CW visits Bahrain's Alba production site

Alba CEO, Ali Al Baqali, speaks to CW about the successes and challenges faced while expanding its Potline 6 project

Ali Al Baqali, CEO, Alba
Ali Al Baqali, CEO, Alba
Alba, Ali Al Baqali, Aluminium Bahrain, Aluminium Bahrain (Alba), Line 6 Potline

The end of 2019 marked a pivotal year for Bahrain Bourse-listed Aluminium Bahrain (Alba), as the business completed expansion works on its Line 6 Potline, achieving the status of the world’s largest smelter outside China.

In addition to this milestone achieved by the aluminium producer during the construction process of the line, Alba also commissioned its Potline 6 within 23 months, becoming one of the fastest expansion projects to be ever commissioned in the aluminium industry.

The company also set a record for safety, having completed 15 million hours without LTI and zero fatalities – the first time that this has been achieved in Alba’s 50-year history. In addition, Line 6 expansion project [Line 6 smelter, power station 5 & power distribution system] has achieved more than 60 million working-hours since the start of this project.

But while there were many successes for the business in 2019, it didn’t come without its challenges.

Speaking exclusively to Construction Week during its visit to the Kingdom of Bahrain, Alba’s chief executive officer, Ali Al Baqali, stated that it was demanding to have the operations and construction works of Potline 6 running simultaneously.

“It was challenging to have Potline 6 operating whilst our employees and contractors were constructing the site. I believe this was a good strategy as it enabled us to be more efficient and benefit from the output of the line, while we continued to build it,” Al Baqali tells CW.

“Our biggest challenge in this situation was building and operating Potline 6 safely. And, I am proud that we successfully achieved it. With this line, Alba has become the largest smelter outside of China. I always say it’s not about how we built Potline 6; it is about how we sustain our operations.”

Bahraini-national, Ali Al Baqali was confirmed as the permanent CEO in February 2020 after taking over the reins on an interim basis in August 2019.

Al Baqali has worked his way up through the ranks at Alba having been part of the business for more than two decades and has held roles such as chief financial officer since 2013 followed by his promotion to deputy CEO and chief supply chain officer in 2017.

Al Baqali was described by Alba as “instrumental” in the progress of Alba’s Line 6 expansion project, especially in securing the $3bn financing for the project and formulating sourcing strategies for key raw materials.

Delving into the details of the finances of Potline 6, Al Baqali added that funding was also a challenge for the expansion as they explored different proposals through their financial advisor.

“The financial advisor was JP Morgan, Gulf International Bank (GIB), and The National Bank of Bahrain. As the CFO during that time, we vetted the different proposals shared with us and also, explored commercial loans and Islamic loans from both local and international markets,” Al Baqali explains.

“Once we approached the market, we started with $500m-$750m, but we got oversubscribed and got more than $1.5bn. This was a great success story as it was the largest syndicated loan structure in the history of the Kingdom of Bahrain. It was also a testament to Alba’s solid balance sheet and the strong underlying fundamentals of the Line 6 expansion project.”

He added: “We are proud that it was one of our best strategies that enabled us to get the maximum of the commercial loan from Islamic branches, and at a very competitive price at that time.”

Al Baqali also paid tribute to American engineering, procurement, construction, and project management company Bechtel Corporation – the main contractor for Potline 6.

“For Potline 6, we chose Bechtel Corporation, an American company known for carrying out works on smelters. Alba and Bechtel have a history that spans over 25 years; Bechtel has also built and delivered Potlines 5 and 4 for Alba and we were confident of their efficiency and delivery of the project.”

Potline 6’s design-capacity is approximately 1.4km while it hosts 524 pots which will produce 540,000 metric tonnes.

In conversation with Construction Week, the CEO revealed exclusive details on the technology that played a major role in the expansion works.

Alba secured a Technology Transfer Agreement with the UAE’s Emirates Global Aluminium (EGA) to use its DX+ technology for Line 6 to boost its metal production.

“With Potline 6, Alba will increase its current annual production from around 1.36 million metric tonnes in 2019 to more than 1.54 million tonnes in 2020. EGA’S DX+ Ultra Technology is different from the technology used for our existing lines – 1, 2 and 5. This technology will improve energy efficiency with no increase in overall energy consumption,” Al Baqali adds

Looking ahead, the business expects to further exceed expectations. Al Baqali has already begun implementing his objectives for 2020.

“For 2020, I have already set out my three expectations. Topmost is the Safety Globe initiative. We will update our three principals to include safety of the environment and not just the safety of individuals as well as working as one team. This will make it more valuable to our employees,” Al Baqali says.

The CEO also added that in 2019, Alba made a major investment of approximately $44m to build the first-of-its-kind SPL Treatment Plant in the GCC and Bahrain. This is a major step by the aluminium producer towards improving the environment within the business.

“The SPL Treatment Plant received the full support of the Alba Board. Expected to be operational by Q1 2021, the infrastructure of the plant started at the beginning of February 2020.”

To align with Bahrain’s Economic Vision, Al Baqali is also working with the kingdom’s officials to have solar energy roof panels across its car parking facility, which will generate electricity.

“This will help to support the direction of the Bahrain government to have more green energy across the kingdom,” the CEO said.

Al Baqali concluded the interview by talking about his ambitions as CEO.

“I have been at Alba for more than 22 years. I know the cultures, the production, and the process inside and out. As a person, I am going to do my best to make Alba one of the top businesses.”

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