International Waters

Capt. Max Hardberger Port State Control: Who needs it?

January 15, 2013

DUBAI — A single glance at the tiller arms of the typical dhow secured alongside the Dhow Wharves at Dubai Creek will tell you that there’s no Port State Control here in the United Arab Emirates.

The splintered wooden crossbars on the rudder-head are pulled by ragged ropes leading through crude chocks to a drum on the steering wheel shaft. It’s no wonder that these dhows never leave port during the monsoon season, although rotten ropes can part even under normal strain.

It's no wonder that even the boldest, most entrepreneurial P&I club will never cover a dhow or its cargo. But judging from the round-the-clock loading on these wharves, and the continual coming and going of the dhows, running without cover is a small price to pay for the profits to be had.

Another clue that Port State Control in Dubai isn’t as rigorous it appears, is the ubiquitous sea toilet, a small round enclosure off the dhow’s bustle stern secured to the hull with ropes. These al fresco toilets, besides offering the sea — or the Dubai Creek — as the ship’s sanitary holding tank, allow the user to amuse himself by gazing out over the bundles and piles of cargo at the well-dressed Russian and Arab shoppers hurrying along the city’s streets.

The existence of the Dhow Wharves, which stretches for miles without fencing or gates, with goods in bales and boxes and used cars waiting for export lining the narrow lanes, shows how unregulated sea commerce is in Dubai. Most of the goods imported into the Horn of Africa embark here. And although an occasional small customs office can be spotted on the waterfront, I’ve never seen one manned. There are no customs duties in Dubai, so the government has little impetus to control the flow of goods and a great deal to gain from the bustling business it provides.

As for the Iran trade embargo, here is where it breaks down completely. Just 12 hours away, even for the slowest dhow, Iran is the destination for at least half of the dhows that line the Dhow Wharves. A hundred tons of uranium could pass across these crowded wharves, disguised as common cargo, and into dhows for shipment to Iranian centrifuges. Whether the Dubai government cares is an open question, although the Emirs who own the country take pains to control the residents’ lives in many other strange and sometimes inconsistent ways. For example, dating websites are prohibited in a city filled with brothels masquerading as massage parlors.

As for PSC’s legal justification of protecting the lives of seamen by controlling the condition of ships leaving a country’s ports — upon which the doctrine of Port State Control was founded — Dubai has no apparent interest in protecting the lives of the Indian crews on these invariably Indian-owned vessels. For that matter, this is where Indians, Pakistanis, and other foreigners come to toil for near-slave wages, and where the confiscation of their passports for unpaid debts can make them indentured servants.

Foreign workers (fewer than 10 percent of Dubai residents are citizens) are the foundation that supports the Emerald City that Dubai was becoming before it was detoured by the financial crash. Now, the Indian laborers and Asian sex masseuses go about their work in the shadows of half-completed spiral skyscrapers and under a sky filled with construction cranes that never move.

But each day, the dhows come and go. Their ancient Caterpillar engines spew black smoke and enjoy a freedom of the seas that, for the rest of the developed world, is only a fond memory of the days before Port State Control.


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