Davos 2022: DP World 'has responsibility' to improve supply chains, says UAE chief

Exclusive: Abdulla bin Damithan says resilience of Jebel Ali trade hub helped it grow during Covid-19 disruptions to global trade

DP World's Jebel Ali port terminal in Dubai. The UAE company reported a decline in container volumes in the third quarter. Photo: DP World
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DP World, one of the biggest global port operators globally, aims to be a major player at every stage of the trade supply chain, from handling raw materials from suppliers at its ports for manufacturers in its free zones and then delivering finished goods to their customers, its UAE chief executive said in Davos.

The company is investing in logistics and technology to enhance its ability to move cargo, Abdulla bin Damithan told The National on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum's annual meeting.

“We are not only one part of the supply chain … we'd like to be the full supply chain … from factories to customer doorsteps,” said Mr bin Damithan, who is also managing director of DP World UAE and the Jebel Ali Free Zone (Jafza).

“We're … bringing more transparency to the supply chain. We have a responsibility towards how to improve the supply chain. And being just a ports operator is not enough.

“We heavily use our portfolio connecting [cargo] digitally, knowing [all] movement of cargo, looking at data and supporting our customers and coming up with even new ideas [for them].

“We are investing in our logistics and digital capabilities to connect cargo … And we have been opening trade bridges. In fact, I am personally working on this with my counterparts in India, Africa and Europe.

“We have invested heavily not only on our ports, but also our own … warehouses and our trucking and transportation and logistics capabilities. So, for us, it's no longer [just about] the port. It's beyond the gate services that we provide.”

This strategy applies around the world in markets such as in Africa, as well as in the UAE.

In March, the company said its annual profit rose by 5.9 per cent to $896 million last year on the back of higher revenue from acquisitions, new concessions and fast-growing trade lanes in Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

Revenue grew 26.3 per cent a year to $10.77 billion.

DP World has been diversifying its portfolio in recent years, Mr bin Damithan said.

“So, we are not only import any more, this is global, it is not only local or regional. So, we have the ports and terminals in one pillar, then we have the free zones and economic zones, [and] we have the digital and logistics and marine,” he said.

Jebel Ali is considered “as a region itself, because of the scale and the size of it”.

“Under Jebel Ali, UAE, we have Jebel Ali, the port, the free zone, the economic zone [National Industries Park], the special economic zone, Dubai Auto Zone, textile city, the harbour, the creek, all run by DP World, Al Hamriya, Mina Rashid with the cruise [terminal], as well as our logistics arm … Dubai Trade, which is a digital area and we have a company called World Securities … providing manpower, security and other services.”

The Dubai logistics corridor linking Jebel Ali and Maktoum International Airport became especially important during coronavirus-related trade disruptions to usual transport lines, he said.

“This is used for a sea-air movement … basically you are moving from the port into the airport, in Dubai South, directly in a bonded corridor. So, no documentation requirement, no customer restriction. So, movement of cargo between the port, the two free zones and the airport moves seamlessly,” said Mr bin Damithan.

“It really came handy during the pandemic, where we were able to bring shipments by sea and then take [them] by air where some ports were closed or not operating. So, DP World were able to provide something different and unique than other gateways, whether around the region around the world.”

Jafza customers increased by more than 10 per cent during the pandemic, he said.

“If you speak about resilience, we used to invest heavily … not only [in] infrastructure but also superstructure, in automation and people used to ask us, ‘Why are you doing this? What is necessary for you to do it?’. During the pandemic, it only proved that we had the right vision, we were one of the only terminals which was able to operate, and the free zone [too],” said Mr bin Damithan.

The investment in technology and automation has been critical.

“Definitely the automation, our process, the port and free zone close to each other. The way the UAE [was] able to to handle Covid. Today, we are speaking about it, look at the Expo [2020 Dubai]. Yes. It is a very good example how we are able to handle crisis that come through the region or the world.”

Global trade and supply chain challenges, whether due to the pandemic or the pressure caused by the sharp rebound from it, are felt in the UAE, he said.

“The unique thing about Jebel Ali, we do not operate in one mode. The strain [during the pandemic] was more on the ship for containers. But we are also able to provide our customers with other modes of operation. Generic cargo was not only limited to containers, but as a break-bulk into Jebel Ali,” Mr bin Damithan said.

“Another mode [is] air connectivity. We are connected by air, land, road and, in future, rail. So, this is definitely able to give our customers flexibility from Dubai and Jebel Ali, to Saudi Arabia, up to the Mediterranean, Egypt.”

“Anything is a matter of days of travel. We get cargo coming by sea and going by land, connecting to the neighbouring countries. We're used to challenges in the region; we have seen it in the past. And we were able to continue to support our customers.”

Even as Jebel Ali has adequate space and capacity, the investment in technology continues.

With risks to trade including dampening demand amid high oil prices or rising inflation, as well as the disruption related to the war in Ukraine, DP World is focused on supporting its customers with costs savings, said Mr bin Damithan.

“The most important thing for us in Jebel Ali and in Dubai … [is that] we [are] able to support them in terms of their costs … [and] our initiatives like automation … efficiency, cost savings,” he said.

The investment in automation has also supported DP World's efforts to diversify its workforce.

"This technology has helped us to attract Emiratis to come and be operators," Mr bin Damithan said. "In fact, [it is] not only limited to males, but also we have are proud of Emirati ladies, who are today able to operate a lot of our yard cranes."

Updated: May 17, 2023, 3:32 PM