By Nancy Collisson
Living in the harshest climate on earth under one of the world’s most oppressive government while struggling to find a job, the one creature comfort residents of Saudi Arabia apparently won’t do without is carpeting.
And that’s according to UN International Merchandise Trade statistics that show the Kingdom’s ethnic population of 18.7 million and 10 million of its expats find putting dinner on the table less worrying than the ability to sink their cracked dry feet into plush velvety pile.
The fact is that from 2011 to 2015, Saudi’s imports of China’s fruit and nuts decreased by 16 percent, cereals by 11 percent, fish by 10 percent, and fats and oils by 48 percent. Meanwhile, imports of the Mainland’s synthetic carpeting increased by 19 percent.
Considering the region’s well-carpeted history, what seems to the Westerner to be a somewhat disparate value, choosing to import and presumably therefore purchase a country’s flooring over its unprocessed food, makes perfect sense.
For nearly a thousand years throughout Arabia, woven carpets have held an exalted position. The earliest woven wool rug on earth can be traced to 7,000 BC in what is now Iraq. And no matter their burdensome heft, these singular elements of civilized living were so prioritized that nomads heaved them up onto the backs of camels between caravan pit-stops at desert oases. Come time to pitch his tent, the humble Bedouin would be comfortable.
By tradition, girls from Yemen to Azerbaijan have been taught to weave wool carpets to then store as core elements – equivalent to gold, silver, and goats – for their dowries. The world’s earliest form of air conditioning, the ubiquitous Persian-designed bâdgir windcatcher tower, worked much better with carpets. To best cool the air drawn up through a room beneath a windcatcher, rugs hanging against the walls like tapestries would be saturated with water creating a refreshing lamby mist.
Of course, in the annals of classic international literature the most prominent from Arabia features as its central image a carpet – a flying one.
In the magical Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the oil sheikh’s wish for carpeting and myriad other items derived from his crude oil was China’s command. In 2009, after nearly 35 years of haggling, along with 1-million barrels of crude per day, China received 5.4-million tonnes of purified terephthalic acid (PTA) that had been made from para-xylene (PX) chips to make it all happen.
Almost immediately, China’s carpet exports to Saudi Arabia knocked out or exceeded all others, including former Saudi carpeting supplier heavyweight Merinos Carpets of Italy.
In 2003, at a chance meeting, the then French marketing manager of Merinos Dubai-based branch informed this writer that Saudi Arabia was at that time Merinos’ biggest client of wall-to-wall and luxury carpeting. “You’d think it was so hot there that they would want to walk barefoot on cool tiles! But no!” he said, “You cannot believe it! They want their floors covered in carpeting!”
But that was then, this is now. That was wool, this is polyester – and there is a big HEALTH difference.
What happens to the PTA industry when phthalic-based carpeting, plush blankets and toys, foam pillows and mattresses, and curtains don’t wear out? When economic stagnation leads potential consumers to be content with what they have? When those consumers are provided with an incentive to recycle such items to remake them in their own countries? And what happens when people begin to discover that their polyester carpeting might be making them sick – or worse.
It’s a time-worn tale in business: demand drops, product sits, and a glut develops.
According to Wood Mackenzie, currently there is a market surplus in China of 21-million tonnes of virgin PTA. In 2014, imports of PTA to China had already dropped 137.5 percent to 1 million. In 2015, they were down roughly another 50 percent to about 600.000 tonnes. A pinch in PTA profitability was felt by Japan before Mitsubishi Chemical Gas Company announced plans to offload its 260,000-tonne-per-year PTA plant based in Mizushima last year.
Despite decreases in its PTA imports, China still dominates global processing. This past July, Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings sold its shares in both a PTA manufacturing business based in Haldia, West Bengal, and in a China-based unit.
Presently PTA companies throughout Asia are only operating at 70-to-80 percent capacity, and start-up PTA companies that could provide employment to the emerging middle-class in China and India have been put on hold. In 2015, India penalized PTA manufacturers from China, Taiwan, Iran, Indonesia and Malaysia, for dumping that hurt a start-up 1.1-million tonne PTA concern that was part of its Reliance Industries conglomerate.
And just this week, when PTA oversupply allows China to lie back, lean on its mighty palm and play tiddlywinks with its chips flipping them into other chains in the industry, it kicked the rug out from under its 3.11 million-barrel-a-day trading partner Saudi by importing 3.14-million barrels of crude from Russia. By the end of 2016, the Eastern Siberia – Pacific Ocean (ESPO) 4,857-km (3,018-mile) pipeline will have pumped an additional 3.86-million barrels to the north.
Presumably the hands-down top oil-consumer is ideally positioned to manage the slippery polyester chain, especially from its dynamic $3-billion Sinopec-SABIC petrochemical complex in Tianjin, but how long can it manage riding out a glut? The world is recycling and creating the same items that virgin PTA allows. A steeper global downturn in virgin PTA production coupled with rising consumer health anxieties about synthetics in general, and carpet-loving Saudis themselves may start to re-assess their passion for polyester plush the same way they’ve come to assess Chinese fresh food – as questionable to the point of rejection.
Global increase in growth and production of natural materials such as hemp – which requires no petroleum-based pesticides – to provide creature comforts like carpeting and nearly every other item made with petrochemicals, is poised to serve a rising and flourishing community of health-conscious consumers, further rattling the PTA industry.
Considering the fact that Saudis rank among the highest in the world for illnesses and maladies that have been scientifically linked to synthetic estrogens that are byproducts of the petroleum chain, they have the best reason to switch to such natural alternatives. Doing so could really start to nip at China’s PTA production.
Phthalates are ubiquitous in every environment but have been exhaustively studied and recognized, along with petro-derived parabens and bisphenol-A (BPA), as endocrine disruptors that are particularly damaging to a developing fetus and that impact an adult’s reproductive health. Evidence is strong enough to continuously elicit changes in ingredients from plastics manufacturers.
In one Swedish study: the Swedish Environmental Longitudinal, Mother and child, Asthma and Allergy (SELMA) concluded in 2013, scientists sought to examine the associations between prenatal phthalate exposure and the anogenital distance (AGD) in Swedish infants. Similar studies on animals have long shown a direct correlation between abnormally short distances and poor reproductive health in adults. The Swedish study concluded by calling into question the safety of substituting diisononyl phthalate (DiNP) for di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) in soft PVC, particularly because a shorter male AGD had been shown to relate to male genital birth defects in children and impaired reproductive function in adult males and the fact that human levels of DiNP are increasing globally.
Saudis might take particular heed to this dire information as, according to Dr. Mona Mustafa in an article in the Saudi Gazette of May 10, 2009, one in five children in Saudi Arabia is born a hermaphrodite. Even if the gross rate of this abnormality is related, as is generally believed, to tribal-based intersex marriage, it can’t help that petroleum-derivative products could be increasing or exacerbating it. Phthalates are also related to diabetes, which can lead to kidney disease. Currently, Saudi Arabia ranks sixth in the world for rates of death by kidney disease.
Presently, global demand for PTA is unimpressive. Its manufacturers are stuck with a glut and consumers are tired of crossing their fingers while doubting whether nearly every item in their home, right down to their comforting carpeting, is leaving them, malformed, sexually obscure or chronically ill.
Hemp does not require any pesticides and its use in the manufacture of 50,000 items, including carpeting, comes with no risk of those products making anyone sick.
And that’s a fact that never needs to be swept under the rug.