From the fine sand used for mixing concrete to giant boulders needed for reclaiming land from the sea, every construction project needs aggregate. With the Gulf construction market going through an unprecedented boom, it is no wonder that the region’s quarries are busier than ever before.

Most of the aggregate used in the Gulf is quarried in the Hajar mountains of Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah and over the border in Oman. Quarries at Al-Ain and Hatta, Dubai, were closed down several years ago to preserve the landscape for tourism. Yet tourism, along with real estate and associated infrastructure, is the main driver behind increased demand for aggregate from the remaining quarries.

Although the UAE uses most of the material quarried itself, many of the quarries and crushing plants are close to ports, with products exported to Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait. Material used for the New Doha International Airport (NDIA) reclamation works, for example, is shipped to Qatar from Ras al-Khaimah. The emirate has even exported rock as far afield as India, Australia, Hong Kong and Taiwan using its deep harbour at Port Saqr.

To meet the growing demand, quarries have been forced to expand their operations. Increasing production was the initial solution, but many have now begun to add capacity by setting up new crushing lines and quarries.

Expansion

UK-based Tarmac, which also operates in Spain, France, India, China and Hong Kong, now operates two of its largest quarries in the region. It has recently added 6 million tonnes a year (t/y) of capacity to the 8 million t/y it extracts from its quarry in Oman with a new facility in Ras al-Khaimah. The local Fujairah Rock & Aggregate will increase its production to 6 million t/y from 2.3 million tonnes this year, once it adds a new line of crushers. Also expanding operations is the UAE’s largest quarry, Ras al-Khaimah Rock Company (RAK Rock Co), whose production already exceeds 12 million t/y.

Increasing capacity does not come cheap and involves significant investment in both movable and fixed plant. This places upward pressure on prices as quarries seek to take advantage of buoyant demand levels and recoup their investments as quickly as possible. Rising operating costs have compounded the problem and many quarry operators now feel price increases are inevitable. The recent 30 per cent hike in fuel prices across the federation is just the latest increase. Steel, tyres and explosives as well as labour have all become more expensive over the past three years. ‘The effect has been that the cost of extracting a tonne of rock has increased; the cost of extracting hard gabbro is up by 20-25 per cent, and the cost of extracting soft gabbro and limestone is up by 10 per cent,’ says Mohammed Khammas, quarry manager at Fujairah Rock & Aggregate.

Weight watchers

Indirect costs are also causing concern, with the expected introduction of several new regulations. The most significant is a planned new weight limit on roads in Abu Dhabi. This will greatly reduce the volume of material each lorry is able to carry, so transport costs will increase as more trucks are needed to deliver the same amount of material. Operators warn this could have a severe impact on aggregate prices across the federation, as all aggregate from Oman has to pass through Abu Dhabi. They also claim the measures will be counter-productive – although the legislation is designed to limit damage to roads by heavy vehicles, an increase in traffic volume will cause just as much wear and tear. As an alternative, they propose a straightforward levy on heavy vehicles, with the proceeds going to repairing and renovating damaged roads.

New environmental regulations are also expected to have an impact. Two years ago, Ras al-Khaimah implemented legislation that requires its 14 quarries to completely enclose their crushers to limit