French royalty preferred it to gold, and in the GCC metal has proven its value as an effective, if energy-intensive, way to diversify away from oil.
Benefits of siding with aluminium are clear
In the days before electrolysis, the metal could only be extracted from its ore, bauxite, by a process involving pure sodium; itself an exceptionally rare and expensive metal. As a result, he would tell us, the king of France kept two sets of cutlery for dinner: everyday fare and minor functionaries dined with golden knives and forks, whereas for special occasions and particularly honoured guests, the aluminium would be brought out. It is a measure of how times change that today some 36 million tonnes of aluminium are produced globally every year, making it abundant enough to be practically disposable. Of course, the particular philosopher's stone that transformed this once precious metal into base is nothing more spectacular than electricity - lots of it. Given that bauxite is more portable than power, which must be generated from locally installed capacity, it follows that the region with the cheapest energy was always destined to take the lead in aluminium production. A recent report from Frost and Sullivan, a business research and consultancy company, demonstrates this precise trend in action. The GCC, which accounts for about 5 per cent of global aluminium production, is set to increase its share of the market to 15 per cent of global production by 2015 as a result of new smelting capacity that is due to come online in the region over the next five years. Previously, regional aluminium capacity was limited to Dubal of Dubai and Alba of Bahrain. In both cases, the companies originated in a desire on the part of their national governments to reduce dependency on oil and diversify their local economy. Such a strategy has been broadly successful. In the case of Dubal, the company's exports now account for 45 per cent of Dubai's non-oil exports, with annual capacity at the plant over 900,000 tonnes, making it the seventh-largest aluminium producer in the world. Alba has proved similarly successful, growing from a relatively small concern in the 1970s to a production capacity only slightly behind Dubal - about 860,000 tonnes a year. Where Dubai and Bahrain may both have seen all but marginal utility in producing aluminium domestically during the 1970s and 1980s, the economic advantage for local production has only increased since. The ever-upwards path of oil and gas on global markets means energy inputs now account for about a quarter of the cost of producing aluminium, giving hydrocarbon-rich countries an edge that is fast becoming insurmountable. Moreover, the progress of the Kyoto Protocol in much of the developed world has effectively sounded the death knell for carbon-intensive industries such as aluminium smelting. As a result, many of the GCC's other members are seeking to cash in on the potential for aluminium production to diversify their economies. What we are witnessing is, in effect, an accelerated version of the Ricardian economic theory of comparative advantage: while the cost of building capital-intensive smelters tends to be a barrier to entry, the push factor of the Kyoto Protocol is combining with the pull factor of government-led infrastructure spending in the GCC to overcome this barrier, with the long-term rationale being reduced risk from energy costs. One example of the trend is Emirates Aluminium (Emal), which recently announced phase one construction of its 1.4 million-tonne smelter in Abu Dhabi to be 70 per cent complete, with production scheduled to start next April. Duncan Hedditch, the departing chief executive of Emal, neatly paraphrased the character of the aluminium market. "Aluminium is very much a free-traded global market," Mr Hedditch said. "It is priced at about US$2,000 per tonne and the cost of delivery anywhere in the world is less than $50. Regional and international competition is the same for us." Indeed, the centrality of energy as a comparative advantage to the GCC in aluminium production is reflected in the choice of Mr Hedditch's successor, Saeed al Mazrooei. Mr al Mazrooei is the former vice president for UAE operations of Dolphin Energy, the project linking Qatar's natural gas with GCC neighbours. The presence of cheap natural gas is arguably also what led the mining giant Rio Tinto to commit to a $2.3 billion (Dh8.44bn) smelting plant in the industrial port of Sohar in Oman, while Saudi Arabia's Ma'aden and Emal have smelting projects planned for the kingdom to take advantage of new gasfields. But a word of caution is in order: even in the GCC, energy is not a limitless commodity. More important than the quantity of energy present in the region is the capacity at which it can be delivered. When it comes to natural gas in particular, delivering it in sufficient quantities to fuel the needs of industry and utilities has presented a challenge in some parts of the GCC in the past two to three years. In many cases, the problems have been a result of nothing more than bottlenecks in bringing on new supply. However, with energy demand growing at an incredible rate in the region - in the same report Frost and Sullivan predict demand of 2,300 trillion watt hours (TWh) by 2020 for MENA, from 1,000 TWh now and only 120 TWh in 1980 - the question must be asked whether supply will be able to match compound annual growth rate demand of between 7 and 8 per cent. If at some point it comes to the choice between powering a desalination plant and powering an aluminium smelter, there will be no contest. Of course, if the story of aluminium proves one thing, it is that the future can always throw up surprises. For the time being though, the trend toward energy-intensive industry shifting to the GCC seems inexorable. Oliver Cornock is regional editor of the Oxford Business Group