By Elizabeth Broomhall

Despite having a modest role to play in the completion of buildings, the paints and coatings industry is one of the biggest industries in the Middle East construction sector today.

Paint provides a protective as well as a decorative function.
Paint provides a protective as well as a decorative function.

For the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, as much as 122,000kg of powder coatings and 487,000 litres of paint were required, and even after the recession, the industry continues to thrive.

The industry is forever evolving, with market leaders ploughing a significant amount of money into advancing technologies. Now, it seems, paint has far more than just a decorative function, contributing to fire safety, carbon reduction and anti-corrosion, to name but a few.

“The paint industry today is very advanced in all fields,” says Leigh Paints’ distribution manager Andrew Holt. “The products available are always evolving, and there are always new technologies that are coming into the field.”

Among them, he explains, is the technology behind fire safety, where paints and coatings are used to protect materials from disintegration and, in turn, prevent buildings from collapsing for a specified amount of time. “For example, the coating we produce, called an intumescent coating,” he says, “is used to protect structural steel by insulating it.

“The problem is that, if you have a piece of steel and you put it into a fire, when it reaches its critical failure temperature, it will melt and it will not support itself. The coating works by causing a catalytic chain reaction when heated. This makes it swell and char whilst stopping the steel work from reaching its critical failure temperature.”

Protecting the steel typically for up to two hours, and up to three hours in some cases, the paint is designed to give people more time to get out of a building before it collapses, and for the fire services to extinguish the blaze. At the moment, however, Holt says the boundaries are continually being pushed in terms of how long such a coating can protect structural steel and what else can be protected.

Sinan Nader, the general manager of PPG Industrial Coatings in the UAE, says: “Technologies such as these have been going for five years or so in the US, but they are fairly new to this region. At the moment, therefore, the extent to which coatings resist fire over here is increasing.”

Also apparent is the evolution of corrosion-resistant coatings, which is largely due to high demand in the offshore oil and gas industrial sectors. As one of the biggest consumers of corrosion-resistant paints, the oil and gas sector requires high standards of performance delivery.

“High-performance, corrosion-resistant coatings have for many years been in demand in this region, and continue to be so,” says Holt. “Steel work will corrode unless it has some form of protection.”

Corrosion-resistant paints work in one of two ways. In some cases, they offer protection by acting as a barrier between the steel and the atmosphere; in others, coatings contain inhibitors as part of the chemical composite, which prevent the effects of external interference. “Products tend to range from those designed for the most friendly, air-conditioned sites, to those designed for an oil rig, which is sitting in water, and where it can be incredibly hot or cold.”

Paints that help boost the energy savings of a building are also attracting a lot of attention and, according to industry experts, will see the biggest increase in use and development in the coming years compared with other task-specific coatings.

“Corrosion-resistant and fire-retardant paints are now accepted as fairly standard,” says Ashish Vasudev, marketing manager at Jotun Paints in the Middle East. “Over the next five years, we are going to see a lot more energy-saving and green initiatives.” Vasudev explains that solar-reflective coatings and volatile organic compound (VOC)-free paints are among the latest developments. “Solar-reflective coatings reflect infrared rays, which transmit heat,” he explains.

Nader adds: “The paints contain pigments which retract the solar rays and prevent the heat from being transferred onto or within the metal, so the temperature inside the building will be less. They work a bit similar to a mirror.”

Speaking about the products themselves and their success rate, Vasudev says that Jotun has products for exterior application, which allow people to cool down the inside of a building by 4 to 5 degrees centigrade, “creating a double digit reduction in energy bills”. As well as solar-reflective coatings, Vasudev distinguishes between organic and water-based solvents to explain the emergence of VOC-free paints.

“There are two kinds of solvents, organic and water-based. Organic are actually more harmful to the environment, so at the moment companies are working on reducing organic-based solvents and developing VOC-free paints.” A similar development process, he adds, occurred with the removal of lead from paints some years ago.

The question is: why are these products gaining more attention than others? “In a few years, it is all going to be about how eco-friendly you are, and whether you are contributing to helping the environment,” Vasudev explains.

Nader agrees. “If you look at all the new buildings,” he adds, “most are clad with aluminium and glass, which means there is a particularly high demand for solar reflective products in this region.” But even with some of the most effective technologies and fastest evolving industries, paints and coatings firms continue to harbour their own set of challenges.

Amid what has become a highly competitive market, where there is a constant pressure to provide the latest products at the cheapest rates, firms are also experiencing difficulties related to late-payment issues.
“There is still a lot of money to be collected from projects and suppliers,” says Vasudev. A lot our customers have not been paid, which is affecting their cashflow and forcing us to extend the payment terms. This is affecting the health of the industry.”

However, industry leaders continue to be optimistic about the future, with the increase in environmentally-friendly products finally taking off in the region, not to mention Qatar’s successful bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and an increase in oil and gas projects in places like Abu Dhabi.

“The solar-reflective paint is marginally more expensive,” says Vasudev, “but is much cheaper than non eco-friendly products in the long term. Meanwhile, VOC-free paints last much longer than ordinary products and are 100% safe.”

Like any new product, however, he admits that change will not happen overnight. “People do not paint their houses every day; they paint them every one to two years, so the change will not happen tomorrow, and take up will be far more gradual than, say, that of a new television or mobile phone , items which individuals replace frequently.”

On the subject of oil and gas projects in Abu Dhabi, Holt says that “an enormous amount” of projects worth “billions of dollars” have been awarded in the emirate in the last six to eight months,.

This will gradually increase the total demand for corrosion-resistant products as these new projects eventually get off the ground.

As for Qatar, Nader is also excited about the opportunities for his sector. “You will have a lot of infrastructure, so there will be a demand for road-marking paint, whilst there will also be a lot of architectural paint needed for things like bridges and metro tracks,” he says.