Responsibility for reclaiming work on multi-billion-dollar projects such as the three Palms, the World and Pearl-Qatar lies with a small band of international dredgers which possess the experience and capabilities to carry out such major undertakings.

Europe’s big four – Dredging International and Jan de Nul, both of Belgium, and Royal Boskalis Westminster and Van Oord, both of the Netherlands – have carried out the vast majority of the region’s dredging and reclamation work. While the global market stagnates on the back of lower government spending on capital projects, the major dredgers have made a beeline to the booming markets of the Middle East.

Most have seen their share of turnover from work in the region rise at least three-fold over the past four years as high oil prices fuel spending on capital projects. In Boskalis’ case, turnover from the Middle East has risen from Eur 64 million ($78 million) in 2000 to Eur 203 million ($248 million) in 2004, accounting for about 20 per cent of the company’s revenues.

By far the largest driver in demand for international dredgers has been the massive offshore tourism and residential developments that are springing up throughout the region, the most famous for which are the multi-billion-dollar World and Palm island developments. Of the latter, Palm Deira has the distinction of being the world’s largest ever dredging project, requiring the dredging of a jaw-dropping 1,200 million cubic metres of material. Abu Dhabi and Doha are the other regional pioneers, pushing ahead with their own offshore schemes such as the Al-Raha Beach development and the Lusail residential project.

A second driver has been the rapid expansion of existing and new ports throughout the Gulf. Driven by growth in the container freight market and the demands of bigger container vessels, ports and their approach channels are being dredged to greater depths to cope.

LNG-driven

The third demand factor has been the growth of industrial capacity. For example, Ras Laffan port in Qatar is lined up for a $1,500 million expansion to cope with a three-fold expansion in liquefied natural gas (LNG) output.

‘At this point in time you can say that the Middle East is a booming market driven by energy, tourism, trade and industry and in some places by housing developments,’ says Robert van Gelder, chairman of the board of management at Boskalis. ‘Combined with flourishing energy prices, this makes it a great growth area. These cyclical periods come and go, but it is definitely booming. The slogan in Dubai is we build in half a generation what took other nation’s generations. Just look at the Palms, the World and Jebel Ali [port reclamation] as examples.’

This view is echoed at Jan de Nul. ‘It is just booming everywhere,’ says regional manager Bassam Atiyeh. ‘Over the last two years, the Middle East has become the most important region for us.’

But while the dredgers are unanimous in their acknowledgement of the unprecedented levels of regional growth, how each approaches the market varies considerably. For example, Boskalis is positioned as a broad service provider after taking a stake in the regional-based Archirodon and with Sharjah-based Lamnalco. For its part, Dredging International has teamed up with United Development Company and the government in Doha to establish Qatar Dredging Company (QDC). Conversely, others, such as the family-run Jan de Nul, prefer to work alone.

‘I think teaming up is a very sensible thing to do, but you must keep in mind there are