has been organised on a systematic and commercial basis,” he said. “I like the idea of people mining sulphur at Jebel Dhanna as a marketable product 200 years ago and the fact that we are still doing it, but that it’s now coming from gas conversion in the fields south of Liwa.”
Rising 114 metres above the coastline 10km north-west of Ruwais, Jebel Dhanna is an example of a diapiric salt dome, a geological feature known for its mineral deposits of sulphur, salt and iron ore that can also be seen on nearby islands such as Sir Bani Yas, Delma, Arzanah, Zirku and Das.
Investigated by the Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey between 1998 and 2002, the mines at Jebel Dhanna feature 180 shafts, some of which are 10m deep, and connected by underground tunnels. They are entirely inside the Adco oil terminal at Ruwais.
Radiocarbon dating suggests that they were most active from the 17th to the 19th centuries, but Dr Beech said one of the important things about their discovery was that they shed light on a lost chapter in Abu Dhabi’s industrial archaeology and history.
“There’s actually a more than 7,000-year history of mineral extraction that took advantage of the local salt dome geology,” he said. “It may look like a barren landscape, but people have been using it to exploit minerals from the late Stone Age onwards. The sulphur mines at Jebel Dhanna are just one of the more recent manifestations of this activity.
“We know on Delma and Marawah islands that some of these minerals were being exploited from the Neolithic period onwards, when people used iron ore in the form of haematite for paint that was used to decorate plaster vessels.”