Amid the dominance of the GCC’s oil and gas sector and the speed of development in the regional petrochemicals, the emergence of the six-country bloc as a major player in the global fertiliser industry is often overlooked.

The fertiliser industry in the GCC is growing twice as fast as the global industry average and accounts for a quarter of the global trade in urea – the largest traded fertiliser chemical.

With major capacity expansions planned in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, GCC fertiliser output is expected to grow by another 50 per cent in the next few years hitting a total nutrient volume of 17.5 million tonnes a year by 2018, according to the Gulf Petrochemicals and Chemicals Association (GPCA).

Although the regional industry is destined for capacity growth, the mood at the GPCA Fertiliser Convention in Dubai on 17 September was not all positive, with global demand set to lag behind supply for the foreseeable future.

While global production of urea is expected to rise 6-7 per cent a year for the next five years, demand is only forecast to rise 2 per cent a year, leaving a growing overcapacity and dropping plant utilisation rates.   

The effects of this on prices has not yet been fully felt by the market as unrest in Ukraine and North Africa – both major fertiliser-producing regions – has led to market uncertainty.

However, GCC producers may be entering a period of lower margins and stronger competition from the growing industry in the US, where new capacity is being added on the back of cheaper feedstocks from the shale gas boom.

Despite tougher times ahead, expansion in the fertiliser industry is a key part of industrial diversification in oil-dominated GCC economies.