The scene is vibrant and as complex as the design of a Persian carpet. Baalbaki Group, for example, is based in Sharjah and has been operating in the country for a number of years. Its managing director, Wassim Bawab, said that there is not as much demand in the UAE for technically advanced foams as there are in some other regions. ‘But the region imports regrind foam,’ he said. ‘This could be used as carpet underlay or seating in communal areas of mosques, for example.’
Bawab believes that six companies make flexible foam within the UAE. ‘Before the price spike in 2018, there were a further 20 making foam in boxes, but these have closed,’ he said.
Mahmoud Karime, sales manager at Hennecke, said that there are numerous flexible foam makers elsewhere in the GCC nations, some of them quite sizeable. ‘There are some large producers in Jeddah,’ he said. ‘Kuwait and Qatar are very small producers. Yemen has 22m people and there is as much production capacity as Saudi Arabia, but purchasing power is much less and has fallen further in the civil war.’
However, there are significant problems with logistics. ‘Pay-offs to local militia could be needed to allow goods to pass along roads,’ he claimed. ‘You can imagine how this affects the price of the final product.’
Philipp Propst, project manager and head of PU research at IAL Consultants, agrees that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are the major foam-manufacturing countries in the region. ‘Saudi Arabia is the leading slabstock foam producer in the Middle East, and the market there has been relatively buoyant in spite of the low oil prices,’ he said. ‘The increasing population and economic performance have driven this buoyancy.’
Most of the foam produced in Saudi Arabia is conventional polyether slabstock, he added. However, the popularity of higher-end products, including viscoelastic foam, is increasing, although the overall demand remains very small, and many of these products are imported to the region.
‘There is, significant demand for low-cost mattresses in Saudi Arabia due to large religious events such as the Hajj,’ he said. ‘Viscoelastic foam is expected to experience above average growth in medical applications, but from a small base.’
Hennecke’s Karime explained that, as markets develop, the smarter manufacturers move from box to continuous foam. ‘Discontinuous foaming is not very efficient,’ he said. ‘Egypt, for example, had a lot of discontinuous foamers in the past. A couple of them realised that if they moved to continuous production they would stay in business. Now, most of the foamers that are doing well and are profitable are continuous.’
He said that in the GCC North and East Africa regions, commodity foams tend to be between 10 and 35 kg/m3 (10oz-2.18 lbs/). ‘There are some people making viscoelastic or HR foam,’ he said. ‘But these are very rare. Most is imported from Turkey, where they are on a different level. They are much bigger in terms of production volumes, and have completely different infrastructure and know-how than Saudi Arabia or the UAE.’
It is not worth companies that consume three or four blocks each month to integrate the process, he believes. ‘It is cheaper to buy the foam in containers,’ he claimed.
Bring it in
This import market is interesting to a number of companies located in neighbouring countries. A number of flexible foam manufacturers at the recent Sleep Expo Middle East event in Dubai (9-11 Feb 2020) attended the event to talk with local mattress and furniture makers.