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The end of Alexandria shipbuilding?
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 21 - 02 - 2019

Entering the shipbuilding district in Alexandria, and one might be forgiven for thinking of a shipwreck. Planks are tossed here and there, and there are the unfinished skeletons of boats suspended in time for years. These things bear witness to the sorry state of shipbuilding in the city today, although for decades it was a successful and lucrative business.
The district, covering an area of 35,000 square metres from the Al-Anfoushi Cultural Palace to the Sea Scouts Club, dates back hundreds of years and is home to a way of life passed down from one generation to the next. It was once a main profession for many Alexandrians, but today this is a largely forgotten district that not only spells the demise of shipbuilding in Alexandria but also the suffering of the workers and their families.
Shipbuilding in the city dates back some 190 years to the early 19th century when Mohamed Ali Pasha decided to build a fleet of 15 vessels to fight off the naval challenges threatening Egypt. He commissioned Charles Lefébure de Cerisy (1789-1864), a French maritime engineer, to build a shipyard and arsenal in Alexandria in 1827, and the industry thrived until Mohamed Ali's death.
However, later it was neglected and was only revived in 1956 when former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser reinvested in the industry. The former Soviet Union helped in the construction of a new Egyptian navy, though with the outbreak of the 1967 War the project again collapsed and fell back into oblivion. Despite attempts to revive the industry in the 1990s, the tide seemed to have gone out for the Alexandria shipyards.
In 2015, a blaze in the area destroyed facilities with losses amounting to LE2 million. The industry has been suffering from rising rents, lower demand, and instability in recent years, as well as investors not ordering new ships and instead buying others from abroad.
One worker in his 60s, his face etched by time, described the life he had dedicated to shipbuilding and how the craft had been passed down from generation to generation to Al-Ahram Weekly. Hussein Abu Shanab, president of the Ship Builders Association of Alexandria, gave the Weekly a tour of the area, explaining that “investors from Libya, Tunisia and Algeria were once major clients of the shipyards, as well as foreigners living in Egypt and members of marine clubs. They ordered recreational vessels with diving gear and equipment for exploring the sea off the Red Sea ports,” he said.
However, such clients often no long place their orders in Egypt and instead go to builders in neighbouring countries. Abu Shanab added that as far as fishing boats were concerned, today's clients also prefer boats with metal hulls. It takes about six months to build a metal boat, he said, whereas a wooden one can take 12 to 18 months to finish at a higher price.
Wooden boats are better than metal for fishing boats, he said, as they need less maintenance, and the builder can design them on an individual basis. But licences for new fishing boats have been halted as there are already thought to be too many, and a decree has been issued banning the manufacture of recreational vessels without a licence and prior approval.
The 2008 decision by the governor of the Red Sea banning recreational shipbuilding without prior permission should be reversed, Abu Shanab said, even if there is limited docking space in the Red Sea ports.
The Alexandria fishing licences were suspended because sometimes Egyptian fishermen would fish in Libyan waters, he added, though fewer fishing boats had raised the price of sea fish on the market.
The ban on new fishing licences and restrictions on recreational vessels had further damaged the industry.
The end of Alexandria shipbuilding?
A MARITIME FLEET: Zeinab Bayoumi, a maritime business consultant, told the Weekly that the strength of many countries was related to a strong maritime fleet.
However, she added that the banks in Egypt no longer invest in shipbuilding because the profits are likely to be long term. Some prominent companies still working on ship maintenance and building are the Maritime Shipyard Company and the Egyptian Ship Repair and Building Company (ESRBC), she said, with these also building larger transport ships as well as passenger and commercial vessels and fishing boats.
In the workshop of Khamis Mohamed, a shipbuilder in his 60s, equipment lines the walls gathering dust. Above it are pictures telling the story of a once vibrant and flourishing district that built yachts and fishing boats. Mohamed is upset with the current state of affairs. “I lost a lot of money because the licensing stopped. I had to chop up a 40 metre yacht that cost LE2 million and sell it for LE12,000, for example, because I was worried it would just sit there and rot,” he said, adding that the smallest vessels he builds are 25 metres long.
Mohamed said that shipbuilding in Alexandria was on the verge of extinction as many builders had left the industry due to low sales, the licensing hiatus and the rising cost of wood. They had turned to carpentry, construction, the fish trade, customs and contracting instead, he said. Shipbuilding has been in crisis for decades, and the Suez Canal Authority (SCA), which used to be a major client, had not asked for new ships for years.
The rising cost of wood, now standing at LE7,000 per metre of Swedish timber, was a major problem, he said. After new licences were banned, some yacht owners has also sold their boats at a loss, he added.
Salah Massoud, a shipbuilder in his 40s, is a fourth-generation shipbuilder and the owner of a shipyard. He explained that the average load of the vessels he builds is between six and eight tons, and a small boat has a capacity of six to seven people. He told the Weekly that shipbuilding had all but come to a standstill after the licensing was suspended. His last boat was made in 2013, and the workshop was now working on maintenance and repair instead of manufacturing because demand for new boats was so low.
Massoud agreed that Swedish timber was the best to build boats, followed by beech and oak imported from Russia and France, though all of this was expensive. Massoud is despondent about the state of the industry in Al-Anfoushi, saying that “we are worried about the future of the industry and the profession overall.”
Many of the industry's woes are due to the stagnation in tourism, especially in the Red Sea resorts of Hurghada, Sharm El-Sheikh and Marsa Alam where the price of boat licences has jumped to between LE200,000 and LE300,000 and a felucca (small sailing boat) licence can reach LE40,000.
“I do not want my children to continue the family tradition of working in this industry,” Massoud declared. “They will face many difficulties and obstacles for years to come.” The yards in Al-Anfoushi can be up to 300 metres long at a monthly rent of LE0.6 per metre, but unpaid rent can accumulate for years to LE240,000 in arrears. Each workshop is considered to be an affiliate to a larger company as long as it is licensed and has a commercial register.
More attention must be given to the industry, which has a great deal of potential and is linked to the history of Alexandria, Massoud said.
The end of Alexandria shipbuilding?
SUPPORT FOR SHIPBUILDING: Abu Shanab said that the state was not doing enough to support the industry.
“The state does not do enough to support shipbuilding or complementary industries such as plumbers and electricians,” he said. He would like to see more wood made available at controlled prices and the production of reports on shipbuilding in Egypt. “Winter storms have also damaged many vessels under construction,” he said, “especially since there are no proper areas for sheltering them while they are being built.”
He called for the creation of a syndicate for shipbuilders and complementary industries and wants state support to help constructors financially, as well as comprehensive social security plans and properly equipped industrial areas. Greater training should be provided for those wanting to learn the fundamentals of shipbuilding, with stipends paid to trainees to encourage them to learn the craft. The state should help those who want to acquire a license to build a boat and reverse the ban on building new fishing boats, he said.
After the 2015 fire that consumed five yards out of 66 in an area of 400 square metres, losses at one yacht yard were estimated at LE750,000, and another lost LE700,000. A woodshop lost some LE250,000, and a services workshop suffered damages worth LE150,000.
Abu Shanab said that the drop in demand for boatbuilding in Alexandria had resulted in manufacturers turning to making small fishing boats and models used in projects at the city Maritime Academy and the Maritime Design Department at the College of Engineering instead. The area was too small to build commercial ships, since the smallest would need at least 50 metres, meaning they can only be built in larger, more modern shipyards. The largest construction areas in Al-Anfoushi are 40 metres long, he said.
Recreational boats typically measure between 15 and 40 metres and cost between LE60,000 and LE2 million. Fishing boats are between seven and 27 metres long and cost LE30,000 to LE700,000. The price and size of the boats depends on the client's needs and his contract with the builder.
The end of Alexandria shipbuilding?
“This profession is unique, and not everyone has the skills for it,” said Massoud, whose workshop is located in the Al-Gomrok district. “It needs special skills and resources. We use timber in designing the main structure, though we also build in metal because of the exorbitant price of wood.”
For him, “the first people in Egypt to build yachts in the proper way were workers in Alexandria, who were then followed by shipbuilders in Rashid. But Alexandria is the birthplace of the industry.”
Today, he would also like to see the building of electronic security gates around the shipbuilding area and fences to protect yards against theft. However, above all more state support is needed for the shipbuilding industry until the yards in Al-Anfoushi can recover from the current downturn and Alexandria once again becomes a main destination for shipbuilding, a cornerstone for fishing and tourism.
Ahmed Al-Shami, an expert on maritime economics, said that a major problem facing shipbuilding in Egypt was the lack of integration among shipyards, unlike in countries such as South Korea and China where components are built in several shipyards saving time and money.
Progress would not be made in Egypt until there was an overhaul of how shipyards operate through greater integration, importing modern equipment, and training builders in modern ways of constructing and repairing vessels. Foreign companies should be sought out for their know-how in this regard, especially since there are companies that own the modern equipment necessary but lack the trained labour to operate it.
Building vessels in South Korea, China or Vietnam can be done in weeks, and even larger ones in months. “Egypt has started to introduce greater integration in some projects, such as the digging of the New Suez Canal where the work was finished in months and the job divided among many companies. This is an example of the successful integration that must now be applied in all sectors of the economy,” Al-Shami said.
Egypt now ranks just 150 among shipbuilders around the world and is not among the top 25 global shipbuilders. China leads the pack in terms of output, South Korea in building technology, and Australia in aluminium speedboats, he said. However, the Suez Canal Construction Company could show the way forward, as this had built six fishing boats in six months in cooperation with another company in 2014.
The Suez Canal Authority is associated with seven companies for ship repairs and shipbuilding, including the Al-Timsah Shipbuilding Company, the Canal Naval Construction Company, the Canal Company for Ports and Mega-Projects, the Canal Company for Ropes and Fibre Products, the Canal Company for Moorings and Lights, the Suez Shipyard Company and the Port Said Engineering Works.

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