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Dubai's Air Cargo Connection
Saudi Aramco World / March-April 1992

By Larry Luxner

The emirate of Dubai has opened a $75-million air-cargo complex that doubles the capacity of Dubai International Airport, already one of the world's busiest transshipment centers.

The new 26,000-square-meter (280,000-square-foot) operations building, inaugurated last July, comes in response to a booming air-sea freight business unexpectedly augmented by the postwar reconstruction of Kuwait, which lies only 90 minutes away by air.

"We import a lot of goods and re-export 70 percent of them," says Ahmed Sa'eed al-Maktoum, president of both the Dubai Department of Civil Aviation and Emirates Airlines, the facility's biggest potential customer. 'That business will be booming."

Willie Fromm is the cargo manager of Lufthansa German Airlines, the second-largest cargo-handler at the airport after Emirates Airlines.

Now that Kuwait has opened its borders for business, Fromm says, most air shipments of fruit, vegetables, medicines and other perishable goods are being flown there via Dubai. "In a very short time, everything will be back to normal, and all the airlines are hoping they can participate," he says.

Though many of the 53 airlines that served Dubai before the war canceled flights altogether when hostilities began, or rerouted them through nearby Karachi, all have returned since the war - joined by three new ones - and Dubai International's 1991 volume figure of 140,283 metric tons make it the number one air transshipment center in the Middle East. In November, the airport handled its heaviest single item of air freight ever: a 50-ton ship's gearwheel delivered by a chartered Antonov-124.

Al-Maktoum, in his office overlooking the airport's comfortable arrivals terminal, says the new cargo building, built by San Francisco-based Bechtel Corporation, will be able to handle 300,000 tons of airfreight a year.

"We have been planning this project for three years," he says, adding that - because of its position at the midpoint of major air routes between Europe and the Far East- Dubai has become the second-busiest sea-air transit point in the world, after Washington state's Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. That enviable location also recently persuaded Federal Express Corporation to designate Dubai International as the hub for its new Express Freighter service, launched in January. Dubai already serves as the courier service's regional headquarters, covering 22 countries from Egypt to Sri Lanka.

Dubai International's new warehouse is to feature separate sections for shipments of various sizes, as well as special storage areas for exceptional cargoes like radioactive materials or live animals. The complex will be able to accommodate four Boeing 747's or two 747's and three narrow-bodied freighters. It also features an 8500-square-meter (91,500-square-foot) agents' free zone for incoming sea shipments.

Emirates Airlines, flag carrier of the United Arab Emirates, transports everything from locally produced strawberries, bound for European supermarket shelves, to German cars ordered by Gulf residents. The airline claims it can have a planeload of cargo on its way to Europe just five hours after that cargo's arrival by ship in Dubai's Port Rashid.

After Emirates and Lufthansa, according to Dubai government statistics, the airport's biggest cargo handlers are Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific, Luxembourg's Cargolux and Pakistan International Airlines.

Roque Monteiro, cargo manager for British Airways, says the majority of air cargo business consists of textiles, electronics and other sea-airfreight.

Cargoes typically are shipped to the United Arab Emirates from the Far East, and are destined for ultimate markets in the United States and Western Europe. Another important source of cargo is finished garments manufactured by expatriate workers in the nearby Jabal 'Ali Free Zone, which employs some 12,000 people.

SHARJAH’S INCREASING IMPORTANCE

An aging oil rig that for years drilled wells into the seabed of the Arabian Gulf has found new life as a 167-bed floating hotel for oil workers in the West African nation of Angola.

Lamprell Jumairah, a shipping firm based at Port Khalid in Sharjah, one of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), won the $18-million contract last year to refit the 60-by-60-meter (200-by-200-foot) Saudi Aramco Mobile Drilling Platform 2 and hook it up at its new location more than 10,500 kilometers (6500 miles) away.

'This is our sixth oil-rig conversion," said Steven D. Lamprell, one of the companys two partners. "We have become specialists in converting ex-oil rigs into accommodation jack-ups, but this is the first time we've competed in the international market against Singapore, the United Kingdom and the United States."

Oil-rig conversions are only the latest wrinkle at Port Khalid, Sharjah's main ocean terminal and one of the fastest-growing ports on the Arabian Gulf.

The Sharjah Ports Authority, which runs Port Khalid, Khor Fakkan and Hamriya ports, handled more than 245,000 twenty-foot equivalents (TEU's) in 1990 - up from 162,000 TEU's in 1990. That puts Port Khalid and its two sister ports among the ranks of other large shipping terminals in the UAE, such as Jabal 'Ali and Port Rashid, both in Dubai, and Port Fujairah, in the amirate of the same name.

"We're a smaller port but, as a result, we can offer customers a little more flexibility," said Simon Keen, marketing manager of the Sharjah Department of Ports and Customs,

Keen, whose agency describes Port Khalid's Sharjah Container Terminal as "unquestionably one of the Middle East's finest deepwater box-handling facilities," said the terminal opened its first two berths in 1976. The port gradually grew to its current size: 12 berths, plus an oil jetty and one kilometer (3300 feet) of lay-up wharf.

Today, he said, Port Khalid handles more than 2,000,000 metric tons of general cargo a year and has 633 employees, most of them from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Keen himself is British, and the port's specially trained security force is entirely Gurkha Nepalese.

"Some of our largest imports are frozen fruit, meats and chilled fruit," he said. "We're the largest importer of fruit in the Emirates, and we were the first to develop berth-side cold storage."

A leisurely stroll around Port Khalid recently revealed a wide range of vessels, from an Iranian ship discharging fresh fruit, to an Argentine Navy destroyer about to return home after completing its Arabian Gulf tour of duty, to an Iranian passenger ferry. Sharjah's proximity to Bandar Abbas, across the Arabian Gulf, persuaded Iran's national shipping line to begin offering regular passenger ferry service between the two ports.

The emirate's enviable location has also led to creation of a free-trade zone at Port Khalid, within whose boundaries companies may import raw materials and assemble or process them into manufactured goods without paying any customs duties. Firms already renting space in the zone include NCR Corporation and a number of local companies. One of the most unusual things about the United Arab Emirates is that each emirate has its own transport system. Nine seaports and five international airports may seem lavish for a nation of only 1,900,000 people, but Keen says there's a reason for it.

"This is a federation made up of obviously separate states," he said. "In the 1970's, every emirate desperately needed ports for Hs own modernization programs. Once the infrastructure was built, they found they could be useful sources of income as international transshipment points."

In addition to Port Khalid, Sharjah - headquarters of the Arab Maritime Transport Academy - operates Khor Fakkan, a two-berth terminal on the Gulf of Oman, as well as the port of Hamriya, 20 kilometers (12 miles) up the road from Port Khalid.

Part of Khor Fakkan's appeal is its position on the Indian Ocean, rather than the Arabian Gulf, which allows shipping lines to cut transit times, reduce fuel consumption and save on insurance by avoiding the Strait of Hormuz altogether.

Back on the Arabian Gulf coast, Hamriya, built in the mid-1980's, features a $180-million liquefied petroleum gas (IPG) plant for refining propane and butane for export to Japan, and an offshore crude-oil loading facility that can accommodate tankers of up to 80,000 deadweight tons.

Petroleum condensate is, in fact, the main source of income for Sharjah's estimated 300,000 people. Production from the onshore Sajaa Field alone comes to 45,000 barrels a day. In addition, the Amoco Sharjah Oil Company, a Sharjah-US joint venture, sells 7,000,000 cubic meters (250,000,000 cubic feet) per day of natural gas to the federally-owned Emirates General Petroleum Corporation.

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