There’s an adage that suggests, ‘there is no security on this Earth; there is only opportunity’. That seems appropriate right now as I stare out of a luxurious hotel window overlooking lavish yachts, super boats and, of course, the unique Burj al Arab mega-structure.
This is a land of opportunity, right here.
This may be my fourth time here in Dubai, but it still never ceases to amaze and you can’t fail to be impressed by the grandeur and the enterprise of the place.
Both Dubai and the wider UAE today were born out of a self awareness of a lack of security. On the one hand, it knew that the riches of oil and fossil fuels could only last so long. On the other, it recognised that the barren desert landscape, the warm climate and its existing riches could fuel new opportunities. It carved out a new, grand identity based upon tourism and what seems like mega-everything.
You can feel the change and, in many places, the modernity. Whether it’s the riches moored in the harbours, the shimmering skyscrapers that continue to multiply, or the concrete foundations of the next wave of those ’scrapers being laid, progress is everywhere. With every return to the Emirate, there are not one or two new infrastructure projects emerging but scores – this December is no different.
It’s a policy that has its critics, and I’ve heard from one or two of those in the last couple of days, concerned that a focus on tourism is a short-term strategy and of the view that money would have been better spent on a balanced programme of investments that includes greater renewable energies and scientific research applications. But it’s also a policy that is (currently) reaping reward and the numbers are there to support that.
Such progress is increasingly mirrored by the region’s gases industry. This is the home of two - soon to be three - of the world’s most significant helium plants; Air Liquide’s largest over-the-fence hydrogen contract is situated on the West coast of Saudi Arabia, a €350m global-scale hydrogen production site in Yanbu Industrial City; meanwhile the world’s largest industrial gas complex will also be here soon, a huge $2.1bn project in Jazan, Saudi Arabia. Work starts in the coming weeks, with the complex expected to be operational by early 2019.
“…the Middle East is no longer emerging as the New Industrial Gas Frontier. It’s already here, it’s underway - the New Industrial Gas Frontier has arrived. And a record crowd for this gasworld conference here in Dubai again affirms that”
One could argue that this brings us back to that quote about security and opportunity – the Middle East is a hub of activity for an industrial gases industry that recognises the need to build upon its established base in the developed economies and take advantage of the opportunities in this up-and-coming market.
But the Middle East is no longer emerging as the New Industrial Gas Frontier. It’s already here, it’s underway - the New Industrial Gas Frontier has arrived. And a record crowd for this gasworld conference here in Dubai again affirms that. More than 275 industrial gas professionals have gathered to excitedly discuss the current and future growth prospects in a market that has risen considerably in the last decade.
From 2013-2014 alone, growth in the Middle East gases business of 5.8% outstripped that of overall global growth (3%) in the same year (gasworld Business Intelligence). This has been a trend in the industry for some time. In the UAE in particular, year-on-year growth averaged just under 22% per annum from 2004-2014.
Further still, even bigger growth is expected over the next five years; even by relatively conservative projections, the market is projected to reach a value of around $4bn by 2020 (2014: $2.2bn-$2.5bn), a figure that could feasibly be much higher and does not take into account a possible ‘gold rush’ in Iran if international sanctions are lifted as expected.
As with the ongoing development of the UAE, you can’t fail to be impressed by such numbers. Significant progress has – and continues – to be made. As we heard today, even in the face of sustained low oil prices, there is opportunity to be realised in the region by the migration away from hydrocarbon-based revenues in the near future.
Let’s spare a thought for North Africa too, for a moment. This is a MENA conference, after all. One could be forgiven for thinking that ‘security’ is perhaps not a word best associated with North Africa, but ‘opportunity’ certainly is.
gasworld estimates the North African gases market to have contracted by as much as 5.7% from 2013-2014, with various factors at play here, while the continued low price of oil will likely have hampered growth this year as well. But there is strong scope for uplift in the year ahead, if sustained political and financial stability are achieved. Esteemed consultants within both the gases industry and the wider chemicals sector have been keen to remind us of this here in Dubai.
Though it has a smaller population (180 million to the Middle East’s approx. 300 million) and considerably less GDP, there is industrial gas growth to be derived from a number of interesting industrial opportunities in North Africa that, with the right encouragement and funding, could reap benefits for many years to come. These include possible new chemical and petrochemical plants, renewable energy programmes, increased metallurgical production, and agricultural expansion. Pending a long-term recovery in oil prices, the region’s extensive oil and gas sector could also do well going forward.
As such, there is potentially plenty of scope for industrial gas companies to introduce new applications, new forms of doing business, and increase the efficiency of production and distribution channels across the entire region.
It is probably still a far cry from the apparent vista of opulence to be found in many parts of Dubai, the UAE and the wider Middle East, but there are robust growth prospects in North Africa nonetheless. When combined with its more illustrious neighbouring market, it is clear that a compelling window of opportunity lies ajar in the MENA region. Just ask any of the 300-strong attendees here today at the conference…