Opinion

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

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

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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
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view

Lebanon’s $15bn blast repair bill adds to economic misery

Beirut port, Lebanon’s main trade gateway, lies in ruins after two massive explosions rocked the capital. Without international aid, Lebanon ‘cannot face this disaster,’ a senior government financial adviser said. (AFP)
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Updated 06 August 2020

Lebanon’s $15bn blast repair bill adds to economic misery

  • Beirut port devastation brings warnings of housing crisis and billion-dollar hit to exports, imports

BEIRUT: Lebanon could face a repair bill of up to $15 billion in the aftermath of a cataclysmic chemical blast at Beirut port, according to a top government adviser.

The explosion, which was felt as far away as Cyprus, killed at least 100 people, wounded thousands and left an additional 300,000 Beirut residents homeless. 

It is thought to have been caused by nearly three tons of ammonium nitrate, a common agricultural fertilizer, that was confiscated in 2013 and improperly stored in warehouses. But after months of economic misery, the collapse of the currency and mounting civil unrest, it is being seen as the consequence of years of neglect, financial mismanagement and corruption as across the country.

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Charbel Cordahi, an economist and financial adviser to the president, estimated the cost of damages from the explosion, including compensation, at around $15 billion. 

“Up to 70 percent of Lebanon’s trade channels through the port of Beirut,” he told Arab News.

“Airports and other ports in the country can facilitate only 30-40 percent of this trade, and opening the borders with Syria can facilitate another 20 percent. This means that at least $5 billion of imports will not find their way to the country, and another $2 billion of exports will stay on ground in the coming eight months. This represents a loss of around $4 billion, or 15 percent of gross domestic product,” he said.

He added that without an international aid program, “Lebanon cannot face this disaster.”

The explosion caps months of misery for the Lebanese, nearly half of whom now live below the poverty line. Popular anger directed at the government and political classes has swelled as a wider economic crisis has been made worse by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Efforts to assess the damage at Beirut port, the country’s main trade gateway, are already underway. The second priority will be to restore food security and ensure the country does not run out of wheat after grain silos were destroyed, while also making sure residents who have lost their homes are rehoused as quickly as possible. Maintaining medical supplies and mitigating the environmental impact will also be a priority for city chiefs.

Many residents of the city are unable to return to their homes, even if their buildings remain visibly intact, because of the potential structural damage caused by the 4.5 Richter-scale blast.

“We need other countries to help us reconstruct Beirut,” Gen. Mohammed Kheir, secretary general of the Higher Relief Council, told Arab News. “We would be grateful if each country rebuilt a street or neighborhood in Beirut, like they did following the 2006 Israeli aggression. That would be the best way.”

He also appealed for emergency prefab homes for families for whom the government may not be able to provide housing.

Beirut Gov. Marwan Abboud, who estimated the primary damage at $3-$5 billion, appealed to the international community and the Lebanese diaspora to help.

Health officials had told Arab News that the country was running low on medical equipment, especially items needed for major surgery, and hoped that aid from abroad would fill the gap.

It is still too early to assess the full environmental impact of the blast, but environmental expert Mostapha Raad said a potentially bigger catastrophe may have been averted when the wind carried away a toxic cloud filled with nitric acid away from land and toward open sea.

“We were afraid the ammonium nitrate residue would lead to cooling off the weather and causing acidic rain, but according to tests on air samples, the result was green and the cloud disappeared over the sea,” he said.


Apple to launch first online store in India next week

Updated 18 September 2020

Apple to launch first online store in India next week

  • The company at present uses third-party online and offline retailers to sell its products in the country
  • India has become a key focus of tech giants over the last few years

NEW DELHI: Apple announced Friday that it will launch its first online store in India next week, as it seeks to increase sales in one of the world’s fastest-growing smartphone markets.
The company at present uses third-party online and offline retailers to sell its products in the country.
Apple CEO Tim Cook said in a tweet that the company “can’t wait to connect with our customers and expand support in India.”
The Sept. 23 launch comes ahead of India’s major Hindu festival season beginning next month.
With a nearly 1.4 billion people, including millions of new Internet users every month, India has become a key focus of tech giants over the last few years.
In August, three contract manufacturers for Apple iPhones and South Korea’s Samsung applied for large-scale electronics manufacturing rights in India under a $6.5 billion incentive scheme announced by the government.
Apple assembles some smartphones at Foxconn and Wistron’s plants in two southern Indian states.