Jordan’s Aqaba Port Thrives Amid Region’s Instability

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi


Immediately above:  Trucks transporting containers drive past the Port of Aqaba, 350 km (217 miles) south of Amman, September 18, 2011. It has not been as busy for a long while for vessel supervisor Mohammad Qassem, who is overseeing the loading of a commercial cargo ship that has just anchored in the sparkling blue waters of Jordan’s Aqaba port. Picture taken September 18, 2011.

REUTERS/Abraham Farajian

AQABA, Jordan (Reuters) – It has not been as busy for a long while for vessel supervisor Mohammad Qassem, who is overseeing the loading of a commercial cargo ship that has just anchored in the sparkling blue waters of Jordan’s Aqaba port.

“With all the problems around us, it’s amazing. These few months have been very active,” said Qassem, 49, near one of the port’s six large cranes at a berth that has become a huge construction site.
APM Terminals, part of the Danish A.P. Moller-Maersk Group, which won a 25-year contract to manage the port in 2006, has begun a $235 million investment to double the container terminal capacity’s to 1.5 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) by 2013.

“This will allow the port to reach new efficiency levels and enhance its role as a shipping hub for the Middle East and Levant,” said Soren Hansen, chief executive officer of Aqaba Container Terminal (ACT).

The fortunes of the port, which is wedged between Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia and is Jordan’s only outlet to the sea, have fluctuated from boom to bust over the last several decades with every major political upheaval.

There was a golden era in the mid-1980s, when the port serviced Iraq during its eight-year war with Iran, and then a near-complete standstill during a U.S. naval blockade and United Nations sanctions in response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The last watershed was a boom after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Now, as political unrest sweeps the Arab world, hurting trade flows through nearby ports including Syria’s Latakia and Tartous and Egypt’s Alexandria and Suez, Aqaba is enjoying a fresh revival.

“At the moment everyone is seeking security. Security is very, very important and Aqaba has it,” said Captain Mohamad Dalabieh, executive manager of Jordan’s Shipping Association.

“Aqaba is more of a political than an economic port.”

Last year, the port handled close to 16.8 million tonnes of freight, while throughput at its container terminal was around 605,000 TEU, almost double the level in 2003.

Since the start of this year, Aqaba has bucked the regional trend. Incoming cargo has climbed 27 percent from a year earlier to 6.69 million tonnes in the first eight months of 2011, while transit trade, mostly to Iraq, has jumped 68 percent, according to data from port authorities.

A major reason is the turmoil in Syria, where the political unrest and international economic sanctions have sharply cut the use of Syrian ports for regional transit trade. Much of this business is now going through Aqaba.

Another factor is U.S. military cargo being transported out of Iraq and through Aqaba as U.S. forces scale back their presence in that country, local shippers say.

“U.S. army cargo is trucked all the way from their bases in Iraq to both terminals in Aqaba, containers as well as general cargo, and this is helping boost traffic,” said Dreid Mahasneh, a former head of Aqaba port and a prominent shipper.

Both factors are expected to be temporary; U.S. forces are due to complete all or at least the vast bulk of their withdrawal from Iraq by the end of this year, while Syria’s port business should recover when the country eventually regains political stability.

But Jordanian officials hope that even when calm returns to the region, Aqaba will be able to hang on to much of the business it has gained this year — particularly business related to the reconstruction of Iraq.

Port officials estimate as much as 40 percent of Aqaba’s incoming cargo is destined for Iraq, while ACT’s Hansen predicts total container throughput will rise 15 percent to around 700,000 TEU this year, mainly driven by Iraqi transit demand.

Shippers say Umm Qasr, Iraq’s main port, may not have enough capacity to handle the volume of imports that many predict Iraq will need when it begins reconstruction in earnest. Aqaba may also be helped by bottlenecks at Umm Qasr that include poor service and high handling costs.

“Iraqi cargo has increased to Aqaba simply because there are so much bureaucracy, capacity limitations and corruption…” Mahasneh said.


After years of underinvestment, ACT officials say the construction underway at Aqaba will allow the port to become a key conduit for regional trade on a permanent basis. Bulldozers are cutting more of the rugged mountains by the port’s tiny sliver of coast to make more space.

The average stay for a vessel is now 12-14 hours, down from two to three days several years ago, ACT officials say. The turnaround time for loading and unloading trucks has dropped to 40 minutes compared to as much as 48 hours in 2004.

“Aqaba is now working at nearly 60 percent of its capacity. We can handle at least 25 million tonnes annually with ease,” Dalabieh said.

Shippers say, however, that without improved efficiency in Jordan’s fleet of over 16,000 trucks, other competing regional ports could undercut Aqaba.

“Turkish, Iraqi and Kuwaiti ports, each of them have an edge. Jordan has a phenomenal opportunity to strengthen its position for Iraqi trade — but all components of the supply chain must work together,” said Hansen.

(Editing by Andrew Torchia)


Factbox: Ships Held by Somali Pirates

(Reuters) – Here are details of ships still held by Somali pirates after pirates said on Sunday they had released the Greek-owned MV Eagle.

The Eagle was seized last January en route to India from Jordan. It had a crew of 24 Filipinos.

* SOCOTRA 1: Seized on December 25, 2009 in the Gulf of Aden. Yemeni-owned ship had six Yemeni crew.

* ICEBERG 1: Seized on March 29, 2010. Roll-on roll-off vessel captured 10 miles from Aden. Crew of 24.

* JIH-CHUN TSAI 68: Taiwanese fishing vessel seized on March 30. Crew of 14: Taiwanese captain, two Chinese and 11 Indonesians.

* Three Thai fishing vessels — PRANTALAY 11, 12 and 14 — hijacked on April 17-18. Total of 77 crew.

* SUEZ: Seized on August 2. Panama-flagged cargo ship hijacked in the Gulf of Aden. Carrying cement. Crew of 23 all from Egypt, 1akistan, Sri Lanka and India.

* OLIB G: Seized on September 8. Maltese-flagged merchant vessel with 18 crew — 15 Georgians, three Turks.

* CHOIZIL: Seized on October 26. South-African-owned yacht was hijacked after leaving Dar es Salaam. European Union anti-piracy task force rescued one South African but two other crew members were taken ashore and held as hostages.

* POLAR: Seized on Oct 30: Liberian-owned Panama-flagged 72,825-tonne tanker seized 580 miles east of Socotra. Crew of 24 — one Romanian, three Greeks, four Montenegrins, 16 Filipinos.

* YUAN XIANG: Seized on November 12. Chinese-owned cargo ship captured off Oman. Crew of 29 Chinese.

* ALBEDO: Seized on November 26. Malaysian-owned cargo vessel was taken 900 miles off Somalia as it headed for Mombasa from UAE. Crew of 23 from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Iran.

* PANAMA: Seized on December 10: Liberian-flagged container ship en route from Tanzania to Beira. Crew of 23 from Myanmar.

* RENUAR: Seized on December 11: Liberian-owned bulk cargo vessel, 70,156 dwt, captured en route to Fujairah from Port Louis. Crew of 24 Filipinos.

* ORNA: Seized on December 20: The Panama-flagged bulk cargo vessel, 27,915 dwt, owned by the United Arab Emirates, was seized 400 miles northeast of the Seychelles.

* SHIUH FU NO 1: Seized December 25: Somali pirates appeared to have seized the Taiwanese-owned fishing vessel near the northeast tip of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. The vessel had a crew of 26 Taiwanese, Chinese and Vietnamese nationals.

* VEGA 5: Seized before December 31: Somali pirates hijacked the 140 dwt Mozambican-flagged fishing vessel about 200 miles southwest of the Comoros. There were two Spaniards, three Indonesians and 19 Mozambicans on board.

* BLIDA: Seized on January 1, 2011: The 20,586-tonne Algerian-flagged bulk carrier was seized about 150 miles southeast of Salalah, Oman. The ship, with 27 crew from Algeria, Ukraine and the Philippines, was heading to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, from Salalah with a cargo of clinker.

* HOANG SON SUN: Seized on January 19: The 22,835-tonne bulk carrier, which is Mongolian flagged and Vietnamese-owned and had a crew of 24 Vietnamese nationals, was seized about 520 nautical miles southeast of the port of Muscat.

* SAVINA CAYLYN: Seized on February 8: The 104,255-dwt tanker, Italian-flagged and owned, was on passage to Malaysia from Sudan when it was attacked 670 miles east of Socotra Island. It had five Italians and 17 Indians on board.

* SININ: Seized on February 12: The Maltese owned and registered bulk carrier was seized with a crew of 13 Iranian and 10 Indian nationals in the North Arabian Sea. The 53,000 dwt vessel was on route to Singapore from Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates.

* ALFARDOUS: Seized on February 13: The Yemeni fishing vessel was believed to have been pirated close to Socotra Island in the Gulf of Aden and has a crew of eight.

* DOVER: Seized on February 28: It was taken about 260 nautical miles north east of Salalah in Oman. The Panamanian flagged, Greek owned vessel was on its way to Saleef (Yemen) from Port Quasim (Pakistan) when it was attacked. The crew consists of three Romanians, one Russian and 19 Filipinos.

* SINAR KINDUS: Seized on March 16: The Indonesian flagged and owned bulk cargo carrier was pirated approximately 320 miles North East of Socotra in the Somali Basin. The ship, which carried a crew of 20, was quickly used to launch further attacks.

* ZIRKU: Seized on March 28: The UAE-flagged and Kuwaiti-owned oil tanker, bound for Singapore from Sudan, was pirated approximately 250 nautical miles South East of Salalah in the eastern part of the Gulf of Aden. The 105,846 dwt tanker carried a 29-strong crew including one Croatian, 17 Pakistanis, one Iraqi, one Filipino, one Indian, three Jordanians, three Egyptians and two Ukrainians.

* SUSAN K: Seized on April 8: The German-owned, Antigua and Barbuda-flagged vessel was traveling to Port Sudan from Mumbai in India when it was pirated 200 nautical miles northeast of Salalah, Oman. The 4,450 dwt vessel carried a crew of 10 from Ukraine and the Philippines.

* ROSALIA D’AMATO: Seized on April 21: The Italian-owned bulk carrier was captured 350 miles off the coast of Oman. The 74,500 tone bulk carrier was on its way to Bandar Imam Khomeini in Iran from Brazil with a cargo of soya. The crew consisted of six Italians and 15 Filipinos.

Sources: Reuters/Ecoterra International/International Maritime Bureau Piracy Reporting Center/Lloyds List/

(Writing by David Cutler, London Editorial Reference Unit)