An employee watches as ship to shore cranes load containers onto the CMA CGM SA Marco Polo container ship at the Port of Southampton, jointly operated by DP World Ltd. and Associated British Ports Holdings Plc, in Southampton, U.K., on Monday, Oct. 14, 2013.
An employee watches as ship to shore cranes load containers at the Port of Southampton, jointly operated by DP World and Associated British Ports Holdings © Bloomberg

The largest investor in British ports is ready to boost capacity quickly by 30 per cent at its Essex terminal to ease congestion at other sites should the country crash out of the EU without a trade deal.

Sultan bin Sulayem, chief executive of Dubai’s DP World, said the state-owned ports operator would be able to raise volumes even further at London Gateway over time by bringing more cranes and other equipment to the fast-growing facility.

Mr bin Sulayem held talks with Liam Fox, the UK’s secretary of state for international trade on Sunday, to hear of the UK’s planning less than 50 days before Brexit.

“We confirmed our ability to react immediately, there will not be any congestion,” the senior Dubai official said on Monday. “We are ready.”

Concerns have grown about the impact of a no-deal Brexit on shipping and haulage through Dover and other ports with the introduction of new customs and regulatory checks. That could require other ports to pick up the slack.

DP World, which has 9 per cent market share of world container throughput across 78 terminals, already has an annual capacity of 2.4m twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) at the terminal east of London, which opened in 2013. Last year, it handled 1.3m TEUs.

But Mr bin Sulayem said the group’s ability to plan for the future was being hampered by the UK’s indecisiveness.

While DP World is bullish about the fundamentals of the UK economy, he implored parliament to decide quickly to facilitate business. “The politicians are driving us crazy,” he said.

DP World, which also operates a container terminal at Southampton port, hopes to build two more berths at the London Gateway to raise capacity to 3m TEUs a year to meet growing demand for shipping goods into the south of England.

The group is also proposing to build an economic zone linked to London Gateway, akin to the Jebel Ali Free Zone adjacent to the company’s home town port that has helped drive the emirate’s economic growth over three decades.

DP World has mandated EY to prepare a study for the government on the economic benefits that such integrated business parks could deliver to London Gateway, as well as other sites across the UK.

Mr Fox was in Dubai to promote trade ties at a time when the bilateral relationship has been tested by the case of Matthew Hedges, who was last year found guilty in an Abu Dhabi court of spying for the UK government. Mr Hedges, who denies the charges, was pardoned and released.

Sultan al-Mansoori, the UAE economy minister, said on Monday that the UK had approached the UAE and other Gulf states about a post-Brexit trade pact.

In Dubai, Mr Fox said the UK was looking forward to a free trade deal with the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council at the right time, the state news agency reported.

But the GCC has descended into internecine squabbling since the 2017 Saudi/UAE-led boycott of Qatar, which has been accused of fostering extremism, thereby complicating efforts to negotiate with the bloc.

“It has been made quite clear that we will have to do any deal as the GCC, and the UK understands that,” said a UAE official.

This article has been updated to reflect the fact that DP World operates a container terminal at Southampton port.

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