UAE entrepreneur rushes to meet sanitizer demand as Middle East battles coronavirus

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Dr Iman Alashkar’s personal care items such as hand sanitizer and handwash are in high demand due to the coronavirus outbreak. (Supplied)
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Updated 29 March 2020

UAE entrepreneur rushes to meet sanitizer demand as Middle East battles coronavirus

  • Dr Iman Alashkar is working round the clock to make sure her company meets the spike in demand for personal-care products
  • In addition to supermarkets, pharmacies are reaching out to replenish their stocks of sanitizers amid coronavirus crisis

DUBAI: Until a few weeks ago, they were widely considered good personal hygiene habits. But now, effective handwashing and use of hand sanitizer in community settings are strongly recommended as two of the most important measures to avoid the transmission of the deadly new coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
For Marssai, a Dubai-based company that manufactures hand sanitizer, handwash and shampoo, the public health crisis created by the COVID-19 outbreak has translated into sales so brisk as to be beyond its founder’s wildest dreams.
The female entrepreneur behind Marssai, which means “my anchor” in Arabic, says her staff have pulled out all the stops to meet the surge in demand for its personal-care products during these challenging times.
Dr. Iman Alashkar, a UAE resident of Syrian origin and a pharmaceutical scientist, says Marssai has sold close to 100,000 bottles of hand sanitizer in a single week.


“I’ve been working 24/7 for the past 10 days,” she told Arab News. “I’m not exaggerating but I worked at least 20 hours (a day), and am running on adrenaline.”
Alashkar, who is in her 40s, said her sleeping pattern has changed: She now devotes an hour or so per night to rest and spends every waking minute at work.
Just a few days ago, she said, she curled up on a staircase within her factory premises for a nap lasting all of two hours.
“When you do your Ph.D. in the US, you get trained to be tortured and to not sleep,” she joked, “but I’m OK.”
Alashkar says she is savoring every moment, no matter how hectic. “I love the fact that we’re making a difference and keeping the quality,” she said.
“It’s what keeps me going, and when you see it, it gives you that power. You have a purpose, and it gives you energy and light to keep doing. It’s tiring but fun.”
Marssai products are now selling in a number of supermarkets, including Choithrams and Carrefour. Pharmacies in the UAE have started reaching out to her to replenish their stocks.
Alashkar said she worked for several years in technology consulting in Boston, before opting to move back to Syria.
It was not a difficult decision: She belonged to a family with a strong connection to the Middle East’s pharmaceuticals industry.
“My training and expertise are in the pharmaceuticals domain. I got my Ph.D. in pharmaceutical sciences in Boston,” said Alashkar, who is also a member of the American Society of Cosmetic Chemists.

“My grandfather had a factory in Damascus and in Egypt in 1920, so I grew up around pharmaceutical products.”

With the civil war in Syria dragging on, Alashkar relocated to Dubai six years ago to set up her own factory and pursue her passion.
“I noticed there wasn’t much manufactured here for a place that’s really reputable and is identified for quality, class and lifestyle,” she said.
“I felt it didn’t have enough to represent it, and there wasn’t enough being manufactured here.”
Before the coronavirus storm struck, Alashkar’s factory in Dubai Science Park produced shampoo and handwash under the brand name Marssai, a name she chose to honor the Arabic connection (there is a separate children’s brand, Peekaboo).
“Dubai became a place that I loved, and I specifically wanted the brand to sound Arabic,” she said.
“The products are full of water, at least 80 percent, and for that, shopping for water internationally didn’t make sense. So it made sense to source the water locally.”
Alashkar describes the products made by Marssai as no less vital than food since both are required on a daily basis.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), thousands of people die every day around the globe from infections acquired while receiving health care. “Hands are the main pathways of germ transmission during health care,” its website says.

Alashkar said: “It’s a human right. I wanted to start with what’s essential for us in terms of wellbeing in our life, something we use every day and that should be well made as part of consistent hygiene.”

According to her, it was important to manufacture the hygiene products locally. “We shouldn’t be paying a high price for an essential product we use every day, especially when half the price is shipping. It didn’t make sense,” Alashkar said.
It was not long after COVID-19 cases began to be reported in the UAE that supermarkets and pharmacies in the country found themselves struggling to keep pace with the soaring demand for hand sanitizers.
With its factory well placed to produce different types of hygiene products, Marssai was able to enter the market very quickly.
“The product range isn’t common in the region, but I built a factory with the same approach that one builds a sterile pharmaceutical lab,” Alashkar said.
“I took the time to make the ‘clean room approach’ the right way, an approach that isn’t known in the cosmetics industry,” she added,
“It served me well that we have an environment that’s very efficient and capable of making so many things in a clean and proper way.”
The factory in Dubai Science Park was built to prevent cross-contamination, she said, adding that by definition, this removes all conceivable risks when producing different types of products.

The coronavirus crisis hit just when Alashkar was working with her distributors to get the Carrefour supermarket chain to display Marssai’s traditional products. Before long, she was informed of a shortage of hand sanitizers.
“I knew I could make it, but I wasn’t sure of the packaging and the style,” she said. “We worked day and night to create the product. It got approved by the municipality and we launched more than 10 days ago.”
Since then, Alashkar and her team have been working practically nonstop to meet the demand for hand sanitizers.
“I’m on an adrenaline high and I haven’t slept all week, but I’m so happy people are liking it and I’m adding value,” she said.
“I feel I’m helping people in a way as well. Every entrepreneur needs a ‘why’ to keep them going. Sanitizer is a part of you, and it has to be pleasant if you’re using it for your wellbeing.”
The answer to the question “why” has been given by the situation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Alashkar, who wants to apply her experience and knowledge to ensure adequate supplies of hand-hygiene products for customers.
“There’s a huge demand,” she said. “I sold close to 100,000 bottles if you look at just the first week. I also have an anti-bacterial handwash, which I’d already prepared.”
Alashkar’s immediate plan is to rapidly increase production of the in-demand items in order to meet the needs of Dubai’s residents.
“I’m going to ramp it up, but I don’t have the capacity at the moment. The good thing is just being (able) to meet any demand the market has,” she said.
“I have no idea how I’m coping with the pressure, but my husband said he felt I’m like an extreme athlete who’s in the zone.”
Alashkar is not shy about admitting that the public-health emergency has given her the exposure and visibility she needs for future business expansion.
“The brainstorming needed for ramping up production made me aware of where the bottlenecks lay,” she said. “It’s a very nice thing to do.”
At the same time, she is under no illusion about the potentially temporary nature of the spike in demand for hand-hygiene products.
“I hope the threat from the coronavirus will disappear,” she said, “but as long as people need something to counter it, you should do your best to meet the demand.”
Ending the interview on a philosophical note, Alashkar said: “I can sense the mission. It feels like part of a community, and it’s my place to serve the community. It’s my specialty, so I can’t just go and rest. People need more.
“Maybe next month I won’t be needed, but now is the time I can serve my business and my community.”

How the FSO Safer is an impending danger to the Red Sea and Yemen

Updated 21 September 2020

How the FSO Safer is an impending danger to the Red Sea and Yemen

  • Houthi refusal of passage to experts to carry out repairs has raised specter of a floating time bomb
  • Saudi Arabia has called for a meeting for Arab environment ministers to discuss ways to avoid a catastrophe

AL-MUKALLA, Yemen: Until the Iran-backed Houthi militia seized Yemen’s western port city of Hodeidah in late 2014, foreign and local experts had been regularly visiting a 45-year-old oil tanker moored in the Red Sea.

It was a practice that ensured that the FSO Safer, abandoned just a few kilometers off Yemen’s coast, did not touch off a disaster by exploding or sinking and spilling oil. But having witnessed the devastation caused by the Aug. 4 blast in Beirut and taken its lessons to heart, the Arab world cannot afford to ignore the imminent danger posed by Houthi stalling tactics.

Expressing concerns about the condition of the vessel, Saudi Arabia has called for a meeting for Arab environment ministers on Monday. According to a statement issued on Sunday by Kamal Hassan, assistant secretary-general and head of the Economic Affairs Sector at the Arab League, the aim of the special session is to discuss ways and mechanisms to activate Resolution No. 582, which was adopted by the Council of Arab Ministers Responsible for Environmental Affairs in Oct. 2019.

The objective is to “find an appropriate solution to avoid an environmental catastrophe due to the failure to maintain the oil ship Safer anchored off the Ras Issa oil port in the Red Sea since 2015.”

When the Houthi militia gained control of Hodeidah, the FSO Safer was carrying 1.1 million barrels of oil, or almost half of its capacity, according to local officials. No sooner had the fighters tightened their grip on the city than technical experts fled the area, realizing that it had become too dangerous for them to stay on.

Over the past two years, the FSO Safer has attracted regional as well as international attention on and off, thanks in part to the regular appearance on social media of photos of rusting pipes and water leaking into the engine rooms, raising the specter of a floating powder keg.


45 Age of oil tanker FSO Safer

1.1m Barrels of crude oil in tanker

During the same period, Yemeni government officials, environmentalists and foreign diplomats have sounded the alarm over possible outcomes that could both exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and take a heavy environmental toll on the Red Sea littoral states.

The UN has suggested sending a team of experts to Hodeidah to assess the damage to the FSO Safer, but the Houthi militia, who want to pocket the proceeds from sale of the oil, have rejected the proposal. The oil in the FSO Safer’s storage tanks was once estimated to be worth $40 million, but its value now may be less than half of that as crude prices have fallen a lot since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, according to reports.

The internationally recognized government of Yemen has repeatedly accused the Houthi militia of using the decaying tanker as a bargaining chip, citing demands such as the resumption of salaries for public servants in areas under its control, removal of government forces from Hodeidah, and more relaxed inspection of ships bound for the port.

An oil spill would devastate the livelihoods of nearly four million Yemeni people, with fishing stocks taking 25 years to recover. (AFP)

In July, the government requested the UN Security Council to convene an urgent session to discuss the Safer issue amid concern that time was running out. In almost all their meetings with foreign envoys and diplomats, Yemeni officials bring up the matter of the tanker and the attendant risk of an environmental disaster in the Red Sea. For the past several months, Western and Arab diplomats, UN officials, aid organizations and experts too have underscored the urgency of breaking the deadlock in order to avert a human, economic and environmental catastrophe.

In July, the UN described the rusting tanker as a “ticking time bomb,” adding that the tanker’s cargo of oil could cause an environmental disaster four times bigger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska. Last week, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres added his voice to the growing concern over the deadlock by appealing to the Houthi militia to give UN experts access to the oil tanker.

As for the Trump administration, its views were conveyed via a tweet by the US mission to the UN that said: “The US calls on the Houthis to cease obstruction and interference in aid ops and fuel imports. We urge the Houthis to cease their assault on religious freedom and to permit UN technical teams immediate, unconditional access to the Safer oil tanker.”

In comments to Arab News in June, Michael Aron, the British ambassador to Yemen, said unless the Houthi leadership allowed experts to address the FSO Safer’s problems, the potential damage to the environment is far greater than that caused by the recent spillage of 20,000 tons of fuel in Russia’s Siberia. “The threat to the environment in the Red Sea is enormous, and will impact on all the countries who share this coastline,” he said.

Independent researchers too say the condition of Safer is deeply concerning. In a paper for the Atlantic Council in 2019 entitled “Why the massive floating bomb in the Red Sea needs urgent attention,” energy experts Dr. Ian Ralby, Dr. David Soud and Rohini Ralby said the potential consequences of an oil-tanker disaster in the area include an end to the two-year ceasefire in Hodeidah and an aggravation of Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.

“The risk of explosion increases by the day, and if that were to happen, not only would it damage or sink any ships in the vicinity, but it would create an environmental crisis roughly four and a half times the size of the Exxon Valdez oil spill,” the three scientists said. Other experts have speculated that just a stray bullet from an exchange of fire between rival factions could trigger off an explosion of the FSO Safer’s oil cargo.

Yemeni NGO Holm Akhdar says 126,000 people working in the fishing industry could lose their jobs in the case of a disaster.

“Even worse, given the complexity of this war, an errant bullet or shell from any one of the combatants could trigger a blast as large as Beirut’s August 4th disaster, prompting a historic oil spill,” Dave Harden, managing director of Georgetown Strategy Group, wrote in an op-ed in The Hill last month. He added: “Clean-up efforts would be daunting — given the insecurity of being in a war zone and the additional health risks from COVID-19.”

Similar concerns have been expressed by local government officials and fishermen in Hodeidah. Waleed Al-Qudaimi, deputy governor of Hodeidah, said that any spillage from the FSO Safer would create a humanitarian crisis as severe as the one caused by the Houthi insurgency.

“It (the oil spill) will add an additional burden that will affect Yemen for the next decades, deprive thousands of people of their jobs and destroy marine biodiversity in Yemeni waters,” he said. Al-Qudaimi appealed to the international community to keep up pressure on the militia to allow maintenance work to be carried out.

For a country reeling from a combination of conflict, humanitarian crisis, plunging currency and crumbling economy, repairs to an abandoned oil tanker off its coast might not carry the ring of urgency normally associated with a major disaster.

But now that the world knows what happened when Lebanese officials ignored warnings for years over a cache of highly explosive material stored in a Beirut port warehouse, the importance of resolving the FSO Safer issue cannot be overstated.


Twitter: @saeedalBatati