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Shahid Ali

CEO, Maldives Ports Limited

Supported by a new government that brings a fresh perspective and renewed commitment to developing infrastructure, Maldives Ports Limited serves as a leader in the effort to revitalise and expand the existing port infrastructure in Maldives. The rapid increase of Maldives’ cargo volume requires better functioning ports to provide quality service that meets the growing demand. CEO Shahid Ali speaks candidly about some of the existing challenges, improvements his team has implemented, and plans for the future

You arrived at Maldives Ports Limited in December. What are some of your key achievements to date and most important priorities for 2019?

When I was appointed in December, we had more than 5,000 empty containers in the port yard and more than 1,000 laden containers waiting to be cleared. The vessel turnaround time was more than nine days average. To rectify this, we worked to empty the yard of the empty vessels as quickly as possible to make space for the laden vessels. A lot of cargo-handling heavy equipment was damaged and there was a lack of yard space so we worked to get the machinery serviced and put them back to work so we could recommence operations. Lastly, the yard itself was damaged; in certain areas it was impossible to operate heavy machinery. We got to work fixing those areas. Within three months, we had reduced the quantity of empty containers in the yard to around 300, and the current vessel turnaround is about 4.7 days. The situation is vastly improved. More must be done in order to keep the port sustainable.

What are some of the most significant opportunities and challenges that Maldives Ports faces as a company?

The biggest problems we are facing right now stem from space constraints. The space we currently have is limited and there is no possibility of expansion. There is limited land availability in Malé. When we originally built the port, it was designed to handle around 50,000 containers. Today, container volume surpasses that level by threefold. Because the port is small, there is always a delay in discharging and loading vessels. The turnaround time to process vessels has increased considerably over the years, adding to logistics costs. This is a pressing challenge because cargo is forecast to double in volume over the next two to three years. It will be impossible to handle this volume with our current infrastructure.

When we originally built the port, it was designed to handle around 50,000 containers. Today, container volume surpasses that level by threefold

Malé is a congested city with development covering almost every square inch of its land area. What are the unique challenges Malé’s infrastructure poses related to port activity and how is Maldives Ports working to overcome them?

Currently, we are unable to provide the level of service that we wish to provide to customers. In a port with vessels of this size, discharging goods and delivering goods to customers is usually complete within one to three days. We currently have a turnaround time of up to nine days. It’s imperative that we find a solution, and soon. Right now, we’re trying to manage the situation with space in Hulhumalé and other locations. There are some ad hoc solutions to overcome the current situation, but they are temporary fixes.

President Solih has announced a new modern logistics port facility in Thilafushi. What is Maldives Ports’ role in delivering this facility?

We operate the main port in Maldives and we are located in Malé, where we serve as the main logistics hub. We’ll be the key party managing the port. The government has created a steering committee led by teams from the ministries of Economic Development, Finance and others to spearhead the project to relocate the port to Thilafushi. We are providing technical support as a key member of the team.

The Ministry of Infrastructure is exploring the creation of new islands for commercial activities to ease congestion in Malé. What opportunities are there for potential for foreign partners like the UAE to provide investment and expertise in land reclamation projects?

We have options to reclaim a significant amount of land surrounding Malé, about four to five times the size of today’s Malé. If we can connect these areas with bridges as we did between Malé and the airport, we can increase industrial facilities like warehousing, workshops, and storage. Many of these facilities are scattered across the area, so we could relocate them all to a central location. The UAE is a great potential partner for this work. They have successfully completed many land reclamation projects in their country.

Cargo is forecast to double in volume over the next two to three years

Emirati business DP World has worked with the Maldives in the past on port infrastructure and logistics. Why has this partnership been successful and what can be taken from it for future collaborations between the UAE and the Maldives?

DP World is one of the largest port operators in the world. They are the biggest in the Middle East. Their experience and expertise is going to be a tremendous asset in projects like this. DP World and others like them can contribute technically and financially. Land management is a specific area of interest for us to learn from them.

What opportunities are there for Emirati investors to contribute to financing infrastructure projects in the Maldives, in light of recent partnerships with the Abu Dhabi Fund and the announcement of a Joint Cooperation Committee?

The economic and political connection between Maldives and the UAE is very strong. Emirates is one of the biggest airlines operating flights into Maldives—it’s only a four-hour flight between the two countries. Maldives is also a popular destination for holidaymakers from the UAE. We’ve seen a rise of tourists from the UAE, and there are many Emirati investments in the tourism sector here. We have cultural similarities and ties as well.

What makes the Maldives stand out as an investment destination?

Maldives is one of the most unique countries in the world. We are situated at a very strategic location globally. We are a connector between East and West, just four hours to East Asia and four hours to the Middle East. This makes us an ideal base for businesses. This extends to being an ideal location to transit cargo through sea and air freight options.

What is your final message to Gulf News readers, and potential investors and business partners?

Maldives is a very open country and one that welcomes foreign investment. The country has a lot of potential, and now is a great time to invest in Maldives and reap the benefits. The current government, led by President Solih, has a totally new outlook and fresh perspective. The government is democratic, transparent and accountable.

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