Home » Smart Ports in GCC: Assessing the Risks & Opportunities

Smart Ports in GCC: Assessing the Risks & Opportunities

by Mohammad Ghazal

The GCC region is witnessing a surge in the digitalisation of its port infrastructure, as countries are rapidly adopting advanced digital technologies to streamline and enhance their port operations. With the increasing deployment of digital systems and tools, port authorities can achieve greater efficiency and productivity, leading to cost savings and improved ESG performance.

Digitalisation adoption to boost competitiveness and sustainability

Digitalisation in the port sector involves the integration of various technologies, such as the Internet of Things (IoT), big data analytics, artificial intelligence (AI), and blockchain. By using these tools, port operators can manage their operations more effectively and efficiently, reducing waiting times for ships, increasing cargo-handling capacity, and improving the overall logistics supply chain. In addition to streamlining operations, digitalisation also enhances the safety and security of ports. Smart technologies, such as CCTV cameras, drones, and biometric systems, help monitor and track the movement of people and cargo, ensuring compliance with regulatory and security requirements.

The GCC region’s focus on digitalisation in ports is driven by a desire to remain competitive in the global marketplace and align with increasingly ambitious sustainability agendas:

  • As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, and trade volumes continue to grow, ports must be able to handle larger and more complex operations. By embracing digitalisation, countries in the GCC region are positioning themselves as leaders in the industry, attracting more investment and boosting their respective profiles as trade hubs on the global stage.
  • In recent years, GCC countries have recognised the importance of diversifying their economies and reducing their reliance on oil exports. As part of this transition, many governments in the region are focusing on sustainable development as a key component of economic growth. Many ‘vision’ agendas increasingly align with sustainability goals and various ESG criteria, as they acknowledge the significance of balancing economic growth with environmental, social, and governance concerns. In line with this, smart port development can support ESG objectives in the GCC region, as outlined below.

UAE and Saudi leading the way for ‘smart port’ development

The UAE and Saudi Arabia are emerging as leaders in smart port development in the GCC region. In the UAE, Abu Dhabi Ports is spearheading the adoption of digital solutions and sophisticating the country’s maritime operations. For example, Abu Dhabi Ports has launched unmanned autonomous commercial marine tugboats, autonomous truck systems, and remote pilotage, and has also established a ‘Smart Container Initiative’.

Meanwhile, in Saudi Arabia, Saudi Ports Authority (MAWANI) launched the Smart Ports initiative in March 2023 that intends to automate operations in Saudi ports. MAWANI has signed three Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) with STC, Ericsson and Huawei, the Saudi Global Ports Company (SGP), the Red Sea Gateway Terminal Company (RSGT) and DP World. The primary objective of these agreements is to establish Saudi ports as leaders in implementing modern technologies and enhancing their competitiveness regionally and globally.

Stakeholders to capitalise on increased investment opportunities and trade

As digitalisation becomes increasingly necessary, the GCC region offers many opportunities for technology providers, equipment manufacturers, terminal operators, and logistics providers. These stakeholders can provide innovative solutions to support the adoption of digital technologies in the region, including software and hardware, automation and robotics, and digital platforms and services.

Increased port digitalisation, through a new connected ecosystem of platforms that integrate multiple systems, will support the growth of maritime trade worldwide by facilitating the exchange of information between port stakeholders such as port authorities, exporters, and importers. This will result in greater trade opportunities.

Digital integration, workforce restructuring & cybersecurity investment key to mitigating risks

There is no standard digital interface available to connect global supply chains, and many ports use different software and data platforms, which can create compatibility issues. Maritime industry stakeholders must collaborate and aim for greater digital integration and standardisation to create an efficient and seamless global supply chain. This approach will help mitigate the risks of technological incompatibility while enhancing efficiency and transparency in global trade.

Although many ports and terminals globally still rely on human workers, the rise of automation in the sector will require the maritime workforce to adapt and acquire new skills. While intelligent technologies cannot yet fully replace human labour, port authorities must address the potential skills gap by implementing targeted measures to train and up-skill their workers.

Lastly, as smart ports continue to adopt digital technologies, the risk of cyber-attacks on port infrastructure increases significantly. Smart ports depend on interconnected systems, sensors, and devices, which increases the potential for cybersecurity breaches. To combat this threat, smart ports must implement robust cybersecurity measures and protocols to secure their networks, systems, and data. This will require continuous investment in cybersecurity and employee training to ensure that the port remains secure.

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