Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain severed diplomatic, trade and transport ties with Qatar more than a week ago. The spat initially halted much traffic to the Hamad Port and raised fears of food and other shortages.
But after launching new direct shipping routes to cope with the crisis, port officials say the worst is over and the episode may even help Qatar seal new transport deals that do not rely on Gulf neighbours.
“It’s a blessing in disguise,” a port official told Reuters news agency as cargo was unloaded on Wednesday. “We’re looking at signing agreements with shipping companies that can improve direct services instead of having to come through Jebel Ali.”
A new shipping line to India has been launched, connecting Hamad Port with Mundra and Nhava Sheva in India. Vessels using the new line will visit Hamad Port every Friday.
Also, new services have been announced from Oman, which has remained neutral during the crisis.
Earlier this week, the world’s biggest container line, Maersk of Denmark, said it would accept new bookings for container shipments to Qatar from Oman.
Several Maersk containers could be seen parked among rows of shipments at Hamad Port. Operations manager Omar El Khayat said another deal with Maersk was being discussed.
Mediation efforts to end the crisis have intensified, including by the US, which hosts the largest US air base in the Middle East. Two US Navy ships arrived at Hamad Port on Wednesday for a joint exercise with Qatar.
Port officials said the cutting of transport links by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain with Qatar continues to affect some services. Ships from China’s Shanghai, which normally go through Jebel Ali, have to be re-routed via Iraq, adding seven days to a normally 20-day voyage, one official said. Not all lines have resumed shipping services.
China’s Cosco Shipping Lines Co Ltd, Taiwan’s Evergreen and Hong Kong Kong’s OOCL suspended container services to and from Qatar.
Hamad Port’s general cargo terminal can handle 1.7mn tonnes of goods per year, according to the Ministry of Transport and Communications.
Hamad al-Ansar of the Qatar Ports Management Company, Mwani Qatar, said ties with Turkey and Iran, which have flown goods into Doha since the boycott, might expand, with Turkish vessels already on their way. “We’ll open a relationship with anyone who can bring cargo.”
For now, port employees have their work cut out. As one large ship took back empty containers later in the day, a second one arrived bringing livestock from Australia.
“The first five days of the crisis there were fewer shipments. Now it’s back to normal. I’ve seen the schedule and it looks packed,” said a Kenyan supervisor.
Hamad Port’s imports include large quantities of food and building materials for construction projects, including stadiums for the 2022 World Cup, and a Metro line running alongside highways that stretch out of Doha.
The boycott raised concerns that projects could be delayed if building material including from the Far East and South Asia is choked. But at the nearby Mesaieed stockyard, vast dunes of gabbro rock, around 10mn tonnes’ worth according to officials, lay stockpiled for construction.
“It’s business as usual,” the port official said.