Tug owners Svitzer and Kotug International are expanding operations, while GAC is overcoming coronavirus challenges and Abu Dhabi Ports invests in autonomous tugs
Tug owners have bolstered their fleets and operations in the Middle East as global trade increases in the region. Governments have invested in new port infrastructure, energy export and import terminals, and industrial complexes to diversify their economies, resulting in new opportunities for tug owners.
Svitzer has taken these opportunities to open new operational areas and add to its regional fleet. Its latest additions are in Oman and Egypt where major ports are handling larger ships and more cargo.
This year Cheoy Lee Shipyards delivered two escort tugs for Svitzer’s operations in Port Said, to support expanding operations in the Suez Canal Container Terminal, in Egypt. Svitzer also has a tug fleet under construction at Sanmar Shipyard in Turkey for its marine services contract with Sohar Industrial Port Co in Oman.
Svitzer managing director for Asia, Middle East and Africa Nicolai Vinther Friis says Egypt is a strong operational nation for the group.
“We are working together with Suez Canal Authority to assist the growing need for towage as traffic increases in Port Said,” he tells Tug Technology & Business. “In addition to Suez, we recently extended our service at the Egyptian LNG facility at Idku until 2025.”
In Oman, Svitzer secured a 15-year extension to provide marine services in Sohar port. It then ordered three Bigacay-class azimuth stern drive (ASD) tugs and two Sirapinar-class tugs. Sanmar has almost completed these with two more being commissioned and tested.
Svitzer also operates in Qatar and Bahrain and has a regional office in Dubai. Mr Friis says it has expanded operations by investing in people and facilities in these nations.
“Our priority is to invest in the training and education of the local workforce,” he says. “It is not only our licence to operate, but also our obligation to develop, train and inspire the next generations of seafarers locally to keep national and global supply chains via the sea running.” Around 75% of Svitzer’s workforce and business in Bahrain, Oman and Egypt are localised “and the goal is to increase this to 90%” says Mr Friis. “A key priority is to ensure our operations contribute to growth and prosperity in the communities and that implies investing in local communities and upskilling the local workforce.”
Svitzer works with its clients, port authorities and governments in the region to generate prosperity through trade.
“One of the many beauties of working in the Middle East is the constant push for improvements and growth across all countries,” says Mr Friis. “We form partnerships with our local stakeholders, which is a prerequisite for being able to run operations. We work closely with our customers, with the ministries and port authorities to really understand what the priorities are and how we can contribute.”
This can involve using Svitzer’s position as a global towage player and being part of the Maersk Group for safer and greener operations.
“There is a huge potential in using innovation to make supply chains more environmentally friendly – for instance by reducing fuel consumption and emissions and thus reducing our carbon footprint,” says Mr Friis. “As a global marine service provider, we aim to make marine operations safer and more efficient, every time, everywhere.”
“The world is dynamic, and the marine industry is also constantly changing,” says Mr Friis. “Demands from customers and society are increasing and innovation is a prerequisite for meeting these demands and providing safer and more efficient marine operations.”
Acquisition for expansion
Another tug owner has invested in the region to diversify and expand its business. Kotug International acquired Dubai-based Marsol International to bolster its offshore marine terminals operations.
This deal sees Kotug provide marine services at offshore terminals loading and unloading tankers worldwide, particularly in the Middle East. Marsol specialises in managing single point mooring (SPM) terminals and related infrastructure. It has operated in 32 offshore marine terminals in more than 20 countries.
Kotug chief executive Ard-Jan Kooren says this acquisition will strengthen Kotug’s position in the maritime services industry in the Middle East. “Integration of Marsol services gives us a position in Middle East growth markets, for maintaining SPMs and terminals and selling vessels in this area,” he says.
One of Kotug’s next Marsol investments could include assisting ship bunkering in the port of Salalah, Oman. Kotug currently operates two Rotortugs with more than 80 tonnes of bollard pull in Egypt and supports tug master and pilot training in the UAE.
Owners in the Middle East have been challenged by coronavirus and the resulting travel restrictions. GAC Group vice president for marine Erland Ebbersten says Covid-19 “added a layer of operational and market challenges to operations”. GAC’s towage and support services were also impacted by this year’s slump in oil prices, which has led to project postponements and cancellations.
“We have had to make significant process changes, including careful quarantine of vessels and crews as and when they clear in from a job,” says Mr Ebbersten. “Furthermore, it is currently forbidden to undertake any crew changes, which adds further complexity for customers.”
Safeguarding crews by quarantining vessels is a key priority for GAC. “We believe every operator has a deep responsibility to protect their crews and shoreside staff, above and beyond compliance with stringent regulations,” says Mr Ebbersten.
GAC is keeping its crew on its vessels and not sending them home as it would usually do once vessels are off charter. “This is a difficult but ultimately necessary measure to take, for us to comply with regulations and keep our people safe,” says Mr Ebbersten.
“On the positive side, this means our crews are fully ready for projects as they commence.” GAC is then able to provide timely marine services. “We are ready to support customer demands for marine operations in the Middle East once the recovery takes hold,” he continues.
This could include building new vessels at its shipyard in Abu Dhabi if GAC secures new contracts. “We are bidding for some contracts that will require investment in new vessels which will help us to scale up our operations,” says Mr Ebbersten.
“We have our eye on expansion in advance of potential contract wins which will require us to expand our footprint. We continue to bid on new projects while also protecting the safety and welfare of our staff.”
GAC is also investing in digitalisation technologies and autonomous vehicles to optimise marine and logistics operations. In May 2020, GAC formed a partnership with Singapore-based start-up F-drones to develop large-scale drones for delivering supplies to vessels and offshore platforms.
“These drones are expected to hold supplies weighing up to 100 kg and deliver them to vessels located 100 km away,” says Mr Ebbersten. “Clearly, this would be a significant technology to unlock and commercialise.”
The group’s IT team and chief operating officer are implementing new technologies across the full span of its operations. “We understand the importance of digital technology and data as a group,” says Mr Ebbersten. This includes internet of things in warehouses and remotely monitoring vessels.
“We see this as essential because of how valuable data is as a commodity for both our own operations, but increasingly for our customers,” he continues. “Monthly reports have morphed into real-time information demands over the last few years. We need to find ways to give [customers] a live view of projects and jobs for all GAC companies.”
GAC operates fleets of tugs, anchor handlers, barges and crew boats in the Middle East and Indian region. It operates in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Qatar. It owns nine tugs with power ranging 560 kW to 5,960 kW and bollard pulls of 10-50 tonnes. GAC also runs eight barges in the region ranging from 1,200 to 8,000 dwt for transporting materials for offshore and marine construction.
GAC operates five anchor handling tugs, two anchor handling tug/supply and seven crew supply vessels in the Middle East. In Sri Lanka, GAC operates six supply boats and four workboats. It also operates anchor handling tugs in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan in the Caspian Sea.
Autonomous harbour tugs
Abu Dhabi Ports has begun to develop autonomous port vessels, including tugs, for unmanned towage and harbour operations. Naval architects at Robert Allan are working with Abu Dhabi Ports to develop tugs that can be remotely controlled and could become fully unmanned. They would operate within a wide spectrum of autonomy for various harbour activities.
Abu Dhabi Marine Services (Safeen) will operate the tugs once they are built. It intends to transfer the human element from on board these tugs to onshore, enabling the vessels to operate in more adverse weather conditions.
Chairman of Abu Dhabi Ports Falah Mohammad Al Ahbabi says its agreement with Robert Allan “marks a milestone in our digital transformation” as the group “leads the charge towards digitalising the region’s maritime operations.”
Group chief executive Captain Mohamed Juma Al Shamisi says these autonomous tugs would “enhance performance efficiency, productivity, transparency and safety” and reduce operating costs. “Our co-operation with Robert Allan to develop a new generation of tugboats equipped with superior capabilities and modern technologies reflects our commitment to ensuring the infrastructure at Abu Dhabi Ports is at the cutting edge,” Capt Al Shamisi says.
Safeen expanded its operations in UAE in 2019 when Khalifa Port in Abu Dhabi opened for the world’s largest container ships. Safeen purchased two ASD tugs from Damen Shipyards in November 2018 to support the US$2.7Bn expansion. The ASD 2411 tugboats came into service in Q1 2019, boosting Safeen’s fleet to 12 harbour tugs.
Safeen is responsible for pilotage, mooring, vessel handing and towage at Abu Dhabi harbours and terminals. In June 2020, Safeen started a new feeder service with Bengal Tiger Line linking Abu Dhabi to nine ports serving the UAE, Middle East Gulf and Indian sub-continent. Safeen also provides marine pollution response and recovery services in Abu Dhabi waters with its harbour vessels.
Regional tug builder and repairer Albwardy Damen has signed an agreement to expand into Sohar Port, Oman. It will build a service jetty and workshop this year in collaboration with Damen’s Omani partner, Sawahel Sohar Al Almya, to repair vessels calling at the port. This will be Albwardy Damen’s fourth operational location in the region, along with those in Sharjah, Dubai and Fujairah.