Container services are slowly being re-established with Qatar as carriers set up transhipment routes via hub ports in Oman, a country not involved in the regional diplomatic spat that has effectively isolated the small Gulf state.
All land, sea, and air ties with Qatar were cut by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, and the Maldives on 5 June. The Saudi Ports Authority notified shipping agents not to receive vessels carrying Qatari flags or Qatari ships, while the UAE ports of Fujairah and Jebel Ali said all vessels flying the flag of Qatar or destined for Qatar will not be allowed to call at the ports.
This led to container lines refusing to accept any bookings to and from Qatar, but the carriers are beginning to find ways to get cargo into the port of Doha by looking at hubs in countries that are not affected by the boycott, such as Oman.
Maersk Line at the weekend announced that it was again accepting cargo to and from Qatar that will be transhipped via the hub port of Salalah in Oman in a service that will run every 10 days. The first sailing will leave the Omani port on 19 June and arrive in Doha, Qatar, on 25 June, Maersk told customers. However, the carrier pointed out that Qatari bookings were open to all countries except the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and Yemen.
Another well-established Omani transhipment hub, the port of Sohar, is also being used to relay cargo to and from Doha by Qatar’s Milaha Maritime and Logistics, a feeder service that will be offered three times a week. Milaha also runs services between Hamad Port in Doha and Salalah.
It is believed several other carriers with Middle East services, such as COSCO and Evergreen, are also preparing to set up transhipment services between the Omani ports and Qatar.
The last thing Middle East trade needed was a crisis affecting cargo shipping with container volume already sluggish in the first four months of the year, declining 3.6% compared to the same period at the beginning of 2016.
Data from Container Trades Statistics, as reported by Drewry, shows the volume down by 40,000 teu in the January-to-April period, continuing a negative trend that began more than a year ago.
The UAE, which accounts for a third of containerised imports into the region from Asia, was down 8% year on year, while imports into the second-largest market of Saudi Arabia declined 3%. Iraq imports were down 5% and Kuwait fell 20%, Drewry wrote in its Container Insight Weekly.
Qatari imports from Asia in the year to date have plummeted 50%, and although the volume was dropping even before most of its Arab neighbours severed all transport and diplomatic ties, the crisis has brought trade to a standstill.
But Drewry highlighted a potentially even more serious problem that could emerge from Qatar’s sudden isolation, which stemmed from allegations that it supported terrorist groups and for having warmer relations with Iran than some of its neighbours.
“It appears to be a victim of a much bigger power struggle in the region that has the potential to derail trade to a far greater degree than the blockade itself,” Drewry said. “The ratcheting up of hostility towards Iran threatens to undo its trading rehabilitation following the lifting of sanctions, with negative implications for our regional container handling outlook.”
Iran has been one of the few bright spots for container trade in the region with CTS data showing that its January-to-April volume from Asia increased by 60% to around 46,000 teu.
Contact Greg Knowler at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter: @greg_knowler