niqash | Saleem al-Wazzan | Basra | 04.05.2009Iraq’s southern port of Umm Qasr is struggling to modernize, blocking the country of an effective gateway for much needed trade and associated development.
The port, which was build in 1962, has seen little substantive development in the intervening 47 years and long ago was surpassed by the ports of other Gulf countries.
Hussein Muhammad Abdullah, vice-chairman of the Iraqi Ports Company, calls Umm al-Qasr a "sleeping giant." He says that the port’s infrastructure needs to be redeveloped, additional berths need to be built and power supplies guaranteed if the port is to serve Iraqi needs and assume a regional position of importance.
According to Abdullah the port is only functioning at half capacity today because of poor infrastructure. The port is a crucial site for the country’s food imports, receiving 50,000 tonnes daily of "ration card" subsidized food items that are distributed to poor Iraqi families.
Abu Khalil, the chief engineer of the Iraqi Ports Company says that Umm Qasr is a "secondary port and is badly lagging behind." Khalil blames the successive wars witnessed in Iraq during the last thirty years, the Western-imposed economic blockade, central planning and a lack of investment as the reasons for this decline.
“The expected life span of the port has expired and equipment and machinery have been used for a long time without being well maintained. Additionally, complicated administrative procedures make merchants reluctant to use the port,” said Abu Khalil.
According to observers, conditions have improved since Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki wrestled control away from militias following his March 2008 military campaign in Basra. Prior to this point the militias had controlled the port’s facilities, facilitating smuggling and imposing taxes on importers and exporters.
However, Abu Khalil says that some "militias are still able to penetrate the security services and have the capacity to control the flow of goods at Umm Qasr."
A further problem facing the port is the hefty increase in costs witnessed since 2006. In that year, annual costs stood at 60 billion Iraqi dinars. In 2008 expenditures reached 128 billion Iraqi dinars.
A port official, who preferred to remain anonymous, blamed the increase on the swelling number of port employees which now stands at more than 2,800. “There has been an unjustified increase in employee numbers. Most of them lack experience and were employed by the militias,” said the official.
As a result of these struggles, businesses say the port is not conducive to effective trading.
One businessman, Abu Muhammad, complained that corruption was rampant and that unloading procedures were far too complicated.
“The army detachments, which are mainly responsible for providing external and internal port security, can fabricate any charges against merchants or goods’ owners and pressure them to pay royalties,” he said. “There are many ministries… and each issues conflicting decisions that increase problems, impeding the smooth flow of goods and leading to more bureaucracy."
According to Abu Muhammad the cost and time it takes to unload at any competing Gulf port is far less.
Although the government has acknowledged the problem of corruption and a bloated bureaucracy and replaced some officials, it has failed to adequately combat the problem.
Abu Khalil says that the delay in approving the national budget has also slowed crucial development of the port.
“Many vital port development projects have been signed with companies and contracting bodies but these projects were suspended because of the delay in the distribution of the allocated budget,” he added.