Preventing future catastrophes at MENA ports

By Dr. Paul J. Sullivan and Dr. Theodore Karasik



The detonation of what appears to be 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate in Beirut’s harbor on August 4, 2020 proves that shoddy management practices brought about by poor Lebanese governance, especially in the port’s management itself, can be deadly. This article recommends actions that can be taken by port authorities across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in order to prevent a similar catastrophe from occurring in the future.

To begin, some ports worldwide already ban ammonium nitrate. They do so for good reason. It must be stored in cool and dry places, away from any ignition source and with strong fire suppression and ventilation. Moreover, it should be noted that ammonium nitrate decays over time and can become combustible. The original customer for the ammonium nitrate that was part of the massive explosion in Beirut was an explosives company, Fábrica de Explosivos Moçambique. This company was going to use the explosive for mining. That this material was explosive is no secret. High norms, rules, laws, and standards for port security must be followed.


Investigating MENA ports

Ports in the MENA region are a vital part of all the countries and economies they are attached to. All types of trade such as food, energy, medical supplies, and other needed commodities and supplies rely on these ports. Throughout MENA countries, dozens of ports take in material that can be explosive if left unguarded, stored improperly, or neglected by port operators and their staff.

Also, some ports have dangerous industrial installations, such as refineries and chemical factories within their lands. The catastrophic blast in Beirut badly damaged the Lebanese economy, which will likely take years to fully recover. Without increases in port security and a stronger rule of law directed at what is stored in the ports any country in the region could be face a similar situation that is entirely avoidable.

There are ports in the MENA region where one would think that customs would have a robust presence. Yet certain companies and groups, which look the other way regarding contraband, own these berths and are responsible for the ports’ security. Although looking the other way may bring them revenues, this practice is dangerous. Explosions from ammonium nitrate have previously occurred. An example was the Texas City port in 1947 that was almost twice the size of this month’s blast in Lebanon.


What may lurk

There are national and provincial authorities who are supposed to be responsible for port security. But what is enshrined in law does not necessarily translate into practice in some ports. As a result of the Beirut explosion, inspectors in Chennai port in southern India revealed that 700 tons of ammonium nitrate had been embargoed in the Indian port since 2015, which was not revealed until the Beirut explosion. There are 37 containers of the compound imported from South Korea in 2015 by an Indian firm for use in the country’s fertilizer industry but was later seized because of its “weapons grade”.

The Chennai port discovery—only reported publicly after the Beirut explosion—will hopefully force officials in other ports to reveal other seized or other stockpiles of ammonium nitrate in their respective ports and holding facilities. One wonders, with great concern, how much is stored globally at warehouses in ports.

Biometrics and CCTV cameras, and inspecting cargo, are positive developments but no safeguard is 100 percent, or even near 100 percent. Some shipping companies and merchant marine fleets carry what can become controversial loads of cargo. This aspect is part of the worldwide business.

Importantly, when a ship that is suspected of being reflagged, renamed, and is carrying potentially explosive material, the shippers are trying to avoid legal regimes regarding shipping. The sea can be lawless, and that lawlessness can come to ports. What happened in Beirut with 2,800 tons of ammonium nitrate sitting in a warehouse for about six years is a systemic port accountability failure and a breakdown of the ability to control and secure port facilities and storage.


Port supply chains in the light and in the shadows

United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMOT) and BIMCO are two shipping entities that track illicit activity. They have databases that monitor ships, and under reflagging can see the owner’s location. If the owner shows up on a questionable list, then the ship can be subject to tougher inspections. How many of these ships are running around through the supply chain network around the Arabian Peninsula are shifting their names and flags? Also, who is implementing the rules for paying attention to this threat to ports in each country?

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 COVID-19 period. This fact goes to the heart of business and merchant relations in many MENA countries. The port security for each of these ports does not necessarily fall under a federal or national jurisdiction.

It is sometimes subject to jurisdiction of the ports authorities themselves and the managers of those ports. Furthermore, MENA port security is not only about security within the port itself, but it is also about monitoring what is coming into the port from outside the 12-mile limit. It could be that more first responders and investigative agencies need to be involved with the security of some of these ports.

Implementing an offshore vessel monitoring system in a wider context within the region is necessary and recent illicit shipping activity points to the need for further accountability of the entire shipping industry including the “Mom and Pop” variety. Ports and their security are not linked very well because of the nature of political relations as each port is managing their own port. Command and control functions between ports means that sometimes these individuals simply do not talk to each other.

To be sure, ports that dot the Mediterranean compete with the ports that surround the Arabian Peninsula via the Suez Canal and many points in between. These countries form shipping networks in which vessels transit. Competition between ports for berth space to land key shipping lines can be heated. Sometimes government agencies compete with each other and with port operators about who controls what in these vital trade and transport facilities.

Who operates the port is just as important as the government agencies that are supposed to be overseeing the cargo and its contents. Cargo is important to track especially when it is fertilizers and other similar combustible and explosive materials, which is likely more prevalent than previously thought. Further afield, African ports and the movement of explosive fertilizers by “ships for hire” is a phenomenon that needs to be watched carefully given the unsavory nature of such operators.

Increasing port security means more accountability, inventory checking, and constant monitoring and surveillance. Some ports outside of the region are taking special arrangements. Portico, the publicly-owned cargo handling firm in Portsmouth Port, wants to store nearly 5,000 tons of the deadly fertilizer at Flathouse Quay. New precautions are now required by the port owner and the shipping agent.


Economics and technology

Clearly, economics of well-managed ports plays a key role given the revenue that such shipping and storage brings. When a port is deemed safe, insurance rates are lower for shipping companies and ships. However, the profit motive can go in the other direction when the ship or company is involved in illegal activities.

Some actors which need to transport such materials may find that operating outside shipping security protocols brings a higher reward given the ability to spoof flagging and AIS manipulation, and poor paperwork. There have been cases where port operators or berth management simply looks the other way because of the value of the cargo in terms of bribery and extra profits. This brings possible danger and other risks to communities that are near ports.

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, nor is it 100 percent effective even in the best of ports. Cargo screening in the MENA region shows different examples of success and failure. Undoubtedly, some ports are of interest for their cargo traffic with their containers.

But when looking at other shippers who are delivering pallets in a more loose and illicit way, there can be activity outside of legal norms and very loose book-keeping in many of these ports. Making ports safer requires the application of legal norms and the rule of law. But for some places this might be too much to ask.



A final observation is what other state and non-state actors can learn from the Beirut port explosion and its crippling effects on an urban area as a non-nuclear blast. Such actors are seeing the power of the blast and the power it brings to change the country’s landscape.

Given the proximity of the Beirut Port to the city’s urban downtown area and various neighborhoods, other ports which are storing combustible materials (legally or illegally) can see Beirut as a template. There are important lessons to learn as other ports with certain similarities could become targets of plots carried out by various actors which intend to sow chaos across the region.

Overall, international port standards in MENA countries and especially around the ports of the Mediterranean are in pretty good shape. Perhaps Beirut was the weak link in the chain of ports, amply demonstrated by poor management and faulty storage. In five or ten years, the Beirut port and its landscape may be quite different, for the better. In the meantime, other ports need an immediate security review. The entire region must work together to improve port security and management for the sake of their economies and the safety of their people.


Photo credit: Mehr News Agency/Wikipedia/Creative Commons

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  • Dr. Paul J. Sullivan and Dr. Theodore Karasik

    Dr. Paul J. Sullivan is a Professor at the National Defense University, an Adjunct Professor at Johns Hopkins University, and a Distinguished International Affairs Fellow at NCUSAR. Dr. Theodore Karasik is a senior advisor at Gulf State Analytics.

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