Dunes and don'ts: the nitty-gritty about sand

There is more to sand than meets the eye. Different types suit different projects, which makes it a tradeable commodity, even within a region blessed with the stuff.

Sending snow to the Eskimos? Or coals to Newcastle? How about sand to Arabia? What might sound like the start of an objectionable joke is a reality in Abu Dhabi and across the Arabian peninsula, where speciality sand is brought in for the occasions when the local stuff is not right for the job. Stroll along the silken shore of the newly revamped public beach on Abu Dhabi's Corniche and you've just experienced the most prominent example of imported sand, although this was sourced from elsewhere within the UAE.

But watch a 30-year-old apartment block about to be torn down and it's likely you will be witnessing another example of why sand is imported. Local sand tends to be high in salt, clay and sulphur, which can compromise the reinforcing steel and weaken the concrete. Visit places such as a new hi-tech, precast concrete factory in Musaffah and you'll find large piles of sand from Saudi Arabia because of the high silica content needed for the aerated concrete process done there.

The reality is that, even before the onset of globalisation, life was never that simple. "Sending coals to Newcastle" has been a phrase in use since the early 16th century and became the best known English idiom for a pointless or futile endeavour because of the city's reputation as a major coal exporter. But in the late 1700s, an eccentric and uneducated American businessman named Timothy Dexter succeeded in doing just that, the coal shipment he had been duped by ill-motivated colleagues to send to Newcastle arriving, with spectacular serendipity, when local miners were on strike. Instead of being ruined, his fortune was enhanced.

He had been similarly fortunate before. Convinced the residents of the tropical West Indies were in need of warming pans, a covered, saucepan-style apparatus that would be filled with embers to warm the bed, he still managed to turn a profit when they were sold as molasses ladles. Globalisation has since turned Dexter's tale from an exception into a norm. In the past decade, a Scottish company has sold a shipment of gluten-free pizzas to Italy, British tikka masala and Saudi saffron have been exported to India, manga has been exported from England to Japan and a Scottish woman moved to Cairo to be a belly dancer.

By comparison with those, importing sand for Abu Dhabi's public beach seems barely noteworthy. Until the land reclamation that created 12 hectares of parklands and gardens along the Corniche, the site of the present 2km-long public beach was out to sea so there was nothing to enhance. Once solid fill had been used to create a new artificial shoreline extending into the Gulf, nearly 13,000 cubic metres of sand were brought in to create a beach big enough to take 5,000 people - and with an overall price of Dh105 million.

Juma al Junaibi, the general manager of Abu Dhabi Municipality, said when the beach opened in July last year that the aim was to make it "one of the truly outstanding beaches in the United Arab Emirates". A year on, they started again, and among the changes was the use of a different type of extra-fine soft sand. Rashad al Oniaira, from Abu Dhabi Municipality, said the sand had been brought from elsewhere in the UAE.

When the first portion of the new public beach reopened in October, two weeks before the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the new sand failed to make much of an impact. Julia Crossman, a teacher from Britain, said the new design looked better than the first version but she did not notice the difference under her feet. "I didn't notice anything about the sand being softer. Sand is sand, isn't it?" she said. "I can't believe they brought sand to Abu Dhabi. The whole country is full of sand."

That "sand is sand" is a common misconception. The reddish hue of most of the UAE's dunes makes them photogenic but demonstrates the high clay content, which is a reminder of days when the region's climate was less arid than it is now. Combined with high salt and sulphur levels, it means the dunes are better for photographing and driving over than for building things. In the earlier, poorer days of Abu Dhabi, the local dune sand was used for construction, but saving money on materials came at the cost of shorter lives for some of the buildings that resulted. Nasser Hosni, of the Dar al Emarat General Contracting Company in Abu Dhabi, said they now sourced washed sand, often brought in from Oman or Ras al Khaimah, for construction.

"Sand from Al Ain is used for landscaping," he said. "You can't mix the sand here with cement. It will ruin it." His company supplies a range of aggregates for the construction industry but he said most of the sand from the northern emirates had to be washed to make it usable. "There are different standards of building material. If you're using it for asphalt, you use gabbro. If you're using it for kerbstones or concrete, then we'll use washed sand.

"You can wash the sand and remove the clay. If you wash the RAK sand, it becomes higher-quality. It's to remove the salt and the clay, to remove the soil and the organic material. "They also use beach sand, which they screen and wash. "Beach sand is white when you wash it. Crusher or Oman sand is black when you wash it." There was no sand of this nature from the dunes of Abu Dhabi emirate, he added. "The red sand isn't washed - it won't wash. Red sand is excluded for this. It's used for agriculture."

Another business that imports sand from outside the UAE at a much greater cost than the local stuff is Bena, a hi-tech company with a factory in Musaffah. The Dh100 million plant uses German equipment to make aerated concrete panels that are one fifth the weight of traditional concrete and with better heat resistance and insulation properties. The technique was invented in Sweden in the 1920s but the high performance of the precast panels requires precise chemistry in its creation. And that means imported sand.

At the back of the factory, sand sits in large piles. One heap has the familiar pinkish tinge but near it is another, blindingly white in the sun, which instantly betrays its exogenous origins. Bena's general manager, Abdulrahman Rashid, said it had taken a lot of searching to find the right sand, but eventually a source made up of 98 per cent silica had been found across the border in Saudi Arabia.

"It's like cooking. It can be unpredictable and can be very delicate," he said. "We searched for three years for good silica sand and it's not available in the UAE. We found it in the eastern region [of Saudi Arabia]. The border of Saudi is so close [to the site], about 150km away." Even with the relative proximity, the Saudi sand is not cheap, at least compared with sand from near Abu Dhabi, but each comes at a cost.

"The local sand is 10 to 20 per cent of the cost of imported sand, so sometimes we mix in local sand," Mr Rashid added. "With Saudi sand you have damage of maybe two per cent. With local sand it's sometimes 15 per cent damage. "We don't want to dump 15 per cent of our production. We're trying to be very green." Being green is one of the selling points for aerated concrete since there is less wastage and the lower weight means less energy is used to take it from the factory to the building site, where it eliminates the need for additional insulation.

At the start of December, Saudi Arabia cited supply problems to halt sand and gravel exports to GCC nations, including the UAE. The news has prompted a slowdown in construction industries in nations such as Bahrain while alternate supplies are sourced from Oman and elsewhere. Rashid said he had enough stocks of high-silica Saudi sand to last for a while but hoped the ban would be lifted soon. Saudi Arabia, home of the bulk of the world's biggest sand desert, the Rub al Khali or the Empty Quarter, is in its turn an importer of sand when the grades available in the desert do not match its needs.

Among the types of sand imported are the fine sand used in water filters and the heavy mineral sands used in sandblasting. The filter sand used to be imported from the United States but since 2007, Australia's GMA Garnet Group has been providing the kingdom with heavy mineral sand that is durable enough for high-pressure waterjet applications. Unlike the 98 per cent silica sand imported from Saudi Arabia by factories like Bena in Abu Dhabi, the Australian garnet sand imported by the kingdom is almost entirely free of silica, removing the occupational hazard of inhaling the dust.

The irony of the sand movements across Arabia is that some of the Australian garnet sand was shipped via Jebel Ali port in Dubai, raising the prospect that before the kingdom's ban on its sand exports, lorries carrying Australian sand to Saudi Arabia might have crossed paths on the highways of the UAE with Saudi sand being carried to Abu Dhabi. jhenzell@thenational.ae