Geopolitics and Shipping: The 5 Biggest Ports in Saudi Arabia and the UAE

9 MINS READAug 24, 2018 | 09:30 GMT
Port Khalifa in the United Arab Emirates became operational in 2012.

An Emirati man walks in the new Khalifa Port in Abu Dhabi on September 1, 2012. Oil-rich Abu Dhabi began commercial operations at its new Khalifa Port which cost so far $7.2 billion to take over from its 40-year-old Mina Zayed Port as a container terminal. AFP PHOTO/KARIM SAHIB

  • Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are pursuing ambitious port projects as part of their economic diversification plans.
  • The ports all have the potential to generate substantial income. Though they are ostensibly run independently, their success depends in part on government priorities.
  • As the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia move toward new socio-economic structures, each country's political imperatives could collide with the economic realities of large infrastructure projects.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have the first and second largest economies in the Persian Gulf, respectively, thanks to their massive oil reserves. But both countries are looking to the future, anticipating the perhaps-far-away but still eventual decline in oil value. They are thus embarking on ambitious economic diversification plans as part of larger social modernization efforts, and given their locations along trade routes, the two countries have come to see that there is money to be made in the business of ports. But though ports and their accompanying shipping jobs are — and will continue to be — a safe bet financially, the Saudi and Emirati governments may still be drawn to exert socio-political influence that is at odds with good business practice.

The Big Picture

Across the Persian Gulf, Arab states are trying to develop more sustainable economies driven by private industry rather than government wealth. These plans in many cases have taken the form of "visions" meant to be achieved by the year 2030. As one element of these plans, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the first and second largest economies in the Persian Gulf, respectively, are building up their major ports in order to profit off their geographic position along Asia-Europe trade routes. 

Why Ports in Gulf States Are Lucrative

Situated in a trade-friendly location between Europe and China, the countries on the Arabian Peninsula have served as essential stops on the major global routes between the East and West for centuries. It's a natural — and economically sound — move, then, for them to focus on growing their shipping industries as a way of generating wealth from sectors other than oil.

At and around ports, dozens of shipping-related businesses crop up. And unlike other non-oil industries, such as tourism and construction, the shipping industry is a stable, year-round business that demands managers and white-collar employees, not just physical laborers. 

The five biggest ports in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are both transshipment hubs and final docking destinations. The hubs, which are essentially stopping points along longer trade routes, offer even more economic opportunity than endpoint ports, where products are either offloaded or exported, because they allow for the development of businesses that provide insurance, offer import and export services, charge berthing fees and more. 

The Five Biggest Ports

United Arab Emirates

Jebel Ali in Dubai and Port Khalifa in Abu Dhabi are the top two Emirati ports. The transshipment hub of Jebel Ali is the regional heavyweight, with a capacity for 22.1 million TEUs, or 20-foot equivalent units, of cargo. (The number of TEUs at a port is a useful way of gauging size and industry impact.) First finished in 1979, Jebel Ali is connected to the region's two largest air transport hubs: Dubai International Airport and Al Maktoum International Airport. It is a modern port containing new technologies like automated cranes and blockchain technology, and private companies, with the support of government funding, are developing a plan for a hyperloop connecting Jebel Ali to Port Khalifa.

Port Khalifa became operational in 2012 and has only 2.5 million TEUs. It provides goods to Abu Dhabi primarily, but it was designed to hold the world's largest ships, and the government has ambitious plans for it to become a transshipment hub with a capacity for 35 million TEUs by 2030.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is also focused on expanding its biggest ports. Dammam's King Abdulaziz Port in the Persian Gulf is the primary Saudi export hub for industrial exports and oil and gas. As long as oil remains valuable, the government has no intention of changing it to a transshipment hub. Still, to better serve Saudi cargo needs in the Eastern Province and central Saudi Arabia, the port authorities have expanded King Abdulaziz Port's TEU capacity to 1.5 million TEUs.

On the Red Sea is the port of Jeddah, which handles 4.15 million TEUs and is Saudi Arabia's main logistical hub. It provides imports to and exports from the kingdom's populated western provinces of Hijaz and Jizan, as well as the capital city of Riyadh. But it's also connected to the 35,000-square-meter cargo facility at nearby King Abdulaziz International Airport, and with the support of the Saudi government, the port authority intends to make Jeddah port into a valuable transshipment hub. At present, however, the port has no rail connections. There are no plans to revive the long-abandoned Hijaz Railway, and the government's Landbridge Project, which runs from Riyadh to the Red Sea, is still in the discussion phase. 

Finally, there is King Abdullah Port, the country's newest and most ambitious port. It is an appendage of the megacity of King Abdullah Economic City, which is still under construction — and well behind schedule. The port is a modern transshipment hub with a TEU capacity of 1.7 million, and the government has plans for that number to increase to 5 million in the next few years.

A map shows the four largest ports in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Ports and Business Risks

All five of these ports — the largest in the region — have the potential for massive growth, especially if backed with a combination of government and private investment from domestic and foreign sources. The Saudi and Emirati governments intend for their ports to boost job growth for nationals — an important point especially for Saudi Arabia, which has a 12.9 percent unemployment rate. They are also counting on the expanded ports to bring in more foreign direct investment and thus generate more capital for citizens. While this strategy makes sense, accomplishing these goals is easier said than done.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are trying to slowly move away from their current system, which has the state generating hydrocarbon wealth and overseeing the distribution of that wealth to its citizens in exchange for social and political continuity. The two countries want to move toward a new system with diversified economies that are able to deliver wealth to citizens independent of the state and that allow governments to become stewards of social and political values rather than economic stability. But they've maintained the former structure for so long that it will be difficult for the governments to relinquish control, even as they strive to implement plans that require them to do so.

Though the major Saudi and Emirati ports are ostensibly run independently, they rely on a combination of private and government investment in order to function and grow, which means they are all at some level of risk of being de-emphasized or subject to impractical government hiring edicts.

For example, though the ports — especially the transshipment hubs — generate substantial employment opportunities, these technical jobs often go to foreign-born workers, due in large part to a mismatch between local workers' education levels and the skills required to work in shipping-related industries. So money from the financially successful ports is more likely to end up in the pockets of foreign workers, foreign investors and domestic elites, rather than that of average Saudi and Emirati citizens. And that reality could prompt Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to implement restrictions on the hiring of foreign workers, which the businesses operating in and around the ports would have little power to challenge — even if the result is losses in productivity and revenue.

Additionally, the financial success of these ports relies on the continued government emphasis on port expansion and construction. The Saudi and Emirati governments are trying hard to bring in more foreign direct investment, so they have developed many high-profile modernization projects, such as the UAE plan for the Jebel Ali-Port Khalifa hyperloop and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah Economic City. Right now, the money and goodwill are flowing, but these massive projects take years to complete. If the government's economic priorities go in a different direction, investors in these incomplete projects may be left hanging, as evidenced by the recent mutual decision of the Gulf states to shelve a railway project meant to link them all together.

King Abdullah Port is at particularly high risk, since much of the surrounding infrastructure necessary to its success is not even built yet. It's a port without a city. And if Saudi Arabia turns its eye toward developing other projects, such the transnational city and economic zone Neom, which is in the works, King Abdullah Port may never reach the goals it was designed to meet. Similarly, though Jeddah has the infrastructure for functioning as an import-export point, its development into a transnational hub relies on the construction of the Landbridge rail line.

In the United Arab Emirates, the economic growth of Jebel Ali and Port Khalifa could be stunted by hiring edicts from the government and the consequences of overcapacity. Jebel Ali's goal for 55 million TEUs by 2030 is already ambitious, and if Port Khalifa has 35 million TEUs by the same year, the United Arab Emirates may start canceling plans (and killing jobs) in order to start absorbing all of that capacity. The country's TEU capacity use is already declining, going from 84 percent in 2015 to 68 percent in 2017.

The safest port for short-term investment is probably King Abdulaziz Port in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, because it has a focused core purpose — oil exports — that is not likely to change for several decades. The risk to King Abdullah Port is that its expansion plans may not come to fruition, but the port will still remain financially successful and stable in the short term.

Ultimately, all these ports have the potential to be incredibly lucrative for those with stakes in them: the workers, the foreign investors, and elite Saudis and Emiratis. But in this region, making a huge profit isn't necessarily enough to guarantee that a private project can avoid less business-friendly government directives driven by national social initiatives.

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