Aluminium firms envision Gulf plants

International aluminum players are casting a keen eye on the Gulf, as cheap natural gas provides the same investment rationale that attracted major petrochemical players to the region.

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International aluminium players are casting a keen eye on the Gulf as cheap natural gas provides the same investment rationale that attracted major petrochemical names to the region.

Governments have been promoting industrial development as a means to expand their economies and drive job creation, and they have turned to basic metals such as aluminium.

US and European chemical companies have already formed joint ventures with government-owned entities to create a thriving petrochemical industry. Foreign aluminium companies see the petrochemical industry as a valid model for their own entry into the region.

Jacynthe Coté, the chief executive of Rio Tinto Alcan, the division of the British-Australian company responsible for aluminium production, called the Gulf a "good platform for investment". Her company already has a presence in the region, holding a 20 per cent stake in the Sohar Aluminium smelter in Oman.

"The challenge for this part of the world is to maintain [competitive prices], and maintain predictability of prices, as well as the availability of gas," said Ms Coté.

Chinese companies are also on the lookout for the right investment opportunities. Demand for basic metals in China, a major importer of aluminium, is set to continue to rise. Domestic production is hamstrung by the constant struggle to keep up with mushrooming electricity requirements.

"Energy is a very important factor for aluminum production," said Yu Dehui, a vice president of the China Power Investment Corporation (CPIC). "In China, energy prices are high, in the Gulf they are relatively cheap. If we can find a partner for a [joint venture] - why not?"

While CPIC manufactures aluminium, the majority of its assets lie in power generation, and Mr Yu is only too aware of the importance of natural gas, one of the key feedstocks in the generation of electricity.

But investment opportunities might take some time to materialise. The regional aluminium sector is well developed; the UAE alone has two major players in Dubai Aluminium (Dubal), and Emirates Aluminium (Emal). The latter is based in the newly created Khalifa Industrial Zone Abu Dhabi (Kizad), where it is busy increasing its capacity, and is supplying downstream industry players that are starting to set up shop in the zone.

"If you look at the absorption of direct investment, it will probably take three to four years for another window for downstream investment," said Phil Martens, the chief executive of Novelis, a producer of flat-rolled aluminium products.

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