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Something fishy is going on

UAE-based Asmak has invested AED150 million to bring its fish farms up to EU standards and is now ready to tackle the massive European fish market.

The UAE could become a major fish exporter following the lifting of a European Union ban on fish imports from the UAE. Asmak, a UAE Offsets company, hopes to benefit, having invested around AED150 million in developing facilities that comply with the EU’s stringent environmental and health standards.

Dr Abdulhamid Aboufayed, Asmak senior manager, told Arabian Business that Asmak is aiming to sell around 250 tons of fish into EU markets this year and that the long term potential could be much larger. European countries have over-fished their seas for years and the continent is now forced to import much of its fish.

“We’re really looking forward to the reaction of the [European] market because we know it’s going to be a positive one,” says Dr Aboufayed. “How big it’s going to be really remains to be seen, but we know it’s going to be quite big.”

Initially, Asmak will be exporting sea bream and bass to Europe. In the longer term, Asmak has plans to start farming hammour, a potential substitute for cod, which has been chronically over-fished in Europe.

Production currently takes place at four farms, two in Oman and one at each of Ras Al Khaimah and Fujariah. Ras Al Khaimah is by far the largest of the farms currently, producing around 1000 tons per year. From a total level of 1800 tons per year now, Asmak aims to ramp up overall fish production to 6300 tons per year by 2005.

How quickly Asmak can ramp up its business in Europe will depend very much on how well it can establish a distributor network. It already has a start through its relationship with Nireus SA, a Greek multi-national that has distribution throughout Europe and helped transfer technical know-how to Asmak.

“Nireus is one window, but we are also intending to build our marketing network and we have already started in England, France and Germany,” explains Dr Aboufayed. Imports to Switzerland, which is outside the EU, have already been going on for some years.

Whilst very much focused on the EU market, Asmak also sees big potential in the Gulf. Asmak is working to build up a healthy UAE business, particularly as a supplier to hotels and restaurants, and to expand into Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

The UAE may not seem the most likely place to locate a state of the art fish farm. However, Dr Aboufayed says that the Gulf is incredibly well suited to fish farming. Fish living in the Gulf’s warm waters can effectively grow twice as quickly, he says, as they can in the Mediterranean. That means high productivity on top of the Gulf’s already low labour costs.

A look at the aims and objectives of the UAE Offsets Group also helps explain how Asmak came about. Under the Offsets programme, companies that sell defence supplies to the UAE have to reinvest part of their profits in the country, ideally in technology-intensive industries that help in the process of economic diversification.

In the case of Asmak, it was Dassault of France that initiated the project in 1998 and then opened the company up to subscriptions from Gulf and UAE companies and individuals. With paid-up capital of AED300 million, the company has been investing in the development of its facilities ever since, culminating in the lifting of the EU ban in June 2002.

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