Saudi Arabia transforms mining sector

23 February 2024


This month's Agenda also includes: Mergers soar in global mining sector

Saudi Arabia’s metals and mining industry is playing a pivotal role in the country’s non-oil growth trajectory. 

Commercial exploitation of the kingdom’s massive mineral resource base, most of which lies untapped, is a key component of Riyadh’s Vision 2030 socioeconomic transformation strategy.

The kingdom took the first step towards realising the commercial potential of its mineral resources when it enacted a new mining investment law in 2021. Since the law came into effect, the Ministry of Industry & Mineral Resources (MIMR) has awarded more than 2,000 mining permits to local and foreign firms under its accelerated exploration initiative.

Addressing the Future Minerals Forum (FMF) in Riyadh in early January, Bandar Alkhorayef, the kingdom’s industry and mineral resources minister, said Saudi Arabia’s natural resources are worth $2.5tn – an increase of more than 90% compared with the 2016 estimated level of mineral reserves.

This near-doubling of its deposits of natural resources – which excludes fossil fuels and includes phosphate, gold and rare earths – is set to act as a stimulus to the kingdom’s nascent mining industry.

Mineral exploration drive

The MIMR is leading efforts to boost investments in the Saudi metals and mining sector, and Riyadh is providing impetus to the mineral exploration incentive programme with a cash injection of $182m.

“This programme will de-risk investments in our exploration, to enable new commodities, greenfield projects and junior miners,” Alkhorayef told the FMF.

To tap into overseas mining experience, the ministry signed four memorandums of understanding at the FMF.

Deals involving cooperation in the field of mineral wealth were signed with Egypt’s Petroleum & Mineral Resources Ministry, Morocco’s Energy Transition & Sustainable Development Ministry and Congo’s Mines of the Democratic Republic Ministry. A separate agreement inked with Russia involves geology. 

Alkhorayef also announced the MIMR’s fifth and sixth mining concession licensing rounds at the conference in Riyadh. The rounds will offer local and international miners access to 33 exploration sites this year.

The ministry launched its last concession licensing round in August 2023, offering eight mining sites in the kingdom. Six of the sites are located in the Eastern Province – in Ghounan, Al Misnah, Al Samman, Ras Al Qaryah and the eastern and western zones of Salwa – and are understood to contain limestone ore, sand and other minerals.

The other two sites are in Riyadh Province, in Al Armah and Hofayrat Nesaah. These sites are estimated to hold gravel and sand deposits, among other minerals.

Prior to the August licensing round, the ministry announced in April that it had shortlisted 13 local and international companies for the exploration phase at the Muhaddad and Al Ridaniyah mining sites.

The Muhaddad exploration site, located in Bisha within the Asir geological terrane, covers 139 square kilometres and includes copper, zinc and lead ore deposits. The Al Ridaniyah exploration site is in the Riyadh region within the Al Dawadmi geological terrane. It covers more than 75 sq km and includes deposits of zinc and silver ore.

In January, the MIMR announced preferred bidders for another licensing round that it launched last April.

A consortium of local firm Ajlan & Bros Mining Company and Hong Kong-based Norin Mining Company is the preferred bidder for the Bir Umq exploration site. The site is located in the city of Mahd Ad Dhahab, in western Saudi Arabia. Covering about 187 sq km, the site contains deposits of copper and zinc.

As part of the licence awarded for this site, the winning consortium will invest over $29m in exploration activities. The consortium has also committed $4m for local community initiatives, including training and development programmes.

A consortium of UK-headquartered Royal Road and local entity MSB Holding Company has been picked as the preferred bidder for the Jabal Sahabiyah exploration site. 

The site is located in the Tathleeth region, in the south of the kingdom, and covers an area of 283 sq km. Jabal Sahabiyah holds mineral deposits of zinc, lead and copper. The selected consortium will invest more than $5m in exploration work and another $120,000 in community development.

A consortium of Saudi Arabia-based Sumou Holding and Canada’s Kuya Silver has been selected for the Umm Hadid site and will invest more than $22m in exploration activities and about $800,000 in community development. Umm Hadid is located in the Afif region in central Saudi Arabia. Covering an area of 246 sq km, the site contains mineral deposits of silver, lead, copper and zinc.

The near-doubling of its deposits of natural resources is set to act as a stimulus to the nascent mining industry

Maaden steps up

Saudi Arabian Mining Company (Maaden) is at the forefront of Riyadh’s campaign to develop and expand the kingdom’s metals and mining sector. By 2040, the company, which is majority owned by the Public Investment Fund (PIF), aims to build its upstream mining capabilities, gain exposure to future minerals and form partnerships with global mining companies.

Last January, Maaden signed a joint-venture agreement with the PIF to establish a new company to invest in mining assets globally. Maaden owns a 51% stake and the PIF holds the other 49% in the company, known as Manara Minerals, which will have a capital allocation of $50m.

Manara Minerals aims to invest in iron ore, copper, nickel and lithium projects as a non-operating partner, taking minority equity positions. The firm’s first overseas investment was a deal in July to become a 10% shareholder in Brazilian mining major Vale’s $26bn subsidiary, Vale Base Metals.

In terms of metals production, Maaden announced in mid-January that its subsidiary Maaden Gold & Base Metals Company (MGBM) had started commercial production of gold from the first phase of the Mansourah-Massarah gold project.

MGBM operates six gold mines, with the Mansourah-Massarah mine being one of its concession areas. In June 2021, the Maaden subsidiary awarded an estimated $880m contract for the first phase of the Mansourah-Massarah gold mine to a consortium of India’s Larsen & Toubro and Finland-based Metso Outotec. The award of that engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) contract represents the biggest investment in gold mining in Saudi Arabia to date.

In August last year, MGBM also awarded an EPC contract for the second phase of the Mansourah-Massarah gold mine project, worth $28m, to a consortium of Riyadh-based Darkstone and Australia-headquartered ATC Williams. The contract involves installing tailings storage facilities and wastewater management systems.

Maaden exploration push

On the mineral exploration front, Maaden signed an agreement with US-based Ivanhoe Electric in July 2023 to undertake exploration for high-demand minerals in the Arabian Shield zone in Saudi Arabia. As part of the $130m deal, the partners are to survey an area of 48,500 sq km in the Arabian Shield, starting in September.

About the size of Switzerland, the Arabian Shield region is understood to be rich in reserves of minerals such as copper, nickel, gold, silver and possibly lithium.

Maaden has had success in its exploration drive. In late December, it announced the discovery of significant gold resource potential extending along a 100km strike from its Mansourah-Massarah gold mine. This is the first find from the company’s exploration programme, which was launched in 2022 with the aim of building Maaden’s production pipeline.

Exploration around Mansourah-Massarah has focused on identifying potential deposits of a similar scale and with similar geology. Encouraging drill results from several sites on Uruq South, along a 100km stretch south of Mansourah-Massarah, uncovered similar geological characteristics and chemistry to the gold deposit. These results include high-grade drill intercepts found 400 metres away from and under Mansourah-Massarah, with several high-grade intercepts.

In addition, Maaden has continued the expansion of its exploration footprint at the Jabal Ghadarah and Bir Tawilah prospects located 25km north of Mansourah-Massarah, where the company is converting an inferred resource of 1.5 million ounces to indicated and measured status.

In combination, these positive drilling results have identified a 125km strike with significant potential to become a major gold belt in Saudi Arabia. The near-mine drilling results around Mansourah-Massarah indicate that the resource is open both at depth and along the strike, offering significant potential to expand resources at the mine and possibly to extend the mine life with underground development.

Mansourah-Massarah had stated gold resources of almost 7 million ounces as of the end of 2023, and a nameplate production capacity of 250,000 ounces a year.

Positive drilling results have identified a 125km strike with the potential to become a major gold belt in Saudi Arabia  

Maaden technology investments

To extend the role of technology in Saudi Arabia’s mining sector, Maaden signed a master agreement with Germany’s Thyssenkrupp Uhde at the FMF. The deal covers the development of engineering and licensing of a calcination plant for phosphogypsum processing.

The purpose of the proposed plant, which is to be located at Maaden’s Ras Al Khair site, is to recycle phosphogypsum and enable the capture of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. The joint research and development will be carried out together with Thyssenkrupp Polysius and Metso Outotec.

Also at the FMF, Maaden and US firm GlassPoint announced plans to develop a solar steam technology. The first stage of project development will have the capacity to supply 9 tonnes of steam an hour to begin the decarbonisation of Maaden’s aluminium supply chain, in what is expected to be the world’s largest industrial solar thermal project.

The technology will combine the direct generation of heat and storage to provide a continuous base load of steam to Maaden’s alumina refinery at Ras Al Khair. The initial capacity will be about 1% of the larger project, which is slated to save more than 12 million British thermal units of energy annually and reduce CO2 emissions by 600,000 tonnes a year.

Maaden and digital reality firm Hexagon also partnered at the FMF to launch a "digital mine".

“Hexagon’s life-of-mine technology solutions are being successfully deployed at the Mansourah-Massarah mine, combining sensor, software and autonomous technologies to enhance efficiency, productivity, quality and safety across the mine’s operations,” the companies said.

Mergers soar in global mining sector

MEED's October 2023 special report on Saudi Arabia includes: 

> COMMENT: Riyadh reshapes its global role
> POLITICS: Saudi Arabia looks both east and west
> SPORTSaudi Arabia’s football vision goes global
> ECONOMY: Riyadh prioritises stability over headline growth
BANKSSaudi banks track more modest growth path
> UPSTREAMAramco focuses on upstream capacity building

> DOWNSTREAMSaudi chemical and downstream projects in motion
> POWERRiyadh rides power projects surge
> WATERSaudi water projects momentum holds steady
> GIGAPROJECTSGigaproject activity enters full swing
> TRANSPORTInfrastructure projects support Riyadh’s logistics ambitions
> JEDDAH TOWERJeddah developer restarts world’s tallest tower
Indrajit Sen
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