Building a new future
The Jan de Nul Group hit the headlines recently when its dredging ship, the Pompei, was seized by Somali pirates. The dredger, or stone carrier, was on its way to Durban from Dubai when it was captured off the coast of East Africa, north of the Seychelles, on 18 April. As Flanders Today goes to press, the Pompei remains anchored of the Somali coast while negotiations for its release continue.
In the face of an economic crisis and pirate raids, a Flemish company is spearheading efforts to develop ports in the Gulf region
Maritime piracy aside, the Aalst-based company is better known for its work in large-scale projects around the world, including Arab countries like Dubai. In 2002, it was awarded the dredging contract for the famous Palm Island project, involving the creation of a four kilometre-long peninsula in the form of a palm tree.
"It was a very lucrative contract for us," admits Filip Morobe, area director for the company's Middle East operations. "And, fortunately, the work was completed in 2006 before the crisis took hold."
The company, however, has been less fortunate with another of its projects in Dubai - the waterfront development of seven islands involving the reclamation of 350 million cubic metres of rocks. This contract, worth some €1 billion, has been temporarily suspended due to the impact of the fiscal crisis on the Dubai economy.
So far, work has started on only one of the seven islands, and Morobe estimates that, unless the suspension is lifted, the company stands to lose a cool €800 million. "It is a real blow, particularly as this contract alone accounts for 7-10% of our earnings for the coming year," he says. "But there's not a lot we can do about it, I'm afraid."
The company, though, is well-placed to come through the current problems. Boasting an annual turnover of €2 billion, most of its 4,000-strong workforce is based abroad, with only 10% in Belgium.
"We have been affected by the recession but have not had to make any redundancies," notes Morobe. "Most of our people working on the suspended Dubai project, for instance, will be relocated to work in other places like Australia and South America."
Others will be offered work in the Sultanate of Oman, where the company is also currently active on projects like the creation of a brand new port at Duqm, 600 kilometres from the capital, Muscat. The work, worth €400 million, involves reclaiming 40 million cubic meters of land near a tiny fishing village. The project started in 2007 and will not be finished until 2012. A total of 400 people are employed comprising, as elsewhere, a mix of locals, Europeans and other nationalities.
"When it's completed, the port will be used as a dry dock, a refinery and also as a military base. So you can see that, through our work in such places, we are contributing to their long-term economic survival," says Morobe. "A lot of these port developments are in locations that are economically under-developed and, once completed, you can see a whole new town or city emerge." In Oman, Jan de Nul is also involved in similar medium-size projects at the port of Salalah, in the south of the country.
For now, though, much media attention will focus on the ongoing efforts to free the 10 crew (including two Belgians) on board the captured vessel Pompei. "We are obviously becoming increasingly concerned for their safety and are doing all we can to secure their release," says Morobe. "The Belgian government appointed a special team to lead negotiations with those responsible, and it's possible that these talks could go on for some time yet."
He says the company is likely to introduce new measures to prevent a repetition. "We respected the instructions of our insurers, who insisted that we do not sail close to the Somali coast. The Pompei was 700 miles off the coast at the time, yet was still captured. "We sail 15 to 20 times a year off the Somali coast and are considering having a military presence on board all our vessels to ensure this does not happen again."