Economic Update

Plans to expand Abu Dhabi’s ports network are moving ahead as local cargo traffic holds steady despite the slowdown in global shipping volumes over the past year.

A series of recent announcements by government-owned operator Abu Dhabi Ports show its intent to boost capacity, introduce a new terminal operator and improve services for customers and nearby industrial tenants in the coming years.

These efforts should help prepare Abu Dhabi for future increases in cargo traffic, especially with the recent rebound in commodity prices and global trade, of which 90% is carried by international shipping.

In April worldwide exports of merchandise reached $1.41trn, the highest monthly total since October 2014, according to the World Trade Organisation. 

Upgrade at Khalifa Port

Since it opened in 2012 the emirate’s main sea link, Khalifa Port, has seen substantial volume increases. In 2015 it became the world’s second-fastest-growing container port after volumes reached 1.5m twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) per year, up 32% on the previous year.

At the end of last year the port’s operator, Abu Dhabi Terminals (ADT), announced it had moved a total of 5m TEUs since inauguration and that volumes in the first half of 2016 were up by another 11% year-on-year.

“[Full-year] 2016 figures were much tempered from the double-digit numbers we saw in recent years,” Abdulkareem Al Masabi, executive vice-president of the ports unit at Abu Dhabi Ports and chairman of ADT, told OBG. “But it is still much better than most in the region, with many ports seeing contraction and delaying expansion plans.”

Current capacity at Khalifa Port sits at 2.5m TEUs per annum, alongside 12m tonnes of general cargo. In the short term, it will benefit from plans to add 1000 metres of quay wall, build another 600,000 sq meters of space for handling general cargo, and deepen its main channel from 16 to 18 metres.

New terminal operator

In the longer term, expansion will be driven by the introduction of a second terminal operator: COSCO Shipping Ports.

Under a 35-year concession agreement, COSCO – the largest such company in China, operating 46 terminals and 169 berths around the world – will build an additional 1200 meters of quay wall and adjacent land, finishing the first 800 metres by mid-2018 and the rest in 2020.

Besides improving competition and attracting business, the expansion is set to add 2.4m TEUs per annum to Khalifa Port’s capacity. 

“COSCO will consider Khalifa Port as their main hub in the region, which will drive volumes higher and freight costs lower, bringing more volume to our ports,” Mohamed Juma Al Shamisi, CEO of Abu Dhabi Ports, told OBG. “It is a huge marketing tool for our tenants, as they will now have an international player on their doorstep that links them to the entire world.”

Automation station

In a bid to entice new customers while catering to new tenants at its adjacent industrial land, Abu Dhabi Ports has moved to improve services at both Khalifa Port and its 417-sq-km industrial zone, KIZAD.

Across its facilities, the company has continued to expand its Maqta Gateway “port community system”, a digital platform that connects stakeholders and shares key information in real time. Launched late last year, the system automates all vessel management processes, from vehicle registration and voyage declaration to call requests, port clearance requests and marine services.

In the medium term, Abu Dhabi Ports plans to automate truck landings and shuttle carriers used for horizontal transport at Khalifa Port.

“This will really give us a leg up on competition in the region by making us a full-fledged, semi-automated port,” Al Masabi told OBG.

After a challenging 2016, the outlook for shipping companies has begun to look more promising. Data released by Container Trades Statistics in mid-May showed global volumes in the first quarter of 2017 were up 10% year-on-year driven by stronger growth in China – a sharp departure from average quarterly growth of around 2.3% since 2015.