When it opens for business in June 2007, the Tangier Mediterranean (TangMed) port on the north coast of Morocco will be one of the biggest deepwater cargo ports in the Mediterranean. Located 35 kilometres east of Tangier, the port is expected by 2020 to have attracted investment of Eur 1,000 million ($1,200 million) and be handling 3.5 million 20-foot equivalent units (TEUs) a year of goods. Its nearest equivalent on the Mediterranean at the moment is Gioia Tauro in Italy, with a capacity of 3 million TEUs a year.

“It is the project of the century,” says Khadija Bourara, adviser to Equipment & Transport Minister Kharim Ghellab. “Morocco is a country with a strong maritime history, but at the moment it gains nothing from its excellent geographic position. Morocco is a stable, democratic, economically developing country with a qualified workforce and good infrastructure. But none of this is valorised. So we decided to take advantage of our maritime position and make potential investment in the kingdom a reality.”

The new port holds many incentives for the kingdom. It will capture a share of the rapidly growing international transhipment market, streamline the transportation of grain, provide export industries with an efficient, modern trading gateway, enable the more effective supply of the Tangier hinterland with refined oil products, develop international road transport traffic and alleviate congestion at the existing Tangier port, allowing the city to focus on tourism.

But beyond its obvious commercial benefits, the estimated Eur 2,700 million ($3,300 million) development is also motivated by a desire to address some of the kingdom’s social problems. The scheme is intended to foster growth in the north, thereby addressing imbalances in Morocco’s regional development and helping to tackle the double-digit unemployment rate. The free zones that are being introduced as part of the port project aim to promote job creation by attracting private investment, and construction of the port itself is expected to create about 30,000 jobs. By 2020, the project as a whole is expected to have created direct or indirect employment for 145,000 people.

“There are three reasons for the project: the valorisation of international trade, the development of foreign investment and the creation of employment,” says Bourara. “We looked at other options to address the saturation of Tangier port, including its extension. But in the end we decided to tear up the map and take a more strategic view. We looked for the best location in terms of geography and competitiveness, and we also looked for the region that had most to gain.

“There is an informal economy in Morocco based around the trafficking of drugs and of people. In order to solve these problems we have to offer opportunities to people and we have to offer them jobs. Morocco already has ports, but this is not just a port, it is a massive integrated development with free zones, new roads, new railways, even new towns.”

The complex entails a huge development programme. Extending over a coastal area about 35 kilometres long and 15 kilometres wide, the scheme includes extensive port facilities as well as commercial, industrial and logistics free zones (see box). It is the combination of a deepwater port with a free trade area that Rabat hopes will enable the kingdom to leverage its unique selling points and optimise the benefits from the free trade agreements it has in place.

“We are very well placed in terms of trade,” says Bourara. “We have free trade agreements with the US and the EU, as well as bilateral agreements with a number of countries, including Arab states. So we have a real opportunity to benefit from free trade. Our economy, our industry and our workforce will all benefit.”

Morocco is ideally placed to become a regional maritime hub. The TangMed port, just 15 kilometres across the Straits of Gibraltar from Europe and a potential market of 350 million consumers, is positioned at the intersection of north-south and east-west maritime trade axes. Even now, 95 per cent of the kingdom’s foreign trade passes through its 28 ports, and the existing Tangier facility is the gateway for 80 per cent of Morocco’s international road transport.

The scale and depth of the new TangMed port, combined with the strategic strength of its location, will enable the kingdom to take advantage of a transhipment market in the Mediterranean basin and West Africa that is forecast to grow at an average 9 per cent a year in the next 10-15 years. Morocco’s ports are not currently very active in transhipment, which in addition to growing fast also offers a high degree of added value.

“It is a great opportunity for Morocco to develop its first transhipment centre,” says a spokesperson for the Tangier Mediterranean Special Agency (TMSA), the public limited company masterminding the TangMed development. “It will operate relay transhipment, where mother container vessels from a distant country such as the US transfer their cargo on to other big container vessels that then go on to other major ports. And it will operate hub-and-spoke transhipment, or feedering, where the mother vessel is unloaded and the cargo is dispatched to small and medium ports, or lots of smaller vessels bring a cargo to be transferred on to one large ship.”

A whole series of facilities is being developed at TangMed port to accommodate such large cargos. The entrance channel will be 300 metres wide and there will be a 600-metre-diameter turning basin. The port’s two container terminals will have combined linear docking facilities of 1,612 metres and an alongside draught with a depth of 16 metres. The hydrocarbons terminal will be able to accommodate tankers 280-320 metres in length. The development also features a grain terminal – which it is hoped will become the focus for regional grain transhipment – as well as a general merchandise terminal and a roll on/roll off quay. And substantial infrastructure upgrades are under way with the help of government funding (see table).

“Most of the critical contracts have already been awarded and overall the works are going very well,” says the TMSA representative. “For the container business, the port has succeeded in attracting the most important players in the world; Maersk, the biggest in the world; MSC, the second largest; and CMA-CGM, third. But we have a lot of work left to do. This year we need to finalise the hydrocarbons terminal and the bulk and general cargo terminal, as well as security in the port. We will continue to look for the best international partners.”