Acting Locally

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While major port operator DP World's international acquisitions have made headlines, the company has focused its attention closer to home - acquiring some local ports to create a stronger regional network.

Last year, DP World concluded agreements to take over the management of several ports on the Arabian Peninsula - deals that were largely overshadowed by the high-profile takeovers of CTX Terminals in January 2005 and P&O in February 2006.

On a smaller scale, in May 2005, DP World also officially began a 30-year concession to operate the Port of Fujairah, making it the first inter-emirate takeover. Later that summer it acquired Mina Zayed, Abu Dhabi's major container terminal. It also inked a deal with Yemen to manage the port of Aden.

It was hoped that DP World's growing global clout would inject money and increased capacity into these ports, which - while having tremendous potential - had in recent years struggled to attract containers in the face of growing global competition.

But one year after the takeovers, there seems to be little progress on some of these local agreements. This is especially the case in Fujairah, where most are still wondering about DP World's plans for the port's future.

"[In Fujairah] there are no changes so far from DP World," said an industry expert. "They are waiting to see what happens with their global issues," he referred to the challenges DP World has faced - especially from the US - from their takeover of P&O.

Fujairah has seen a precipitous decline in container handling in the past years. In the early 1980s and early 1990s the emirate's port, which is one of only two in the UAE to be strategically located outside of the Gulf, became an attractive transhipment point because the Iran-Iraq war, followed by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait sent insurance premiums soaring for vessels entering the Gulf.

Fujairah also was able to gain a lucrative contract with APL, one of the world's largest shipping lines, helping to build its reputation as one of the Middle East's most important transhipment locations.

But after 1994 when the port handled a record 700,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs), Fujairah has watched its volumes tumble to 200,000 TEUs by 2004 - attributed to changing economic conditions in the shipping industry.

"When India and Pakistan privatised their ports in the 1990s, there was also a consolidation of shipping lines, so we had to change our strategy," explained Captain Mousa Murad, general manager of the Port of Fujairah.

Shipping lines previously looking to Fujairah for feeder access to restricted - or underdeveloped - ports in the Gulf and subcontinent can now bring their ships directly to destinations.

Adapting to the shifting conditions, Fujairah strengthened its other port activities like bulk, general cargo and marine services.

The change of pace has paid off, as Fujairah is now the second-largest bunkering port in the world, behind Singapore. For marine services, the management says it now services up to 150 ships a day and 7000 a year. It welcomes eight to 10 cruise lines and provides shore transfer for 3000 to 4000 crew members annually.

The transhipment business, on the other hand, is suffering - mainly because other ports are finally able to service their own markets. Major upgrades of almost all Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and many Indian facilities means "those ports that depend on import and export are doing very well", Murad says, but those formerly dependent on transhipment continue to see volumes drop.

To make matters worse, most transhipment is being handled by fewer regional ports- like Salalah, Oman - which are more strategically placed on major east-west shipping routes and can handle the largest vessels.

In the meantime, Fujairah is waiting for DP World to actively start implementing its plans to re-energise the container-side of port operations.

Indications were that DP World was planning on investing over $155m to increase the capacity of the port to 1.7m TEUs, but it is unclear whether this will involve simply increasing volumes or buying larger cranes to service ships over the current 5000 TEU capacity.

If this expansion is to go ahead Fujairah might even be expanded to be able to handle 12,000 TEU mega-liners. With talk of DP World shifting some of its lines from Jebel Ali port in Dubai to Fujairah, accommodating the world's largest ships may be an advantage.

But until more information is released, Fujairah appears content to focus on growing its bulk, general and marine services and let DP World sort out the container business, which appears rapidly becoming a profession for the few.

"In 10-15 years there will be only around five shipping lines," says Murad referring to the continued trend of consolidation around the world in maritime transportation, "The small ones... will be forced to join the big ones."

Murad believes that one aspect of the business is changing, stating that "transhipment will disappear in the Gulf". For most regional port operators, activity should remain strong backed by the current construction boom in the Middle East.

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