Changing with the tides: how the evolution of ports has been shaped by global missions

Monday, February 13 2023

Changing with the tides: how the evolution of ports has been shaped by global missions

In December 2022, the Lloyd's Register Foundation remotely hosted three students from the University of Oxford for micro-internships. Over the five-day placements, they used HEC's digital collections to conduct a rapid literature review focusing on one of the Foundation’s big challenge areas - such as safety at sea and safety for a sustainable future. Aside from blogs, the micro-interns have produced social media posts from their research. In this blog, we learn more about Jonathan Huggett's research on green corridors. 

When a group of delegates gather around a table, armed with enough resolve and empowerment from their respective nations, there are no limits to what can be achieved – in theory. That is the lesson of the globalised international order which has revolutionised the maritime world since 1945. Three such meetings, in Paris, Vienna, and Glasgow, with very different motivations, each affirmed different global missions interlacing politics, economics, and righteousness. These missions’ impacts were inevitably and keenly felt by ports across the globe, forced to evolve as the world around them transformed.

The 1951 Treaty of Paris kickstarted European integration as part of the global mission led by the Western Allies to liberalise international trade and encourage economies to open up to the world. Germany, which by 1945 had been left with just 3% of its pre-war shipping tonnage, could now begin a dramatic recovery – its ‘economic miracle’ – and from 1951 to 1957, helped by Marshall Aid and its economic reintegration, its maritime industry was reinvigorated with 418 ships constructed during those years in new and modern facilities.[1]

By 1960, Lloyd’s Register’s Annual Report spoke of an ‘expectation of increased trading, arising from the European Common Market’ with ‘great possibilities’ for Holland and Belgium; the Port of Antwerp was accordingly undergoing a ‘vast development programme’ with the construction of two new harbour docks.[2] Fast-forward thirty years and ports in the newly-independent Baltic States were rejuvenated as they gained access to the European market after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Ventspils in Latvia saw its tonnage handled rise 10% year-on-year, and its new direction was symbolised by a decision to approach the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to fund an $80m investment programme. Aleksandr Zhvalikovsky, technical director of Baltija Shipyard in Lithuania, observed “we used to make castings for other factories in Byelorussia and Moscow, but now these connections have disappeared” – in his country’s new era, his customers came from the Netherlands and Iceland instead. European integration saw ports from all corners of Europe transform as they found new investment, new partners, and new opportunities.[3]

The postwar era has also seen the self-assertion of the Arab states as eminent players on the global stage with the capacity to turn the global economy upside down at will. Their decision at a 1973 conference in Vienna to withhold oil supplies reverberated at ports around the globe. Events in the Middle East had for a while been crucial to global shipping – the Suez Canal was described by Lloyd’s Register (LR) as, ‘the world’s most important waterway’. Its prolonged closure by Egypt from 1967 following the Six Day War with Israel saw trade routes translocate en masse.[4] South African ports received 55% more ships in 1968 than in 1966: an ‘unprecedented’ amount which meant LR staff carried out a ‘record number’ of surveys there.[5] During the closure, Alexandria temporarily became the home of the Suez Canal Authority – this was just the latest stage of Alexandria’s extraordinary maritime history which had seen it become a ‘dominant hub’ in the southern Mediterranean for Latin crusaders and spice traders alike, until it lost its ‘monopolistic position’ once the Portuguese discovered a new route to India around Africa.[6]

But it was 1973 which proved to be the year in which the Arab nations properly launched their global mission of self-assertion with international ramifications. Emboldened by their enormous, oil-induced wealth and the collective unity of the Arab League, and provoked by the West’s support for Israel in the Yom Kippur war, the Arab nations convinced the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to cut oil production by 30% and ‘altered the monetary balance of power overnight’. Oil revenues increased tenfold in three years for its producers; for the West, ‘petrol rationing stared them in the face’.[7] While ports and docks in Europe were in turmoil – for example, Norwegian shipbuilders had to close down and switch to offshore work, the maritime industry in the Middle East was primed to thrive.[8] Instead of leaving their profits to accumulate in western bank accounts, the governments of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, among others, began to invest in their infrastructure on a mass scale. Inter-governmental groups including the Arab Maritime Petroleum Transportation Company, the Arab Federation of Shipping, and the Arab Shipping Lines Company were established in order to establish and support Arab fleets and Arab ports. In Saudi Arabia, a Ports Authority was established in 1976 to upgrade the congested King Abdul Aziz Port in Dammam; its investment increased the number of berths from nine to 39 and the number of vessels handled more than tripled between 1975 and 1981. Ninety kilometres up the coast, a 900km2 industrial area – still today the world’s largest – was established at the Port of Jubail.[9] Meanwhile, in Dubai the world’s largest port was created by a merger of Port Rashid and Jebel Ali Port and the creation of a special economic zone surrounding the latter – the Jebel Ali Free Zone – attracted 1,270 companies from 80 countries in thirteen years, including Hewlett-Packard, Adidas, and Nestlé. Sultan Bin Sulayem, the managing director of Dubai Ports, described the Free Zone as “a continuation of Dubai’s history”. Recalling the silk trade and the spice trade, he observed that “Dubai has always been a centre of trade, and as the trade developed, Dubai had to develop”.[10]

The global impact of the ideas and policies of the European integrationists and the Arab self-determinists seems an appropriate model for those delegates who gathered in Glasgow for COP26 in autumn 2021. One of their objectives, enshrined in the Clydebank Declaration, was the creation of ‘green shipping corridors’, defined as ‘zero-emission maritime routes’, between ports with appropriate landside infrastructure to facilitate clean shipping.[11] Within months, the Montreal and Antwerp Port Authorities were ‘actively pursuing’ this – the President of the Montreal Authority noted that his port, already a world leader in reducing berth-side emissions, was “well positioned to use, distribute and export renewable fuels such as hydrogen and methanol produced using Quebec hydropower”.[12] Once more, a global mission – this time to combat climate change – has encouraged ports to evolve and innovate.

Carlo Raucci, Marine Decarbonisation Consultant at the Lloyd's Register Maritime Decarbonisation Hub, adds: "The idea of ‘green corridors’ has rapidly taken root and is now part of several international and cross-organisational agreements. In spring 2022, LR’s Decarbonisation Hub unveiled the ‘Silk Alliance’ project, whose members will “draw from their individual areas of expertise to develop a fleet-specific fuel transition strategy for container ships operating primarily in Asia”[13]. Another example is the Australia-Japan Iron-Ore corridor, which aims to decarbonise the shipping in bulk of 65 million tonnes of iron ore annually[14]. Twenty-five years ago, an LR commentator observed that throughout the history of shipping, ‘its winners are those which have been able to adapt their operations to meet changing circumstances’, and these words still ring true today.[15]"

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Lloyd’s Register Group or Lloyd’s Register Foundation.

  1. [1] ‘The Rise of Post-War Germany’ in 100A1, 1, vol.1 (1958), p.11-14
  1. [2] ‘Around the World’ in Annual Report for the Year 1960 (1960), p.50, p.61
  1. [3] ‘States of independence’ in 100A1, 111, vol.3 (1995), p.12-21
  1. [4] ‘All Clear at Suez?’ in 100A1, Jun. 1974 (1974), p.9-15
  1. [5] ‘Around the World’ in Annual Report for the Year 1968 (1968), p.74-5; ‘Around the World’ in Annual Report for the Year 1969 (1969), p.67, p.79
  1. [6] ‘Around the World’ in Annual Report for the Year 1973 (1973), p.71; G.Christ, ‘Collapse and Continuity: Alexandria as a declining city with a thriving port’ in W. Blockmans, M. Krom, J. Wubs-Mrozewicz, The Routledge Handbook of Maritime Trade Around Europe 1300-1600 (Abingdon, 2017)
  1. [7] Building the Future – Before the Oil Runs Out’ in 100A1, Jun. 1974 (1974), p.2-8; ‘A Helping Hand for Destiny’ in 100A1, Apr. 1983 (1983), p.2-5
  1. [8] ‘Celebrating 125 years in Norway’ in 100A1, 116, vol.2 (1997), p.28-9
  1. [9] ‘Kingdom of Allah and Oil’ in 100A1, Apr. 1983 (1983), p.6-10
  1. [10]  ‘A port aiming starward’ in 100A1, 120, vol.3 (1998), p.6-7
  1. [11] ‘COP26 Clydebank Declaration for green shipping corridors’, (13th April 2022)
  1. [12]  ‘First-ever North Atlantic Green Shipping Corridor prioritised by Montreal and Antwerp ports’, (1st April 2022)
  1. [13] ‘LR and partners unveil 'Silk Alliance' green corridor project’, (26th May 2022)
  1. [14] ‘Piloting green shipping corridors: Australia-Japan and Asia-Europe’, (28th January 2022)
  1. [15] ‘Celebrating 125 years in Norway’ in 100A1, 116, vol.2 (1997), p.28-9
Guest blog
Hindsight Perspectives