Morocco could not ask for a better geographical location in its efforts to become a major trading nation. Located at the far western end of the Mediterranean Sea, it is ideally positioned to act as a transhipment centre between the North Atlantic Basin, the Mediterranean, the Middle East and the Indian Ocean. All it lacked, until relatively recently, was sufficient handling capacity for deepwater vessels. This capacity is now being provided but that is not the end of the story.

The centrepiece of the country’s infrastructural programme is the well publicised Tanger Med port. It has been developed in order to serve both the Moroccan economy and transhipment trade. Tanger Med 1, which was completed in 2007, has handling capacity of 3m TEU a year spread over two terminals: one operated by APM Terminals and the Moroccan Akwa Group; the other by Eurogate and Contship Italia. The facility, which handled 2m TEU – or standard sized container equivalents – in 2011 for the first time, has had a great deal of success in attracting business away from Spanish ports such as Algeciras, partly because of lower costs and greater efficiency. However, prolonged strike action in 2011 affected operations and attracted negative publicity for the first time.

Tanger Med 2 is an even more impressive undertaking, with handling capacity of 5.5m TEU a year, and here too, different companies are to operate each of the two terminals – TC3 and TC4 – in order to promote competition. However, the development process was held up by the global economic crisis. Maersk offshoot

APM Terminals was originally awarded one terminal concession, while the other went to a consortium of PSA International, state owned Marsa Maroc and SN, but the foreign investors suspended their involvement as global trade volumes fell.

A port consultant who preferred not to be named but with responsibility for North Africa said: “Tanger Med has it all to do. It is in a great position and has huge potential but it needs to show that it can do the business.

The extra 5.5m TEU [annual capacity] could be utilised at some stage but terminal investors and shipping companies alike need to be convinced that the reality matches the hype.” Most sources suggest that Tanger Med will become the biggest container port in Africa once Phase II is completed. Total handling capacity of 8.5m TEU a year would indeed be bigger than the current record holder, Durban in South Africa, but the latter should regain top spot when its own expansion programme is complete.

Despite the setbacks, Marsa Maroc and the government of Morocco are seeking to push ahead with the development of TC4 on their own. The European Invest- ment Bank has provided a $255m loan, the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development is supplying a further $178m, while Tanger Med Port Authority has raised $174m with a bond issue and is directly invest- ing $461m in the project. Marsa Maroc must fund the required cargo handling equipment itself.

The president of state owned port operator Marsa Maroc, Mohammed Abdeljalil, commented: “Morocco’s geographical location puts it, for obvious reasons, in a very favourable position. This is best illustrated by the port of Tanger Med. The port of Tanger Med II will further increase the attractiveness of the kingdom’s logistics facilities. Owing to its strategic regional geographic location, at the crossroads of the east-west and north-south maritime routes, the port is the ideally located to provide ship owners with the required services.”

In November, a joint venture of Geodis and STVA, called Geodis STVA Tanger Med, won the tender to operate the second roll on roll off (ro-ro) terminal at Tanger Med for two years. French firm STVA already operates the Renault ro-ro terminal at the port but the new facility, which has storage capacity for 3,000 vehicles, will be open to all manufacturers. In its first year of operation, 2012 the first terminal handled 81,000 cars but it is hoped that the new terminal will handle about

400,000 vehicles a year. In 2011, Casablanca too received its own car terminal, which was developed by Spanish firm Autoterminal and so growing competition in the sector should help to drive prices down.

Casablanca continues to handle about 35% of all Moroccan sea bound trade but it must expand if it is to compete with Tanger Med in the long term. The port currently has total handling capacity of 1m TEU a year, shared between the CMA CGM and Marsa Maroc terminals but two new facilities could more than double this figure. A third terminal is under construction at Casablanca itself, while a fourth terminal is planned at the nearby oil port of Mohammedia.

Marsa Maroc overcame competition from Terminal de Conteneurs de Barcelona and CMA CGM to secure the contract to operate the third terminal at Casablanca. Sources inside Morocco suggest that it offered a higher bid than its European rivals and will now finance, build and operate the 600,000 TEU a year terminal for 30 years. The facility is expected to be open for business in 2015, although the deadline has slipped several times from the original date of 2011. This reservation also applies to the five year timetable for expanding the capacity of terminal three to 1.5m TEU a year within five years.

It is important not to see the port projects in isolation. Rail links between Tanger Med, Casablanca and the rest of the country are being upgraded, enabling the two ports to compete directly with each other for the same business. Former minister of equipment and transport, Karim Ghellab, said: “For the past 10 years, Morocco has launched a number of major projects aimed at improving nationwide mobility. These include the development of efficient transportation networks and the promulgation of significant reforms across all different modes of trans- port, partly with a view to responding to the constant increases in demand, but also to improve the efficient movement of people and goods.”

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