Top 5 Middle East Ports in 2023

From the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea, and the Gulf, these are the top five ports serving the Arab World.

Image credit: Shutterstock / Novikov Aleksey

Seaports are crucial economic hotspots, as over 80% of global transportation remains maritime. The entire output of sectors such as hydrocarbons, manufacturing (both heavy and light), textiles, and agrifood must be loaded onto a cargo ship at some point during the supply chain.

Given their critical importance for economic development, it is no wonder that wherever major ports are located, there is also prosperity, prospects for development, and—invariably—money to be made!
The oldest ports of the world were established in the Middle East and North Africa at the same time as the rise of civilization, record-keeping, and long-distance trade.

Ancient seafarers such as Phoenicians built seaports like Byblos in modern-day Lebanon, where the surpluses of agricultural and artisanal commodities were transshipped and exchanged using a new innovation which would forever change the course of history: money!

Much has happened since those early days of maritime transportation. Other ports have been established, flourished, and—sometimes—forgotten in Southern and Northern Europe, Southeast Asia, and ultimately the New World.

However, many Middle Eastern ports are still among the most bustling transportation hubs of the world, given their role in the supply chain of not only hydrocarbons, but also other goods.

Below is a breakdown of the top five ports in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region in 2023, including a quick review of their story, their claim to fame, and prospects for development.

Port of Jebel Ali (UAE)

Located some 30km southwest of Dubai, Jebel Ali is among the world’s top 10 seaports by several metrics. In terms of container volume, it handles roughly 15 million TEUs a year—almost the same number as the port of Rotterdam, the busiest seaport in Europe.

The deep water port’s construction began in the 1970s, shortly following the UAE’s founding.

The success story of Jebel Ali is intertwined with Dubai’s economic miracle, as it turned the UAE into the focal point of global shipping.

The free economic zone built around the port is now home to over 5,000 companies from around the globe, which justifies the fact that Jebel Ali is sometimes described as the most important link across the so-called maritime silk road.

The Emirati operator of Jebel Ali, DP World, is now also operating some eighty other ports and terminals from the Americas to Australia, thus essentially making the UAE a modern-day maritime power.

Tanger-Med (Morocco)

Located in the northernmost part of Morocco and overlooking the strategic strait of Gibraltar, Tanger-Med is the largest port in Africa and roughly the 25th largest in the world. It handles some 7-8 million TEUs per year.

Much like Jebel Ali in the UAE, Morocco’s Tanger-Med is an industrial port, with the industrial expansion around it housing over 1,100 factories, companies, and businesses.

To get a rough idea of the size of this industrial zone, remember that, among much else, it contains the largest automotive manufacturing plants in Africa, including those owned by Renault, Nissan, and Fiat.

Tanger-Med is part of the Suez-Gibraltar sea route, which handles over 12% of global trade. Any shipment between Europe and Asia must pass through the strait of Gibraltar, which makes Tanger-Med a critical stopping point.

King Abdul Aziz Port (Saudi Arabia)

Saudi Arabia owns the third largest port in the Middle East and the second busiest port in the Gulf region. Unsurprisingly, the port is primarily an export terminal for Saudi Arabia’s hydrocarbon products.

It is, therefore, conveniently close to the kingdom’s large oil and petrochemical facilities in the Eastern Province. Indeed, the modern city of Dammam, where the port is located, has evolved from a small settlement along with the King Abdul Aziz Port and the kingdom’s oil industry.

The multi-purpose deep water port can today accommodate even the largest classes of oceangoing ships and tankers with tonnages of up to 105.

The port’s main exports are bulk hydrocarbons and petrochemicals, although this does not mean that it is insufficient in terms of cargo handling.

With two modernized container terminals, the port handles an impressive 2 million TEUs per year. Nevertheless, the King Abdul Aziz Port will always be regarded as an artery of the global energy supply chain.

Port Said (Egypt)

As one of the top 30 busiest container ports in the world—top 3 in the MENA region—Port Said Port and its twin East Port Said Port handle some 3.5 million TEUs a year.

Like all ports mentioned here, the twin seaports are considered to be part of the maritime silk road, linking the Far East to Europe.

Port Said Port is also part of the Suez Canal system, and therefore enjoys access to both the Mediterranean, along whose southern coast it lies, and the Red Sea, some 160km up the Suez Canal.

Given its location at a crucial maritime choke point, Port Said has one of the largest shipyards in the Middle East where many vessels undergo repair operations.

In addition, the port exports huge tonnages of Egyptian cotton, rice, and other agricultural produces, while taking it the country’s increasingly large imports from Asia.

The city of Port Said is a quintessentially maritime settlement: its history began with the construction of the Suez Canal in the 1850s and has now become the fifth largest city in Egypt. The port city is famous for celebrating its maritime identity.

Salalah (Oman)

And finally, the port of Salalah definitely deserves an honorable mention. Inaugurated in 1998, the relatively young port of Salalah has quickly established itself as a stopping point in the Arabian Sea. The port owes its quick growth to its strategic location: the meeting point of the Indian Ocean, the Sea of Oman, and the Arabian Sea.

The port may be younger than the four previous ones introduced here, but it already handles some 4.5 million TEUs per year, which puts it in the list of the world’s top 50 busiest seaports, above the ports of Tokyo and Dalian.

The port of Salalah is undergoing a medium-term expansion project according to Omani officials, with new cranes and other equipment being installed and upgraded regularly.

In only one recent initiative, USD66 million was invested for the construction of the necessary infrastructure for the accommodation of ultra large container vessels (ULCV) by 2025.

At this rate, we are likely to hear more about the port of Salalah in the coming months and years.