On a clear day standing at the top of the Rock, you can just about pick out Tangier’s new port with the naked eye. Half way between the city of Tangier and the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, Tangier Mediterranean is the focal point of a multi-million dollar investment programme that aims to turn northern Morocco into a hub for global trade and commerce. The deepwater port is the centrepiece of broader plans to establish free trade zones, logistics platforms and improved road and rail links to the Moroccan hinterland. In the process, the development is poised to radically change the maritime make-up of the Strait of Gibraltar, a chokepoint for seaborne trade through which 80,000 ships sail each year. Ports like Gibraltar and Algeciras have already capitalised on the Strait’s unrivalled geographically-strategic location, offering numerous services to vessels as they transit from east to west, north to south and back again. But maritime officials believe that new port infrastructure on either side of the Strait will provide a further boost to the sector.
“The more infrastructure we have in the Strait [of Gibraltar], the more business we will attract,” said Manuel Morón, chairman of the Algeciras port authority.
And while there will inevitably be greater competition between the ports of the Strait in key sectors such as bunkering, officials also believe there is much to be gained from inter-port cooperation, both on practical operational issues and in terms of joint marketing initiatives.
Algeciras already has close links with Tangier and is now fostering similar contacts with the Rock. Improved diplomatic relations between Gibraltar and Spain have enabled officials from both ports to meet for the first time to discuss key matters such as navigational safety in the increasingly busy Bay of Gibraltar. The developments have resonated at the highest political levels. Although the main elements of the trilateral agreement announced by ministers last month focused on the airport, frontier flow, telecommunications and the Spanish pensions issue, the new climate of cooperation bodes well for the maritime sector.
Operators say that enhanced use of the airport will likely open up new opportunities and facilitate the movement of crews and spares, while softened controls at the border – including new lanes for freight traffic – will make it easier to get ship spares and provisions across the frontier.
The final joint communiqué issued after the three-way ministerial meeting in September also included a clause specifically relating to maritime matters.
“We welcome and encourage the co-operation between the port authorities of the Bay in relation to issues relating to their operations, and in continuing to explore possibilities for collaboration in fields of common interest,” the three governments said.
The need for tighter controls on vessel movements in the Bay was sharply illustrated in 2005 by the collision in thick fog between the cruise ship Van Gogh, which was leaving the Rock, and the laden tanker Spetses, which was coming in to discharge oil at the Cepsa refinery in the Campo de Gibraltar. In the event there was no injury or pollution, but the incident could have proved disastrous and represented a stark wake-up call for authorities in the bay.
But it is the major projects underway in Tangier and Algeciras, and to some extent Gibraltar too, which are providing the catalyst for closer ties between the two shores of the Strait.
Tangier Mediterranean is the centrepiece of a wider E1.7bn project that is transforming northern Morocco, one of the country’s poorest regions. The port itself envisages construction of a 1.8 km breakwater sheltering deepwater berths with a draught of up to 45m and terminals handling everything from transhipment containers to trucks and bulk cargoes. Aside from the start of operations at the first of two container terminals in the summer of 2007, Said Elhadi, chairman of the executive board of the Tangier Mediterranean Special Agency, said three ferry berths would also be available to help ease congestion at the existing port of Tangier. Ultimately, the aim is to shift all cargo traffic to the new port and develop the old Tangier facilities for cruise and leisure business. The initial phase of a 135 ha logistics zone will also be ready by next year, with the first 40 hectares operated by Dubai-based Jebel Ali Free Zone expected to be ready for occupation. A 53km stretch of motorway linking the port to existing road networks from Tangier to Casablanca should also be complete by 2007.
Algeciras meanwhile is also investing over E600m through to 2015 in new infrastructure that will bite into the Bay of Gibraltar and virtually double the port’s capacity over the coming years. Once complete, the port will boast a total of 121 ha of new terminal space and nearly 3km of deepwater quay line, with draughts ranging between 16.5m and 18.5m. The second phase of the project will provide 46 hectares of land and should be operational by early next year.
Gibraltar, with projects such as the East Side development and Ocean Village, is also adding to the region’s maritime infrastructure, albeit focused primarily on cruising and the marina and leisure market. And expanded use of the airport, part of the trilateral agreement signed last month between Gibraltar, the UK and Spain, will also prove a boon to the Rock’s maritime services industry, facilitating such things as crew changes and the movement of urgent spares for vessels.
Gibraltar is starting to wake up to the potential for business and inter-governmental cooperation that Tangier Mediterranean could offer.
Joe Holliday, Minister for Trade and Industry, travelled to Morocco this summer and met with the country’s ministers for trade, industry and tourism. He also met key officials at Tangier Mediterranean, including Mr Elhadi.
Mr Holliday toured the new port and received a detailed briefing on the scope of the project. His delegation also held talks with their Moroccan counterparts on a range of issues including the potential for economic cooperation not just between ports, but also between cities.“I am most impressed at the work that has been done so far on the new port of Tangier-Med,” Mr Holliday said. “I am also very heartened to see the interest at the top level of developing closer ties between the ports of Gibraltar and Tangier. There are a number of areas of potential co-operation between Gibraltar and Morocco. In the same way that we are interested in developing closer links with our neighbour in the region of the Strait of Gibraltar, Moroccan players are very interested in cementing closer ties with us not just in the field of shipping but in other areas such as, for example, the financial sector. There are also important opportunities for both Gibraltar and Tangier in the field of maritime links, tourism and commerce. The meeting was the beginning of what I believe is potentially a long, fruitful relationship that can be mutually beneficial.”
Both sides are drawing up a detailed subject list for future discussion and a delegation from Morocco will travel to Gibraltar to view facilities and learn about the Rock’s shipping business.
In a parallel initiative, Algeciras hosted the first-ever meeting of the Ports of the Strait early in October, bringing together delegations from port cities including Algeciras, Tangier, Tetouan, Gibraltar and Ceuta.
The encounter was initiated by the Algeciras port authority and, in no small measure, by the personal efforts of its chairman Manuel Morón, whose vision for the Strait is one of a busy maritime cluster rich in the diversity of services and opportunities it offers.
The work programme for the October session reflected the thrust of the discussions that have been held – bilaterally so far – between the various ports that border the Strait.
“We want to establish the region of the Strait of Gibraltar as a world-class, premier-league maritime platform,” said Mohamed Hafnaoui, a member of the Tangier Mediterranean Special Agency’s board of director. Everyone at the meeting agreed that, as a first step towards building closer links, the event proved a resounding success.
There were discussions across all areas of maritime and port business, from navigational safety to environmental protection and commercial cooperation, and promises of future inter-port initiatives and working groups.
“We compete in some areas but in other types of traffic, where we work as a maritime bridge between Europe and Africa, we share the same clients,” Mr Morón said.
“In this sense, the ultimate aim is to establish a stable framework of contact and cooperation between all the ports on either shore of the Strait, with objective of promoting this region as a first-class global hub for maritime traffic.”
This was the first stage in a process that will unfold over years, but the mere fact that the meeting took place was a major achievement in itself.
“It’s given us the opportunity to get together for the first time and identifying, at a very basic level, not just problems but opportunities for all of us,” said Peter Canessa, principal private secretary at the Ministry for Trade, Industry, Employment and Communications.