Dubai's Al Ghurair Turns to Sugar Beets as Refining Profits Fall

Updated on
  • Jamal Al Ghurair is investing in a sugar beet plant in Egypt
  • Refining profits have declined as white sugar premium shrank

Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Jamal Al Ghurair, a member of one of Dubai’s richest families, is investing in a sugar beet processing plant in Egypt as a global glut squeezes profits for his cane refining business.

Companies in the Jamal Al Ghurair group are investing in the factory located about 200 kilometers (124 miles) from Cairo, he told the Dubai Sugar Conference Sunday. The European Union is flooding the world market with white sugar, reducing the premium the refined variety commands over raws, an important measure of refining profits.

Raw sugar prices have fallen more than 30 percent in the past year as supplies are forecast to outpace demand this season and the next. Brazil, the world’s largest sugar producer, uses cane to process into raw sweetener, which later has to be refined, adding to costs. The European Union mostly uses beets, which can be directly processed into white sugar.

‘Paradigm Shift’

“The sugar industry in the world is suffering a lot this year from oversupply, from a paradigm shift from cane to beet," said Al Ghurair, who runs Al Khaleej Sugar, owner of the world’s largest port-based sugar refinery. Al Ghurair is investing for that change, he said.

The Egyptian government and Al Ghurair companies signed a $1 billion farm and sugar deal, the nation’s ministers of investment, agriculture and the public sector said on Jan. 22. Production from the factory would help bridge a large gap between production and consumption in the North African nation.

The project includes a beet plant with capacity to produce about 750,000 tons of white sugar a year, an option for refining capacity of 900,000 tons and access to agricultural land, Islam Salem, chief executive officer of Canal Sugar, the Egyptian arm of Al Ghurair companies, said Sunday in an interview in Dubai.

The partners plan to grow 2.5 million tons of sugar beet, about 200,000 tons of wheat and 300,000 tons of corn a year, Salem said. Al Ghurair companies will hold an initial stake of 33 percent in the project, rising to 51 percent upon completion in three years, according to the Egyptian government.

Change Needed

"Time has come when we have realized that the sugar market has to change from being produced in one portion of the world, shipped across the oceans to be consumed in another part of the world," Al Ghurair said. Brazil ships to most parts of the world, including the Middle East. Having production closer to where it’s consumed would lower transportation costs and the carbon footprint, Al Ghurair said.

Most of the global surplus is in the form of white sugar, with the market for the raw variety remaining tighter, Martin Todd, managing director of LMC International, a consulting company, said Sunday.

Refining raw sugar from cane became less profitable after the European Union returned to the export market this season. The white premium tumbled to about $60 a ton from a high of $115 a ton last year. Al Khaleej has also found it hard to compete as other refiners popped up in the region over the past few years, pushing it out of key markets such as Iraq.

Al Khaleej’s large storage capacity can be an asset for the company in oversupplied markets as it allows it to buy cheaper raw sugar in the spot market, process it later and sell at a profit. While the market is facing a large surplus, the price gap between raw sugar contracts is not wide enough to take advantage of that trade, Al Ghurair said Sunday in Dubai.

His company has also looked at the potential to build a beet processing plant in the U.K., but it has "almost" given up on the plan as obtaining permission to build has proven difficult, he said.

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