Region’s ports must review security in wake of Beirut disaster

Region’s ports must review security in wake of Beirut disaster

The aftermath of Tuesday’s blast in Beirut’s port area, Lebanon, August 5, 2020. (Reuters)

The detonation of more than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate in Beirut’s port on Tuesday proves that shoddy management practices brought about by poor governance can be deadly. Are there any immediate requirements recommended to prevent such a catastrophe from occurring again?

Throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), dozens of ports take in material that can be explosive if left unguarded or neglected by port operators and their staff. There are ports in the region where one would think that customs would have a robust presence, but some of these berths are owned by certain companies and groups and, despite the responsibility for security put upon these groups, some of them look the other way when it comes to contraband.

Although MENA ports are all supposed to fall under their own state mandate, or province-level responsibility for customs and protection, there are other authorities that are supposed to be responsible for port security. But the rules enshrined in law don’t always translate into practice in the port. Biometrics, surveillance cameras and the inspection of cargoes are positive developments, but no safeguard is 100 percent. We know that shipping companies and merchant marine fleets carry what can become controversial loads. 

Importantly, when a ship that is suspected of being reflagged, renamed or is carrying potentially explosive material, the shippers often try to avoid legal regimes. What happened in Beirut, with so much ammonium nitrate sitting in a warehouse for at least six years, was due to a systemic failure of port accountability and a breakdown of the ability to control, in a secure means, port facilities and storage.

The UK Maritime Trade Operations and BIMCO are two shipping entities that track illicit activity. These groups have databases that track ships and, under reflagging, can see where the owner is. If the owner shows up on a list, then the ship can be subject to inspections. From a legal standpoint, the issue becomes how many of the ships in the supply chain network around the Arabian Peninsula are shifting their names and who is implementing the rules that the US, Europe or another country has laid down. Somebody who owns a ship could be on an Interpol list, so there is a gap between legality and what actually happens. 

Yemen, for example, is a multidimensional chessboard where there is an ebb and flow of success and failure, which is typical for a battlefield when you have many different parties present.

The fears of port operators about security threats stem from two sources: Their own governments and who is sailing into the port. Port operators are part of the logistics chain, but at the same time they are also competing against each other for contracts, especially in the coronavirus disease age. This fact goes to the heart of business-merchant relations in many MENA countries.

Port security in the region does not necessarily fall under a federal or national jurisdiction. It is subject to the jurisdiction of the ports authorities themselves and their managers because of the nature of politics, society and upward mobility in Arab countries in terms of management and infrastructure. Importantly, many MENA port managers see the perception of threat from poor cargo management. MENA port security is not only about security within the port itself, it is also about monitoring what is coming into the port from outside. Port security reviews in the MENA region in the wake of the Beirut disaster should be carried out on a case-by-case basis.

Implementing an offshore vessel monitoring system in a wider context within the region is necessary, while recent illicit shipping activity points to the need for further accountability of the entire industry. Ports and their security are not linked very well because of the nature of political relations, as each port may be trying only to manage their own responsibilities. Command and control functions between ports means these individuals simply do not talk to one another.

Ultimately, in a sense, increasing port security means more accountability and inventory checking. Currently, decisions are made based on whichever shipping company offers and pays the best price, if the port is able to make money, and if the port is deemed safe so that the insurance rates are lower. There is also another side to it, which involves the paperwork and the content of the ship. It may not be allowed into a certain port, but ships might then make a mad dash somewhere else. At other times, there have been cases where port operators or the berth management simply look the other way because of the value of the cargo.

What happened in Beirut was due to a systemic failure of port accountability.

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Moreover, technology is helping to secure ports through X-ray systems and tamper-proof encoded locks on cargo containers. But the system is not uniform. Cargo screening in the MENA region shows different examples of success and failure. When looking at shippers who are delivering pallets in a loose and illicit way, there is activity outside of legal norms and very loose bookkeeping in many of these ports. 

Overall, international port standards in MENA countries, and especially around the ports of the Mediterranean, are in pretty good shape. Beirut may have been the weak link in the chain, as amply demonstrated by its poor management and faulty storage. In five or 10 years, the Beirut port and its landscape may be quite different, for the better. In the meantime, other ports need an immediate security review.

  • Dr. Theodore Karasik is a senior adviser to Gulf State Analytics in Washington, D.C. He is a former RAND Corporation Senior Political Scientist who lived in the UAE for 10 years, focusing on security issues. Twitter: @tkarasik
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