As the only UAE emirate to have ports on both the Gulf and the Indian Ocean, Sharjah is uniquely placed to take advantage of the region’s geographical position at the centre of international logistics lines. The emirate has long been a key aviation link for traffic between Europe, MENA and Asia, with the first airport in Sharjah opening in 1932. At the same time, Sharjah is also the land crossroads between the southern, northern, eastern and western emirates, with a string of key highways passing through its territory.
These comparative advantages are now being leveraged further as the emirate seeks to carve out a unique profile in a region well served by giant airports, ports and roadways. Moving forward, the provision of both quality services and high transit speeds are likely to be key elements in this; with Sharjah’s transport centres able to offer rapid throughput, good interconnectivity and a growing local market in the years to come.
Port of Pearl
Sharjah builds upon a long-standing maritime tradition, with archaeologists unearthing finds including 6000-year-old pottery from Mesopotamia and 4000-year-old beads from the Indus valley on a coastline well-known over the centuries for its merchants, sailors and fisheries. Sharjah Creek established itself early on as an important international harbour, with Al Khan – which is at the mouth of the bay that separates Sharjah from Dubai – a centre for boat building as well as pearl diving.
In the modern era, three deepwater ports emerged as central players in Sharjah’s maritime industry, namely Port Khalid, Hamriyah Port and Khorfakkan Port, with the latter located on the eastern coast of the emirate and outside the Straits of Hormuz. All three ports are managed by the Department of Seaports and Customs and the Sharjah Seaports Authority (SSA). Each of the ports specialises in a certain segment of the maritime transport and shipping industry: Khorfakkan Port is a major container terminal for trans-shipment; Hamriyah Port handles general cargo, industrial goods and hydrocarbons and petrochemicals in tandem with the Hamriyah Free Zone (HFZ); while Port Khalid, in Sharjah City, transports general goods and passengers, as well as handling some container traffic.
The location of Khorfakkan Port on the Indian Ocean makes it ideal for shipping companies transporting goods to other destinations in the UAE and the broader region. This is because it is one of the few dedicated container terminals in the UAE that is located outside of the Straits of Hormuz, along with the Port of Fujairah’s container terminal, which is also located on the eastern coast.
The Khorfakkan Container Terminal (KCT) has experienced significant growth in recent years. The KCT is operated by Gulftainer, which also operates facilities in Brazil, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the US. With six berths and a 2000-metre quay served by 20 gantry cranes, the KCT has 5m twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) of annual capacity over a 70 ha area.
Gulftainer also manages the Sharjah Container Terminal (SCT) located at Port Khalid. The SCT has four berths and a 740-metre quay, served by five cranes and an annual capacity of 750,000 TEUs.
Significantly, a number of new developments have been taking place at Port Khalid. For instance, a 436-metre quay was completed in March 2018, adding to the number of berths at the port and expanding its cargo handling capacities. A tender was awarded in January 2018 for the reconstruction of the North Wharf, which will build a modern quay of some 1030 metres. This project is scheduled to be completed by September 2019. In addition, there is a new tender process under way for the construction of a dhow harbour to cater to traditional trade flows, and is expected to be awarded in mid-May 2018. This will involve the construction of a breakwater and a 1-km quay outside the current breakwater of Port Khalid.
Port Khalid is, however, somewhat restricted in terms of space, because it is located in the centre of Sharjah City, which limits its ability to expand. At the same time, certain roads are closed to heavy goods traffic at certain times, leading to tailbacks. These factors have resulted in a greater emphasis being placed on Khorfakkan Port in recent years and to a third Gulftainer-run facility, the Sharjah Inland Container Depot (SICD), growing in importance as a storage and distribution point away from the city centre.
Located on the edge of Sharjah City near the border with Dubai, the SICD has been in operation since 2004. The site offers a range of offices and warehouses, with an annual capacity of 300,000 TEUs and an entirely scalable reefer capacity. Built on an area of 180,000 sq metres, it is also linked by road to the KCT, with all the containers unloaded there with destinations in Sharjah or the Northern Emirates going to the SICD for onward distribution. The inland port also provides the headquarters for Momentum Logistics, Gulftainer’s third-party logistics provider.
“KCT and the SICD are the way into the other emirates,” Iain Rawlinson, group commercial director of Gulftainer Group, told OBG. “We can provide a land bridge of four containers on a truck, which increases speed while also reducing the carbon footprint and the overall cost.” Hamriyah Port, meanwhile, has a close connection with the oil and gas trade, along with the petrochemicals industry based in the HFZ. The port is also home to a shipbuilding and repair industry, with Damen Shipyards Sharjah (DSS) operating there since 2014. DSS is run by Albwardy Marine Engineering, a company which is 49% owned by the Dutch shipping, defence and engineering conglomerate Damen. The site specialises in the construction of tugs and other vessels of up to 120 metres in length, while also undertaking a variety of repairs and refits in conjunction with other facilities located in Dubai and Fujairah.
Hamriyah Port has four general cargo berths with a total quay length of 1137 metres. These berths serve the needs of project cargo shippers, steel traders and other industries that are situated in and around Hamriyah and neighbouring emirates. Several oil traders who are based within the HFZ also have pipeline connections from the general cargo berths to their own storage facilities in the free zone. Within the main harbour are three dedicated oil terminals.
Sharjah Oil Refinery, which is located within the HFZ, is set to increase its power capacity with plans under way to upgrade and expand Hamriyah power station and water desalination plant, with work set to be completed in three stages staggered over the 2019-21 period. The project plans to convert the power plant from an open-cycle to a combined-cycle facility that utilises both gas and steam turbines, which is expected to increase efficiency by 50%. The future capacity of the facility is set to be 2500 MW of electricity and 530m litres of water per day, heralding future growth for both the free zone and the port.
Sharjah’s ports have seen steady growth in recent years in terms of throughput. According to figures from the SSA, 2017 saw 1.15m tonnes of general cargo go through its facilities, up from 871,175 tonnes in 2016. Dry cargo also increased slightly, from 618,048 tonnes to 618,137 tonnes over the same period, while oil cargo rose from 8.54m tonnes to 9.57m tonnes. However, there was a slight decrease in the number of vehicles, from 28,094 in 2016 to 27,754 in 2017, and a larger drop in the number of containers, from 3.42m TEUs to 2.32m TEUs, over the same period. This downturn was generally reflective of overall global patterns in container traffic, as Khorfakkan Port is very much a global trans-shipment centre. This shift can, therefore, be explained by the slowdown in international trade in 2017.
This slowing of global trade was also reflected in marine passenger transport, with the total number of passengers embarking and disembarking at the three ports falling from 31,087 in 2016 to 27,206 in 2017. This was the first year in which passenger traffic had fallen below 30,000 since 2012.
Nevertheless, these figures are likely to rebound, due not only to the uptick in world trade in 2018 but also to the improved facilities for passengers arriving and departing from Sharjah. In February 2018 the developers of Sharjah Waterfront City – Sharjah Oasis Real Estate Development – announced its plans to commence ferry services between the project and Dubai Marina. This would cut transit times significantly as the services would bypass traffic congestion on the main roads between Sharjah and Dubai.
Sharjah’s logistics sector is also looking at future growth. In March 2017 the HFZ Authority announced that it was developing a food park, with this being the first such dedicated facility in the region. Set to be constructed on a 11m-sq-foot site, the park will include offices and warehouses for food and beverage companies.
Those investing in the site will be able to benefit from a range of free zone incentives, such as 100% profit repatriation and foreign ownership. Investors will also likely benefit from warehouse facilities for chilled and frozen products, with this giving Sharjah’s logistics sector a considerable boost by improving the local chilled goods supply chain.
Such improvements are widely welcomed by the emirate’s haulage and distribution companies, which already benefit from an advanced network within the UAE overall. Customs clearances and other administrative hurdles have also been greatly simplified in recent times, thanks to the introduction of more electronic systems, enabling advanced clearing of goods. Sharjah Customs now operates around 10 physical centres for the clearing of imported and exported goods, a feature of the emirate that has garnered praise from more traditional transporters. “Sharjah is a very human place,” Rawlinson told OBG. “The e-systems are there, but they keep this human side for those who want it.”
Furthermore, Sharjah benefits from the UAE’s membership of the GCC, since goods that are cleared on entering one port within the GCC are cleared for the whole GCC area. The emirate also benefits from an increasingly integrated security apparatus with the rest of the UAE, with Emirati information databases in the process of being linked together. The introduction of value-added tax by the federal authorities on January 1, 2018 has also required tighter supervision of goods, to prevent increased smuggling.
Road haulage companies that are based in Sharjah are able to benefit from the major network of highways that connect the emirate with other parts of the UAE, as well as Oman and other GCC countries. This road network is subject to constant infrastructural improvements. In December 2017 Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, ruler of Sharjah, approved a Dh22.1bn ($6bn) budget for the emirate – up from 6% on the previous year – with the increased spending earmarked for the expansion of infrastructural investment.
A key body in the implementation of this budgetary directive is the Sharjah Roads and Transport Authority (SRTA). This authority has wide responsibilities, ranging from roadworks to taxis, with public transport also coming under its remit. As Sharjah has grown in recent years, the SRTA has taken on an increasingly central role in the development of the emirate. According figures from the SRTA, 2017 saw some 59.2m people use public transport – including taxis – in the emirate. This represents an increase of 33% on 2016, with 45m of these users recorded by Sharjah’s franchise taxi companies. This figure was itself up 12% on 2016, while the emirate’s intercity buses, with 7m users, saw usage increase by 11%. Meanwhile, the intracity bus services, with 6m users, grew by 10% over the same period.
The emirate’s taxi franchises, which include Sharjah Taxis, City Taxis, Union Taxi and Emirates Taxi, have therefore seen an increase in business and have laid the groundwork for further expansion with the introduction of innovative new services. These include an automatic callback service, which was launched in January 2018. The new service enables those looking for a cab to call in and have the nearest vehicle sent to them within seven minutes.
Meanwhile, the authorities are placing an increased emphasis on the development of environmentally friendly modes of public transport. This forms part of a broader set of policies aimed at establishing Sharjah as a centre of environmentalism in the MENA region. The SRTA has, therefore, been building up its bus fleet, with 37 new vehicles added in 2017, bringing the total number to 175. Of these, 111 are owned directly by the SRTA and the rest are operated by partners. The construction of 28 solar-powered bus shelters has also been announced, in a project set for completion by October 2018. The main terminal for the initiative will be the Al Jubail bus station, with some 16 routes covered from there.
Furthermore, in January 2018 the SRTA announced that 10 smart buses were to be added to the fleet. These 48-seat Dh1m ($272,200) vehicles feature emergency alarm and braking systems, combined with adaptive cruise control. These features combine increased energy efficiency with increased safety and are set to improve connectivity with other emirates.
Environmental concerns are also behind the recent announcement by Sharjah’s waste collection and environmental management company, Bee’ah, that it is set to purchase the first and largest fleet of Tesla electric trucks in the Middle East. Some 50 of these are due to start arriving the emirate in 2020, reducing the carbon footprint of the company’s 1000-vehicle fleet. Bee’ah is also partnering with several US companies to transform diesel-powered vehicles into electric ones.
Meanwhile, discussions are currently under way on the best ways to improve one of the main transport routes in the UAE, which connects Sharjah to neighbouring Dubai. This route enables commuters to work in Dubai while also taking advantage of Sharjah’s relatively lower rents and living costs, facilitating approximately 900,000 trips each day, according to a recent report from the engineering consultancy firm Aurecon, which works closely with the SRTA.
These routes have a combined capacity of some 33,200 vehicles per hour, yet around 40,000 vehicles attempt to use the roads at peak times. The resulting congestion leads to delays that are responsible for a loss of approximately $1.18bn in fuel and lost working hours, according to the report. One proposed solution would be an extension of the Dubai Metro Green Line to Sharjah, which Aurecon has concluded would reduce road traffic by around 30% and would cost an estimated $881m. Nevertheless, there are some concerns regarding such a solution. One is that it would place too much extra load on the existing Dubai metro, as the number of additional commuters from Sharjah is expected to be significant – perhaps as many as 22,000 passengers per hour in each direction.
In March 2018, following a two-year hiatus, Abdullah Belhaif Al Nuaimi, the minister of infrastructure development, announced that tenders for the design and construction of the second phase of the 1200-km $25bn Etihad Rail scheme would open within a few months. This would mark the largest of the three-phase roll out of the ambitious infrastructure project, which envisages the construction of a railway network through Sharjah to other emirates in the UAE and potentially the broader GCC. The second phase of the project would see the construction of 650 km of rail links between Khalifa Port in Abu Dhabi with Jebel Ali Port in Dubai, and with the Saudi and Omani borders. Meanwhile, the final proposed stage would connect Khorfakkan Port with Fujairah, running across Sharjah, before moving south to link up with the link between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, with a 279 km extension.
In order to address the problem of the bottleneck between Sharjah and Dubai, the emirate has unveiled or completed new road and bridge projects since the end of 2016. In December 2017 the Federal Transport Authority (FTA) – which has responsibility for highways across the UAE – announced that one of the goals of its new master plan was to improve highways in Sharjah and Dubai. Among the main projects designed to ease congestion between the capitals of the two emirates is the Mleiha motorway intersection, which is set to connect Dubai’s Emirates Road with Sharjah’s Mleiha Road. The Dh200m ($54.4m) project comprises a nine-lane approach road leading to a seven-lane bridge and is expected to open in August 2018. Work is also under way on two new truck lanes and a series of truck lay-bys along the heavily used Emirates Road in order to ease congestion and do away with current restrictions on the use of major roads by heavy goods vehicles – a source of frustration for some haulage companies.
Furthermore, a 41-km extension of Sheikh Khalifa Road was opened to traffic in February 2018; with further extensions earmarked for completion in mid-2018. A major extension of Academic City Road, which runs from Sharjah to Jebel Ali, was opened in March 2018. The eight-lane road – which was renamed Sheikh Zayed Bin Hamdan Al Nahyan Street in February 2018 – passes through the site of Dubai Expo 2020, and is expected to help ease rising traffic flows prior to and during the international event. Another notable new road development is under way around Sharjah International Airport, which is undergoing expansion. Some $408.8m has been earmarked for the project, with improvements to the associated road network taking a significant share of the cost. Work was nearing completion on a new bridge linking the airport to the E88 highway at the time of publication and it was expected to be completed by mid-2018 (see analysis).
At the same time, infrastructure improvements are also helping to improve road safety across the emirate. In November 2017 the Sharjah Police General Directorate announced that the maximum speed limit on highways would be increased from 100 km per hour to 120 km per hour, due to improvements in road conditions. In order to ensure compliance and facilitate traffic flow the police have also installed a number of fixed speed detectors and mobile units.
With the global uptick of the shipping industry and strong local fundamentals in place, Sharjah’s ports are set to experience continued positive development. The emirate’s transport and logistics sector is in the middle of a highly competitive region, with port capacity often outstripping demand in recent times. This makes the provision of services all the more important, with Sharjah well placed to offer an attractive package, given that it is home to ports on both sides of the Straits of Hormuz. Khorfakkan Port could act as the gateway to the northern emirates as well as Sharjah, with a reputation for speedy throughput already established. In the air, too, the emirate has a key advantage over nearby competitors, having a much quicker transit between arrival and departure.
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