Oil producers have been slashing investment by hundreds of billions of dollars in the past year or two. Not in Fujairah.
While the business world focused on a surprise deal out of Algiers by the 14 members of Opec, the leaders of the emirate on the southeast coast of the UAE quietly pushed ahead with a major milestone. From my vantage point on a tug boat in the Gulf of Oman, I watched as “The Kelly” — a supertanker with a capacity of two million barrels docked at a new loading terminal.
The inauguration was the latest phase of a $5.5 billion investment to build a Middle East storage and export facility to rival Rotterdam and Singapore. Fujairah began hatching its plan as far back as 1991, when the Gulf War left lines of tankers stranded outside port, unable to travel north through the Strait of Hormuz.
Most of the investment in the facility — government and private sector money — was committed during the heady days of $100 a barrel oil. The UAE completed a 370 kilometre (230 mile) pipeline from their onshore fields in Abu Dhabi to the port in 2012. It can now store up to 60 million barrels of crude, equal to six days of Saudi Arabia’s production, or about two-thirds of daily global demand.
But Fujairah isn’t done yet. Port officials said they will add enough capacity over the next two years to rival Singapore, Asia’s oil hub. Singapore today handles nearly 90 million barrels of crude and Rotterdam a hefty 190 million barrels.
UAE Minister of Energy Suhail Al Mazroui said that there is a commitment from local officials and the federal government to keep on expanding despite the slump in oil prices since 2014. “We’re looking to compete internationally,” said Al Mazroui. “I think we could be at the top as we want to build a second terminal” to handle supertankers, or very large crude carriers (VLCC) in industry parlance.
This is the UAE doubling down on their bets to secure market share for their crude oil. Customers value security of supply, ease of shipping and lower insurance costs — all things Fujairah can offer.
“I think the capacity to bring this kind of vessel fully laden, this is going to be the deepest port in the Middle East, gives yet another dimension to this growing storage hub,” said Christopher Bake, a member of the executive committee of Vitol, one of the world’s largest energy traders.
Location is also a huge advantage. The region is home to two-thirds of the world’s proven energy reserves. And the port allows oil to bypass the Strait of Hormuz, a critical artery handling about 30 per cent of the oil shipped globally on a daily basis.
The strait connects the Gulf with the rest of the world. Iran sits on one side of the strait, where there have recently been a series of tense encounters between US and Iranian vessels.
Energy strategists say the new terminal creates a “psychological comfort level” and lowers the cost of insurance for tanker companies. There are nearly 600 supertankers circling the globe and — due to the payload security — is vital.
“Having VLCCs like we have today, crude carriers going through it, lots of crude storage in Fujairah, it is really the dawn of an era which should have been 20 years ago”, said Fereidun Fesharaki, Chairman of FACTS Global Energy.
But there is a much bigger strategic play at hand by the UAE. Fujairah fits into well-developed “silk road strategy” led by the foreign affairs ministry to foster two-way trade between the UAE and the two biggest emerging markets by population and growth, China and India.
“The whole oil industry is evolving and the need for oil handling and trade is changing,” said Khalil Ibrahim, Chief Financial Officer for the Port of Fujairah. “After the emergence of India and China as new players in the global economy, there is strong demand from them for oil and other products. So the Port of Fujairah serves as a transshipment point for oil in the Middle East.”
According to executives at two storage facilities, onshore tanks in Fujairah are running at full capacity. As a result, supertankers like “The Kelly” are being used to store crude at sea. With the launch of the new terminal and the ability to moor up to 160 tankers, they can do so right in the heart of the world’s oil belt.
The writer is CNNMoney’s Emerging Markets Editor.