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Port State Jurisdiction Beyond Oceans Governance: The Closure of Ports to Qatar in the 2017 ‘Gulf Crisis’

Published on July 3, 2017        Author: 

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5 June 2017 witnessed numerous states severing diplomatic ties with Qatar, including Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia (see also part 2, part 3) and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). These were later joined by the Comoros, Libya (Provisional Government), the Maldives, Mauritania and Yemen. Others have downgraded relations with Qatar to a lesser degree (e.g. recalling ambassadors), including Chad, Djibouti, Eritrea, Jordan, Niger and Senegal. However, as a sign of rising tensions, the measures adopted go further than the previous 2014 breakdown of relations. A number of territorial restrictions in the Persian Gulf region were adopted against persons, vessels or aircraft with a link to Qatar. The most interesting measures for discussion here are those adopted in a port state capacity. The key question concerns the jurisdictional basis on which these port states have taken measures against foreign vessels – especially given the imposition of denial of entry on the basis of purely extraterritorial conduct (visited Qatar), or future conduct (destined for Qatar)?

Since adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the formal role of port states in ocean governance has been increasing. Port states had played a role prior to UNCLOS, focused upon issues of marine pollution, but this has been expanded upon by subsequent treaties further addressing pollution, labour standards and the fight against illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing (on which see the recent post by Diane Desierto). In this post I cover a further direction in the use of regional port state measures that has been highlighted by recent events within the Persian Gulf: the shaping of another state’s foreign and domestic policies.

A port state may be defined as the state with territorial sovereignty over a port to which a foreign vessel is requesting entry, or currently resides within. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), as a port state, closed all seaports to Qatari vessels and banned all Qatari means of transportation (sea and air) from entering or leaving its territory. To implement this decision, Fujairah, Abu Dhabi (and also see here), Ras Al Khaimah, and Sharjah ports have prohibited entry to Qatari flagged or owned vessels, all vessels destined to, or coming from, Qatari ports, and all vessels carrying cargo destined for or coming from Qatar (subsequently, slightly eased). Bahrain (and also see here) similarly closed all its ports to vessels coming from or going to Qatar. Saudi Arabia (and also see here) closed all sea ports to Qatari flagged or owned vessels, and denied port unloading/loading services to all vessels carrying cargo to/from Qatar. While UAE stated it would prevent “means of transportation” leaving its territory, reports only indicate containers being stuck in port. In contrast, the Saudi Port Authority confirmed vessels “destined for Qatar” will not be given clearance to leave port. According to Intertanko, there are “conflicting reports regarding the use of ports in Egypt”. In contrast, other port states, including Iran and Oman, who object to the economic pressures imposed, have offered access and use of their ports necessary for vessels destined to Qatar. Read the rest of this entry…