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Baby on board

For Zaher Al Habtari, EGA’s Executive Vice President overseeing Capital Projects, Alumina & Bauxite, developing multi-billion dollar projects is like raising children

Zaher Al Habtari is so passionate about his work at Emirates Global Aluminium (EGA) that he describes the main responsibilities as like nurturing a child.

As Executive Vice President in charge of Capital Projects, Alumina & Bauxite, Zaher is responsible for EGA’s upstream operations in bauxite mining and alumina refining, and all development projects across the company. He is a member of EGA’s Executive Committee.

“What really excites me the most about it,” says Zaher, “and that's always been the case since I joined EGA, is developing a baby and seeing that baby grow. That's what both the mine and the alumina  refinery are to me – and particularly the alumina refinery because I was with that project from the start.”

Indeed, Zaher was “literally employee number one” in operations at Al Taweelah alumina refinery, joining in 2014 when the project was still just an idea.

Zaher says that the alumina refinery was conceived because EGA wanted “control of our own destiny” by producing its own key raw materials. Alumina is the main feedstock for aluminium smelting.

And that’s when, the Emirati national adds, “I was tasked with creating this little baby.”

EGA invested some $3.3 billion total investment to build Al Taweelah alumina refinery. In total, 72 million workhours were spent on the construction, on a site the size of 200 football fields.

The plant began production in 2019, and the baby quickly developed into a highflying whizz-kid.

“It's really great because we have made it grow significantly better than what we dared to hope,” says Zaher. “And if I use the same analogy of the baby, I'm seeing the baby grow to become a teenager faster than what we thought. Based on the best performance at other alumina refineries worldwide, we were expecting the baby to grow and get to that sort of maturity level over a decade or more – and we've done that in less than three years. So that's outstanding. And we have managed to transform EGA from being a pure aluminium smelter to a fully integrated business.”

Last year Al Taweelah alumina refinery produced 2.43 million tonnes of alumina and met 47 per cent of EGA’s total alumina needs, well-ahead of its nameplate capacity of two million tonnes.

The reasons for this achievement, Zaher believes, are the robust design of the refinery, along with the right people, the right culture and the right mindset. All of these combined have helped Al Taweelah alumina refinery and EGA flourish.

“We are not finished,” Zaher says. “Clearly we want to continue trying to see how much this grown-up child can push more, to be bigger, bolder, better. That requires sweating the asset as much as we can while controlling costs to ensure we generate great returns for the business.

“We are doing it responsibly. There is no point – and no glory – in hitting a number and then failing that the following day or the following year. What's important for us is to do it sensibly – but it does not mean that we take a conservative approach. And I think that is always our model.”

Al Taweelah alumina refinery is the first of its type in the UAE, and only the second in the Middle East. As a new industrial activity to the UAE, it adds to the diversification and strength of the national economy. Zaher describes it as “a privilege” and “a responsibility” to be part of EGA’s leadership driving sustainable economic growth.

“Our purpose is together, innovating aluminium to make modern life possible,” he adds. “And what excites me daily is ‘how can I further grow our business?’ We want to grow – but want to grow in a sustainable manner.”

Zaher has over 20 years of experience working in the oil and gas, and metal and mining industries, first joining ADNOC in 1999 as a graduate trainee, then working as a Project Manager. Zaher then moved to Mubadala from 2007 to 2011 as Vice President of Petroleum Services, and has also sat on the board of directors of Petrofac Emirates and Turbine Support Services.

He specialised in chemical engineering at the University of Tulsa. But it was while earning his MBA from the American University of Sharjah (studying parttime while still at ADNOC) that Zaher had his “a-ha moment”.

“The MBA uncovered the investment element and that was the trigger point where I was like ‘oh, I really want to explore more about that’,” he recalls. “And I was very fortunate that, the moment I finished my MBA, I had an opportunity that let me dig deeper into that investment world.”

Away from the worlds of investment, sustainability, and growth, Abu Dhabi-based Zaher enjoys exercise, travelling, and spending time with his family.

And while he may oversee ‘growing the baby’ at work, with three daughters at home aged 17, 15 and another about to turn 12, it’s not always the case at home.

“I'm very blessed to have them,” Zaher says. “Obviously each one of them has a different character, with them being teenagers and tweens, which is interesting and exciting but has its own challenges. And I'm definitely a minority at home,” he laughs.