The number of containers handled by ports in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) increased by 33 per cent in the years from 2008 to 2013, according to the UN Conference on Trade & Development (UNCTAD).

The number of twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) climbed from 42 million to 55.8 million over that period. In comparison, the global figure went from 516 million to 651 million, a rise of 26 per cent.

The region’s growth rate was particularly strong in 2010 and 2011, when it topped 9 per cent. Even in 2009, when global container traffic slumped by 8.5 per cent, the region managed to post a rise of 1.3 per cent.

Large gap

In more recent years the figure has fallen back from its recent highs to 4.5 and 5.3 per cent. Even so, these are solid growth rates and suggest the regional shipping industry is in healthy shape. However, such statistics mask a large gap between the best and the worst ports.

According to the Geneva-based World Economic Forum (WEF), the quality of port infrastructure is most impressive in the UAE.

In its most recent Global Competitiveness Report, the organisation ranked the UAE as third-best out of 144 countries for the quality of its ports.

On a points scale running from 1 for worst to 7 for best, the UAE scored 6.5 points, marking a slight improvement on the 6.4 points a year earlier and extending its lead within the region.

Most of the other Gulf countries, including Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and Saudi Arabia, also performed relatively well, coming in the top 40 in the WEF’s rankings.

North Africa

However, in parts of North Africa and war-torn corners of the Arabian peninsula, the situation is not so impressive.

Algeria is ranked 117th, Yemen is 128th and Libya 131st.  Some other countries have been slipping back. Kuwait’s score fell from 4.4 points in 2010 to 3.9 points in 2014. Tunisia went from 5 to 3.9 points over the same period, while Lebanon has slipped from 4.5 to 4.1 points.

Similar results can be seen in UNCTAD’s Liner Shipping Connectivity Index. This measures how well a country is connected to global shipping lanes, and is based on five factors: the number of ships calling in to a country; the capacity of those ships; the size of the largest ships; the number of shipping services; and the number of container shipping companies operating from that country.

The index was first drawn up in 2004, when China was ranked first out of 155 countries, a position it has held every year since then.

The UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have also been in the top 20 every year. They were joined in 2009 by Oman, which has benefited from investment in some of its key ports such as Salalah, and in 2010 by Morocco, which was helped by the expansion of the Tangier-Med port.

Oman has since slipped back slightly to 25th in the most recent rankings, but Morocco continues to improve and last year was ranked 15th overall, just one place behind the UAE.

Challenging China

In terms of the scores these countries earn in the rankings, they have some way to go before they can challenge for the top spot.

Last year, China’s score was 165.1 points, while the UAE was on 66.5 points and Morocco on 64.3 points. Egypt and Saudi Arabia were both just over 61 points, while Oman was just under the 50 point level.

One country in the region that has done remarkably well is Lebanon. In 2006, it jumped to 33rd place from 60th a year before, and it has managed to hold its position in or around the top 30 in most years since then.

In 2013, work was completed on a $450m expansion of the container terminal at the Port of Beirut, which has helped. Last year Lebanon was ranked at 32nd, with 42.6 points.

The civil war in neighbouring Syria means Beirut is no longer a useful starting point for overland transport to Jordan and beyond. However, the war also means more goods have to come to and from Lebanon by sea.

Yemen scores

Yemen also fares better in the Liner Shipping Connectivity Index than it does in most league tables.

It is ranked 70th in the world, with a score of 18.4 points for 2014. That is down from a score of 19 points and a position at 62nd for the year before, but it is still better than its score for any other year since 2004.

The ongoing war in the country, which has seen fighting for control of some key port towns such as Aden, could yet see it fall back when the rankings next get updated.

That being said, some other countries have seen their rankings remain remarkably stable in the face of political problems. Libya, for example, is ranked at 104th in the world by UNCTAD, which is an improvement on its ranking in 2010, when it was 113th.

Syria’s score of 17.5 points is its highest since the index began, helped by the fact that the war has not really heated up along its short coastal strip and the port towns of Latakia and Tartous.

It is clearly easier to improve facilities and maintain shipping services during times of peace, and there have been some signs of improvements for both Tunisia and Iraq over recent years.

Tunisia climbed from 116th place in the rankings in 2013 to 100th a year later, while Iraq is in 121st. The latter is worse than its position in the prior two years, but it is still better than it was in seven out of the previous ten years.

Steady climb

Other countries have steadily climbed the rankings. Bahrain was as low as 125 out of 155 countries in 2005, but had climbed to 48th in the world by 2014, by which time the rankings had expanded to 157 countries.

Most surprisingly, Qatar has been one of the worst performers of the region. It has been the worst-ranked country in the Mena region in four of the past five years.

The QR27bn ($7.4bn) project to build a new port for Doha may help to change that. In mid-July this year, the first ship to enter Hamad Port, as the new facility is known, came to deliver the first four ship-to-shore cranes along with eight gantry cranes.

Another poor performer in recent years has been Iran, which was once one of the best-placed countries in the region. It has slipped from 50th in the world in 2004 to 114th in 2014.

A key factor behind the decline is the international sanctions the Islamic Republic has been struggling under, and which has led to trade drying up and shipping companies cutting back on their services.

With the planned removal of sanctions in the wake of the deal struck in Vienna in July between Tehran and the P5+1 international powers, that should change.

Improving competitiveness

Enhancing a country’s shipping services is vital, given the amount of trade done by sea, both in terms of the oil and gas tankers that are a critical element of the region’s exports as well as the containers used for industrial and consumer goods.

Yet there is clearly much that could be done to improve the region’s port connections and its competitiveness. According to JOC, a shipping research company, the Middle East has just four of the world’s 50 busiest container ports: at Jebel Ali and Sharjah in the UAE; Jeddah in Saudi Arabia; and Port Said East in Egypt.

Plenty of investment is being poured into the sector, particularly in the Gulf.  According to regional projects tracker MEED Projects, more than $40bn-worth of port schemes are planned or under way around the region.

The most significant of these are Abu Dhabi Ports Company’s development of the port attached to Khalifa Industrial Zone, the King Abdullah Port alongside the King Abdullah Economic City in western Saudi Arabia, and the Mubarak al-Kabeer project in Kuwait.

Algerian projects

There is rather less activity in North Africa, a part of the region that already underperforms compared with the Gulf. However there are some projects are in the pipeline, such as the $252m container terminal planned by the Algerian Ministry of Transport at Djen Djen, 350km east of Algiers, and the $2bn Central Algeria Trade Port planned for a site west of the capital.

It remains to be seen whether all these projects will survive the cutbacks that governments are starting to make to their capital spending programmes in the wake of the ongoing slump in oil revenues.

That in turn will help to determine how well the region’s ports and shipping infrastructure shapes up compared with the rest of the world in the coming years.

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