Successes, failures, and challenges of North African ports from Morocco to the Horn of Africa

Here I put together six posts I wrote on LinkedIn in the last days about the ports of North African countries, for which I took a broader definition of North African by extending it up the Horn of Africa. I added a title for each section but kept the original wording, except for some minor corrections. I hope that by having the six posts together, the reader can grasp the foreign perspective in which I see this region’s ports. All the maps were taken from the fantastic application of MarineTraffic; they helped me significantly to transmit the message I wanted to render. Otherwise, without that visual aid, my task to communicate my ideas would have been much harder. Let’s hope that, at some point, I can find the time to write a book on this fascinating subject and not just an article on LinkedIn. Any comments or criticisms are welcome.

Morocco: competing against the best European ports in the Mediterranean

Morocco has four major ports: Jorf Lasfar and Casablanca, both gateway ports, and the two Tanger Meds, mainly transshipment ports. The first two serve the densest regions of the country: Casablanca, followed by Rabat, the capital. According to the latest figures by the Moroccan authorities, most of the country´s exports and imports (about 75% of total cargo) pass through those two ports (this figure excludes Tanger Med). Casablanca is also an important cruise destination. The port history in the north is even more impressive. The old port in Tanger was gradually phased out by the construction of Tanger Med and (later) Tanger Med II; both are the only transhipments in North Africa that compete with the best transshipment ports in the European Mediterranean. Tanger recovered its place as an attractive tourist destination, while all the cargo traffic is now at the Tanger Meds. But that is not all; these two ports have become critical for industrial exports from that area, mainly towards the European market. That is because the region hosts Tangier Exportation Free Zone. Amazing, no?

The Horn of Africa: critically located but forgotten by the maritime world

Here I selected four countries ideally located at one of the pumping hearts of the maritime world. They could be shipping gems with incredible transshipment ports, important gateways, or relaxing cruise ports, but, as you can see from the map, they only see the passing of ships–none wanting to call there. In the case of Somalia, those ships even feel terror when crossing not far from its coasts. Yemen has even been in much worse shape than Somalia in the last years. Eritrea remains a forgotten land, and only Djibouti experiences some traffic, mainly cargo to and fro a small gateway port. Let´s hope for a brighter future for the four. By the way, do you know why the Red Sea is called Red? As happens with everything ancient, there are different theories, but the one I like the most is that the four cardinal points were identified in the past with colors: black for the north, white for the west, red for the south, and green or light blue for the east. That means that in ancient times, somebody in current Lebanon, Syria, or Turkey, had traveled far away and called one the Black Sea, and the other Red Sea, but then should not be the Persian Gulf called Green Sea or Light Blue Sea, and the Mediterranean, White Sea? Who knows! 🙂

Tunisia: wasting its role at the center of the Mediterranean Sea

Why has not Tunisia been able to build a deepwater transshipment port when it is located in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, almost at “arms-length” distance from the main traffic routes? I know, the Arab Spring, political instability, economic crisis, etc., but Tunisia has historically been the most “European” country of the Maghreb countries, almost as it occurs with Lebanon among the Mashrik ones. Those are the two Arab countries to which, for many decades, Westerners have felt culturally closer. In fact, with Egypt, Tunisia has the highest number of cruise ports in entire Africa despite its small size. While the first map highlights Tunisia’s pivotal location, its second one shows the problem: too many ports (I did not include marines), too many diseconomies of scale. Rather than having a big port like Sri Lanka—Colombo, which competes in the world’s major leagues—Tunisia has six medium-size ports! (Rades, La Skhira, Bizerte, Sfax, Gabes, and Sousse). That is entirely absurd—zero economies of scale. As a result, Tunisia plays no role in world trade and suffers from much higher relative freight rates to and fro its ports. Let’s hope that the deepwater port at Enfidha materializes and begins the port relevance of Tunisia.

Algeria: another case of lost opportunities

Another North African country that could have a vibrant transshipment port, but it has only a medium-size gateway and many small ones—Algeria. Between political instability, corruption, economic crisis, lack of long-term vision, and now the impact of the pandemic and the fall of oil prices, the Algerian government has been delaying the construction of El Hamdania, a large transshipment port in the municipality of Cherchell. Will the Chinese still take about half of the bill for its construction and other foreign investors 1/3 or 1/4? Who knows. Let’s hope that the political and economic situation does not deepen even more, and Algeria can proceed to build the port. Please, North Africans, ignore the “advice” of defeatist voices from Europe or even countrymen, who say that your ports cannot compete with the European ones, or that there will not be demand for new ports. International trade will recover in 2021 and continue its perennial, almost inertial yearly growth after. If Morocco had listened to those defeatist voices, it would still have a medium-size port in Tanger, but they built Tanger Med, then Tanger Med II, and now they are building Nador Med. Morocco has shown that YOU CAN COMPETE against European ports!

Libya and Sudan: carrying the weight of horrendous past

Before I close with Egypt my sequel of North African ports from Morocco up to the Horn of Africa, let’s look at two countries which have had extremely radical and authoritarian governments, becoming failed states at some points, in which democracy is alien and economic growth and human development have most of the time taken the back seat—Libya and Sudan. The Western world has forgotten those lands, and, as we can see from the map by MarineTraffic the shipping world has almost done the same: ships pass in front of the long coastlines without stopping at them. I must qualify that comment, however. Libya has been an important oil producer (much less in the last decade), and Sudan an oil terminal with a pipeline that runs from South Sudan; therefore, both have resources to import other goods. In Libya’s case, you will find almost no information or port statistics; it is a black box. In the case of Sudan, you have the Maritime Administration Directorate (MAD) and, more importantly, the Sea Ports Corporation, an interesting attempt to privatize Sudanese ports’ administration. What can we say about their future port ambitions? Not much because nothing significant will occur in the near- or medium-term: They carry with themselves their violent, horrendous past.

Egypt: the maritime door between Europe and Asia

Egypt loves the Nile, the desert, and the sea. It has 48 ports, 15 in the Mediterranean, and 33 in the Red Sea. Geography matters: The Mediterranean coast is “only” 1,000 km while the Red Sea coast doubles that number. But five ports, all of them in the Mediterranean, are the ones that count the most: Damietta (20.5% of cargo in 2019), Alexandria (20%), East Port Said (18%), El Dekheila (16%), and West Port Said (4%). Contrary, the three largest in the Red Sea are Sokhna (6%), Adabyah (5%), and Safaga (2%). The Red Sea has more coastlines but the Mediterranean has most of the trade (about 20% vs. 80%). In ancient Egypt, it was the Nile that mattered, not the sea. Contrary to the Phoenicians or ancient Greeks. Egypt was not a sea power: the Nile was much richer than any sea. For me, that pattern continues but, of course, not as marked as before. Now Egypt has the Suez Canal, one of the three most neuralgic transit points in the world. Nonetheless, the maritime industry represents a small share of Egyptian GDP, while it is massive for the other two—Singapore and Panama. Of course, Egypt is a much bigger country, but, somehow, I have the impression that the sea remains an appendage to the Nile and the vibrant cities of the river’s historical delta. I would gladly accept any correction by my Egyptian friends; I know only a tiny bit about their magical country.
Source: Pablo Rodas-Martini

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