Maintaining Peak Efficiency: Shipyards, the Merchant Marine Fleet, and New Technology
Saudi Arabia, in order to develop a powerful maritime economy, should take note from the actions and attitudes of other maritime nations such as Norway. The Norwegian authorities have long supported a holistic approach to maritime management, which is reflected in their interest in maintaining equal footing for a variety of maritime interests. These interests include fishing/aquaculture, maritime traffic, and marine infrastructure (Pidersen 2006).
Among the most important element in the Norwegian approach to maritime policymaking is the focus on the development of efficient seaports and other marine infrastructure (Pidersen 2006). For Saudi Arabia, this is especially important as existing infrastructure and technology isn't necessarily up to the tasks required.
Saudi Arabia currently has five major commercial ports and two industrial ports. The commercial ports are at Jiddah, Dammam, Jizan, Jubail, and Yanbu. The industrial ports are at Jubail and Yanbu. There is also a dedicated oil port at Ras Tanura, however the Saudi authorities do not directly consider this port to be either commercial or industrial in nature. In 2000/2001 alone, the main industrial ports themselves handled more than 60 million tons of cargo (Shipping and ports 2006). This significant amount of traffic that passes through the busy Saudi Arabian ports is suggestive of the need for improved and expanded infrastructure as part of a cohesive maritime policy. After all, without acceptable port facilities, any efforts to manage or exploit the national maritime resources will be highly ineffectual at best.
In fact, there have been recent efforts in Saudi Arabia to expand and update the existing port facilities to better keep pace with demand and improve the quality of import/export processes. The Saudi Port Authority announced in 2006 that it had plans to expand port facilities throughout the nation, with the intention of improving the existing infrastructure. By June 2006 bids were already being taken for plans to double the existing shipping container throughput at the King Abdulaziz Port in Dammam (Port activity 2006; Harboring ambitions 2006). These efforts represent an important step in the creation of a total maritime policy so long as planner and policymakers can fully consider and grasp the implications that port expansion will have for other interested parties and agencies also involved in utilizing Saudi Arabia's maritime resources. Development for development's sake does not constitute a rational approach to maritime management.
Further, thought must be given to the state of the Saudi Arabia merchant marine force. Currently, that consists of 64 total ships: five cargo ships, fifteen chemical tankers, four container ships, eight passenger/cargo ships, twenty petroleum tankers, three refrigerated cargo ships, and nine roll-on/roll-off ships (Saudi Arabia 2006). A useful maritime policy for the future will not consider these as static resources that can be tapped and utilized forever -- or even that should be. First, expansion of the fleet is an important step in economic development. Second, existing ships will be phased out over time as they become obsolete. Third, new developments in maritime technology will require upgrades and updates to the existing fleet in the interest of efficiency, productivity, safety, and security. Ignoring advances in technology today will only hamstring the merchant marine fleet in the decades to come, as it will inevitably fall behind the resources and infrastructure available to other nations. Only through concerted development and upgrading as part of a national maritime policy can the nation expect to see consistent and regular improvements in the state of the fleet and its positive effects on the maritime economy.
Unique Regional Security Concerns
Saudi Arabia is a nation in the midst of one of the most politically contested regions of the world, with highly valuable natural energy resources, and a host of extremist groups willing to use terrorist actions to achieve their goals. Currently, estimates put Saudi Arabia's untapped energy potential in oil at roughly 262 billion barrels (Appleyard 2005). Without question, incorporation of specific solutions to the security issues of the region is necessary toward the development of a coherent maritime policy that provides for safe and secure use of the nation's resources.
Saudi Arabia currently holds some of the world's largest untapped oil resources along with other Middle Eastern nations such as Iraq and Iran. Unlike those latter two examples, however, Saudi Arabia has a relatively congenial relationship with the West, one of the primary destinations of all the oil resources extracted from the region. Oil is literally the lifeblood of the Saudi economy. Without it Saudi Arabia would face political turmoil and likely economic collapse.
As such, it is important that Saudi Arabia maintains strict control over the oil resources it has and the means to move it from sites of productions to consumers all over the world. For Saudi Arabia, this means securing ports and its surrounding territorial waters. Threats to the continued flow of oil tankers abroad include foreign powers intent on claiming Saudi Arabia's oil resources as their own as well as terrorist organizations that might be interested in disrupting Saudi shipping lanes in order to halt the cheap transport of oil to the West.
The fact is that terrorism has long been used as political currency in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia's seemingly benign presence in the region does not make it immune from such attacks. In fact, Saudi Arabia's maritime resources could well make it a prime target at some future date. The nation possesses more than 2,400 kilometers of coastline, nearly equally divided between the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf (Saudi Arabia 2006). With major ports on both coasts, Saudi Arabia enjoys a significant strategic presence in two of the most important shipping and naval passages through the Middle East. In this position, Saudi Arabia sits at the crossroads of the East and the West, with clear access to ports in Europe and Africa as well as Southeast Asia and the Pacific Rim. From a shipping standpoint alone -- not to mention as a nation that deals in oil resources -- this is a highly valuable position, one that could well be coveted by other nations. It is important that Saudi Arabia recognizes this value and act accordingly to secure its territorial waters as part of its overall maritime policy.
Saudi Arabia already has a naval presence. This presence should be more fully integrated with the overall maritime policy that will be highly influenced by the relative security of the nation's territorial waters. In addition to terrorist threats, ocean-going vessels must be cognizant of illegal trafficking and piracy. A comprehensive maritime policy for the region must include a coast guard force that is highly responsive and trained to deal with a wide variety of potential threats. Under this proposal, the Saudi coast guard should be able to deal with crises within the territorial waters of Saudi Arabia -- amounting to roughly 29,000 square kilometers -- of a criminal, terrorist, or even rescue nature. This is an impressive swath of ocean, one of the largest territorial waters in the Middle East. Effectively policing an area that large will, by consequence, not be simple.
This is why the security of the maritime resources of Saudi Arabia depends on successful holistic management. The best equipped coast guard in the world, with the best equipment and highly trained personnel, still would be unable to monitor every incidence within a region this large -- especially when it is home to so many major shipping routes. Security will not be achieved by simply increasing the budget for the Saudi coast guard forces, though that would certainly help. More importantly, there must exist a central site of coordination for the large amount of information regarding the maritime resources of the area. Security will depend on the ability of the coast guard forces to receive, understand, and react to information from a variety of sources including the merchant marine, port authorities, and even scientific research. Data collection and integration is the first step toward ensuring a secure sea zone for Saudi Arabia.
Importance of Environmental Integrity
Too often overlooked, the marine environment must be an integral part of any holistic, sustainable maritime policy initiative. In fact, one of the reasons that marine environmental integrity is overlooked or ignored is because it is too often deemed incompatible with desired economic development. This is a mistake. Environmental concerns, especially in the modern age, cannot be taken lightly. Responsible treatment of the environment is not an enemy of business and development, but rather a check that permits long-term, sustainable development. Sacrificing environmental integrity for short-term financial or economic gains will only result in long-term failures. A holistic approach to Saudi Arabia's maritime resources will seek a responsible way to manage those resources.
Saudi Arabia's environmental concerns can be isolated to a few key categories. These include the importance of a healthy marine environment for the development of aquaculture resources, the possibility of eco-tourism, the importance of…