Strange but true: the UAE imports its sand

It may be surrounded by desert but the Middle East country buys its sand, and you should be grateful it does.

Neil Churchill May 18, 2016

Sand; annoying stuff isn’t it? A day at the beach or in the desert and you’re still finding the grainy little buggers in your shoes for days afterwards.

But apparently we take it for granted, because while the UAE has the yellow raw material by the bucket load (sorry), the country actually imports it. Yes, it turns out you really can sell sand to the Arabs.

The emirates is not buying it in small amounts either. According to a UN report, in 2014 the UAE imported $456 million worth of sand, stone and gravel.

The reason? Sand is a building material and, according to UN scientist Pascal Peduzzi, is second only to water as the most used natural resource on the planet. Put that in perspective of a country that’s had a booming construction market for more than a decade, and it makes sense for the UAE to need so much of it. 

The problem for the UAE is that while it may be a desert country with huge dunes just a 30-minute drive from the main cities, its sand is the wrong type for building.

Wind-formed desert sand, which is what the emirates’ is, has a high salt content and is too smooth to be used in construction. As a result, Peduzzi claims that Dubai’s phenomenal building growth of the last decade has been dependent on imported sand.

In fact, Dubai’s most famous building was born out of foreign sand. Australian company NT Pre-Stressing provided a sand-based fast-setting concrete that went into building the Burj Khalifa. The material helped set a world record for vertical concrete pumping. 

But it’s not just the UAE, Saudi Arabia with its huge deserts also imports sand. In 2007 the construction boom in the Kingdom led to Australian companies shipping sand to the Middle East. GMA Garnet in Perth shipped heavy mineral sand to Saudi that was better suited to sandblasting, a high-pressure technique used to smooth hard surfaces, than the Kingdom’s own sand was. 

It’s not just construction either that the UAE has imported sand for. In 2014, a British newspaper claimed that Dubai ordered 1,500 cubic metres of sand from Equiterra, a German company that specialises in providing sand for horseracing tracks. Local sand is considered to be too coarse for Arabian horses to race on and not as stable or supportive as European sand.

There were also reports in 2003 of a similar order from Dubai to an English company in Lancashire, for 3,000 tonnes of the stuff. 

However, the UAE’s imports of sand pale in comparison to China’s, which accounts for a fifth of the world’s sand imports, using more sand in the last four years than the US has in the past century. Much of it has been piled into the artificial reefs in the South China Sea in the building of its controversial military islands.

The volatility in the oil market over the past year has also contributed to a booming sand market, as the material is used in oil extraction. As the techniques and equipment used in oil wells has improved, and the demand for extraction from existing wells has increased, the amount of sand used has grown. The technique of fracking has especially benefitted the market of industrial sand, as it is a water and sand mixture that is blasted into the rock beneath the earth's crust that releases gas. 

According to the US Geological Survey, in 2014 almost 200 million tonnes of sand and gravel were mined globally, with the market valued at $8.3 billion in the US last year, while the global demand for sand is expected to rise by 5.5 per cent each year until 2018.

History shows that sand has always been an integral material in construction; the ancient Egyptians used sand to make glass. Today, it’s used in paint, cement, swimming-pool filters, mobile phones and even toothpaste.

But maybe it’s a good thing that the UAE imports sand and doesn’t use its own. Sand theft is a serious problem elsewhere in the world. According to a BBC report, a sand smuggling underworld exists in Jamaica, controlled by local mafias, and beach erosion has been well documented in famous seaside locations such as California and South Carolina.

So the next time you swear at those tiny grains in your shoes that you wore two weeks previously and still can't remove, you should be grateful that you found them in the desert, and not on a building site.