As the region's shipping industry gears itself up for an unpredictable year, the Seatrade Middle East event provided the much needed opportunity to assess the way forward.
The vibrant growth of the region's shipping industry has led to a multitude of maritime events across the Middle East, aimed at tempting industry professionals to network, learn and share - all in the name of bettering their businesses.
The biennial Seatrade Middle East exhibition and conference is no exception to this rule, with its carefully thought out programmes providing the industry with plenty to discuss and debate.
We cannot ignore what is going on in the rest of the world with a slowdown in developed global economies. - Christopher Hayman.
Last year's event, taking place at Dubai International Convention and Exhibition Centre from the 14th to 16th of December 2008, proved the pinnacle of success for the organisers, not least due to its immaculate timing at what ended up being a rather economically challenging year.
With the full financial impact of the credit crisis on the Middle East's shipping industry still being anticipated, the event provided the mixed bag of opportunists, pessimists and those simply seeking direction, a chance to catch a glimpse of what 2009, and indeed the next five years, might hold.
The fourth edition of the event welcomed impressive attendance figures, an increase from its predecessor in 2006 which had attracted 6000 trade participants from 63 countries, of which 45 per cent came from outside the region. 313 exhibitors, representing companies throughout the world, also actively participated in the event.
One of the highlights of the event was the showcasing of Dubai Maritime City's impressive Maritime Centre. The centre, comprising of a cluster of five high-rise towers located at the head of a 227-hectare man-made peninsula, promises to be the first maritime cluster in the world.
A further seven plots have been reserved for developers wishing to construct on site, and the centre will feature a 5-star business hotel and premium service apartments.
"The Maritime City has been singled out as one of the important elements that will help mould Dubai into a maritime powerhouse within the next few years, and the Maritime Centre forms the core of this visionary development," says Amer Ali, CEO, Dubai Maritime City.
"There is nothing quite like Dubai Maritime City in terms of size, and even environmental compatibility. Every conceivable issue that may affect the project has been thoroughly scrutinised and addressed."
As well as conference streams for the cruise and the superyacht sectors, both very strong growth areas in the region, the biggest attractor of the event was unsurprisingly the ‘Money and Ships' conference.
The past few years have seen the region's shipowners continue to build on their already impressive fleet numbers, particular in the field of energy transportation.
The knock-on effect of this growth has meant more money being channelled into ambitious development programmes in associated maritime sectors, such as port and terminal expansions, shipbuilding, repair and conversions, as well the wider logistics industry.
Examining the implications of this ‘upsurge' in maritime activity in the region, the conference questioned what role the region's maritime sector play in world shipping and what challenges lay in wait.
"We cannot ignore what is going on in the rest of the world with a slowdown in developed economies," says Christopher Hayman, chairman of Seatrade, the event organisers.
"However, the impact on the Middle East maritime industry is expected to be minimal. Our optimism is based not only on continued global demand for oil and gas but the increasingly vital role the region is playing as the hub between Europe and Asia as well as the Middle East's own major growth trends."
Hayman's confident viewpoint was repeated by the regional heavy-weight, Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, chairman of Dubai World, and chairman of Dubai Ports, Customs and Free Zone Corporation, Nakheel, and Dubai Waterfront Company as he officially opened the event.
"I don't see any immediate impact of the global economic crisis on the region's maritime industry," he emphasises. "There is still heavy demand for cargo operations - both importing and exporting - between the region and the rest of the world."The wide-ranging agenda for the event was directed by a steering committee of the major shipping industry leaders of the region.
"By bringing key figures together to form a steering committee for Seatrade Middle East Maritime, the event will ultimately provide a platform for all maritime professionals to network and examine the issues that confront the industry today and the challenges that we will all face in the future," points out Captain Jitendra Misra, general secretary of the UAE Ship Owners Association.
"It is vital that we adhere to international standards and employ industry best practice." Other representatives on the steering committee included senior executives of Vela International Marine, Dubai Maritime City, Topaz Energy and Marine, Mideast Ship Management, Quadrant Marine Consultancy, Det Norske Veritas and Drydocks World.
In fact, an impressive array of international and regional speakers were on hand to provide their own perspectives over the two days.
Representing Middle East owned shipping companies were Major General (Rtd) Sharafuddin Sharaf, president of the UAE ship owners association, Salem Al Shamekh, president of the National Shipping Company of Saudi Arabia (NSCSA), Mohammed Souri, chairman and managing director of the National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC) and Jorn Hinge, chief operating officer of United Arab Shipping Company (UASC).
For those in the energy and dry bulk transportation business, the conference discussed the future of the sector and in particular, the outstanding contribution of the region in LNG transportation. Of course, ship finance featured highly on the agenda, together with the future of shipbuilding and maintenance and repair.
As well as the financial situation, the event highlighted two leading topics of concern for today's global shipping world, that of environmental issues and of piracy.
"With more than 90% of the world's freight travelling by sea and the global fleet burning around half a billion tonnes of fuel a year, green shipping is one of the hot topics of the year," agrees Hayman.
With stricter regulations imposed upon the maritime industry to reduce its environmental emissions, solutions were discussed, including the use of low sulphur fuel, advanced wastewater purification and emissions reduction technology. The exhibition also demonstrated some useful technological advancement aimed at making shipping more environmentally friendly.
The UK-based charity, Greenwave, for example, was one of the exhibitors keen to share its latest developments in lowering carbon dioxide and other emissions by reducing the consumption of fossil fuels.
Following extensive wind tunnel tests in New Zealand and tank tests at the UK's Solent University, Greenwave is planning to launch its first solution designed to improve the aerodynamics of ships.
This can help to reduce fossil fuel consumption and emissions by 15per cent, as well as provide significant savings. Fitting ships with compressed natural gas (CNG) engines was put forward as another environmental and economic solution, with the Jenjosh Group exhibiting its first fully propelled vessels, which use CNG main engines and generators.
The discussions on piracy were also very timely, particularly in light of last year's capture of the Saudi Arabian supertanker, the Sirius Star and the recent EU anti-piracy measures. At the conference, leading Middle East ship owners passionately called for private armed security teams to be placed onboard ships entering the piracy-prone waters of the Gulf of Aden.
"If the European Union forces can protect the ships, this story will be settled but otherwise we shall have to have armed forces on board our ships and we are negotiating at the moment," says Mohammed Souri, chairman and managing director of NITC.
The company's vessels have been chased and threatened by pirates on five separate occasions before managing its fortunate escape. Others echoed his concerns, with Saleh Al Shamekh, president (oil and gas) of the National Shipping Company of Saudi Arabia (NSCSA) and Jorn Hinge, chief operating officer of (UASC) also reporting close calls with the Somalian pirates.
"The level of hijackings has reached unprecedented levels and presents an enormous challenge to both the global and regional maritime industry," Hayman agrees. With a special evening session held to discuss the topic, the organisers highlighted that a total of 16 vessels have been captured for ransom by the pirates, with around 18 seafarers dying in the attacks and a further 300 still in being held hostage in Somalia.
The Seatrade Middle East event certainly appeared to have fulfilled its objective of supporting the regional sector to ‘stay ahead of the curve' and ended on a positive note.
"While the global downturn may dampen overall activity, the fundamentals of shipping remain in place. Strategies may need to be adjusted for the new financial era we are entering but the maritime industry will continue to be the lifeline of the global and regional business community," says Hayman.For all the latest transport news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
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