Little big port: Egypt's maritime ambitions turn the tide for Ain Sokhna.

Author:Golia, Maria

A decade ago Ain Sokhna was a sleepy little harbour on the Suez Gulf, the narrow northwestern arm of the Red Sea. The road running through it at the base of the rugged coastal mountains was mostly frequented by Pullmans carrying pilgrims to the monasteries of St Anthony and St Paul in the eastern desert, and vacationers heading south to the resorts of Hurghada. In summertime, Egyptian families of lesser means camped on sandy beaches beside the road. Between a couple of hotels and holiday home compounds, you could pass Ain Sokhna ('hot spring' in Arabic) without noticing it.

Since the state started privatising Egypt's maritime industry in 1998, major investments have transformed Ain Sokhna into a virtual hotspot for development. Initially, Sokhna Port served the state-owned Arab Petroleum Pipelines company (aka SUMED) for mooring and discharging oil tankers. Then the Sokhna Port Development Company won the government build-operate-transfer (BOT) concession to upgrade and manage the facility. In 2002, a new and improved Sokhna Port opened for business, with a double-lane, 17-metre-deep navigation channel able to handle bulk carriers of up to 180,000 tonnes plying the Europe-Asia routes.

Proximity to the Suez Canal (44km), one of the world's busiest waterways, contributed to traffic growth rates of 27% annually in Port Sokhna's first years of operation, and at just 130 kilometres from Greater Cairo, with its population of some 22m, the port is poised to serve the capital's burgeoning demands for shipped goods. Given this prime location, the port's expansion was guaranteed, and the state allotted 9,000 hectares for an adjacent industrial area (the Suez Special Economic Zone). Massive ceramics and cement factories now operate in the area and other manufacturers are on the way.

Sokhna's potential was long evident to maritime industry experts. In 2008, following six years of tough negotiations, the Dubai-based DP World committed to $2.2bn to manage and further develop the port. DP World, a global giant in marine terminal operations and development, is a subsidiary of Dubai World, one of the world's largest holding companies. Its chairman, Sultan Ahmed Bin Sulayem, is credited with having masterminded Dubai's reinvention as hypermodern tourism, trade and service centre.

While some local commentators object to a sizeable, strategic investment ending up in foreign hands, the Sohkna expansions are creating much-needed jobs for Egyptians, many of whom...

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