The development of the Port of Aden


This is an updated summary of a talk given to a joint meeting of the Middle East Association and the British-Yemeni Society in January 1998. Captain Facey has, through the UNDP and World Bank, acted as adviser to the Port of Aden during the recent phases of its development.

If you stand on Jebel Shamsan some 600 metres above the city of Aden and look out to sea, the horizon is about 45 miles away. From here you can see the ships which move between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean and pass within a few miles of the harbour.

Aden has been a major regional centre at various times during the past 3000 years. Over this long span, visitors with vision have always been impressed by the port and by the opportunities for trade which it offers. Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta both noted the prosperity of Aden as a ship-owning centre.

Just under 160 years ago Captain Haines and the British arrived, to stay for 128 years. Aden was a village of 600 souls when Haines stated that it could become a major trading centre. The latter part of the British period proved him correct and Aden grew to become one of the busiest ports in the world.

Aden was declared a Free Port in 1850 as it took control of the coffee exporting trade. From 1869 the Suez Canal shortened the sea distance between London and Bombay from over 10,700 miles to 6,270 miles. Aden’s coal bunkering and re-provisioning trade accelerated. Aden was fortunate to be connected to the London/Bombay telegraph cable, giving it great advantages in east/west communications. By 1901, Aden’s inner harbour had been dredged to 30 feet to handle the largest ships of those days. In 1919 Aden introduced oil bunkering and became, by the 1950s, one of the world’s top bunkering ports, handling over 6,300 ships a year. When construction of the oil refinery and oil harbour was completed in 1954, Aden began to import and refine crude oil. Calls by cargo and passenger vessels made Aden the world’s fourth largest tax-free shopping port. It became the regional base for dhow, coastal, and deep-sea traffic. Dhows trading between the Gulf, Pakistan, the Red Sea and East Africa were regular callers and by mid-century Aden was handling over 1,500 dhows annually.


Aden has many advantages for shipping which helped to make it a regional distribution centre and will favour it in future:

It is directly on the main round-the-world and the Far East to Europe/America trade route, with a deviation of only 4 miles from this route to the pilot station;

It has clear approaches from waters 20-40 metres deep without reefs, is well-marked by aids to navigation, has clear weather, and a well-planned and easy channel four miles from fairway buoy to berth;

It provides deep water in one of the world’s largest natural harbours, protected from prevailing winds during winter months by 500 metres high hills to south and east, and from the summer SW monsoon by hills 350 metres high to the south west;

It operates 365 days a year;

It is some 4,570 miles from NE Europe and 3,640 miles from Singapore and very well placed to provide trans-shipment services to East Africa, the Red Sea, the sub-Continent and the Gulf;

It enjoys a dry climate with temperatures of around 28 deg C through the winter and 38 deg C during the summer (May-August).

Based on these splendid advantages, Aden developed and expanded its port services until 1967, when the Suez Canal closed for eight years. This, added to uncertainties of national independence, led to a severe downturn in Aden’s trade when other states in the region were beginning to generate substantial oil revenues. New ports in the region handling massive amounts of construction and project cargo then became major cargo centres. Aden had no facilities for handling containers and was starved of investment capital. All dry cargo was handled at buoys in the inner harbour before being transferred to the Home Trade quay by lighters. Double handling, the accepted means of working cargoes in most ports up to the 1960s, continued at Aden into the 1980s.


The Yemen Port Authority (YPA) fully realised that cargo handling methods at Aden had to change and that the solution was to build new berths. By 1988 YPA had secured finance from Arab Funds to build the Ma’alla Terminal. This provided the Port with the first alongside berths for large dry cargo vessels. In 1993 the first container gantry quay crane arrived and a second crane in 1995, allowing Aden to offer container trans-shipment services. 1997 and 1998 have seen steady growth, with 1998 showing an accelerating upward trend in the number of ship calls and tonnage of bulk, general and containerised cargoes. Container volume almost doubled between 1994-97 and will be substantially higher in 1998 thanks to trans-shipment volume.


Although trends are positive, the Port has been very conscious during the 1 990s that Aden’s position as a service and distribution centre for the region has been lost. But restoring Aden to its former position is now, we believe, entirely possible. Various developments in international shipping make this time the right time to act. Aden comes late to the modern container trans-shipment business, but there are certain advantages in this. The growth in ship size, re-grouping of shipping companies and changes in international trade patterns favour a terminal built specifically to serve the new generation of container ships, offering a high standard of service in the right location. Following unity in 1990, various studies by British, World Bank and other consultants concluded that Aden is very well placed geographically to develop container trans-shipment services. The ‘Free Zone Authority’ was established in 1990 and a concession agreement to construct and operate a new container terminal and an industrial development zone was approved in November 1995.


Yeminvest and PSA Corporation, with Hyundai, are currently completing the new deepwater container terminal — the Aden Container Terminal (ACT) — on the North Shore. The quay wall for ACT can be taken to a depth of 18 metres, four metres deeper than Jebel Ali (Dubai), Jeddah or Colombo. ACT will be able to handle the world’s largest existing and planned container ships. Initial dredging is being carried out to 16 metres (53 feet) alongside and in the outer section of the channel. Tidal patterns effectively give the Port 16.8 metres alongside for 18 hours each day for almost the whole year.

The first phase of the North Shore berths, 700 metres, will be in place by 17 March 1999. Phase II will provide a further 350 metres and Phase III 600 metres to give a Terminal length of 1650 metres. Other phases should follow. ACT will be equipped with the latest super post-Panamax quay cranes, with an outreach of 57 metres. Yard gantry cranes, reefer points, engineering maintenance and facilities to match and support quay crane capacity are also being installed.

The construction of ACT and the restoration of Aden’s former position as a regional service and distribution centre will be a vital element in the economic development of Yemen. Its importance to the Port, to the city of Aden and to Yemen cannot be overemphasised. YPA believes that this will prove to be the ‘key’ project to attract inward investment for infrastructure development and a wide range of industrial activities. The project is emblematic of improvements in political and economic stability in Yemen over the past three years which other investors recognise. The degree of interest and confidence in the country is rising.

There will be competition from other regional ports. Some of these have grown impressively over the past thirty years and traffic in the more successful ones is dominated by container trans-shipment. Container movement world-wide increased at around 8-9% annually in the 1990s and is predicted to grow at between 7-8% until 2010. Container handling was a market which did not exist when Aden was a major bunkering port, but has become a market which Aden can and will bid to share.

Aden will soon have facilities for the very largest container ships, a growing percentage of which will by then be in the 7000+ TEU class. Ships carrying over 4,500 TEUs, which currently make up only 1.7% of the world fleet, are expected to form 33% of the world’s container fleet by 2010. Aden will soon be ready to handle ships of this size, and larger, and to re-gain its position as a regional hub port.


Aden is not only a container port. Other services have been provided in the past and will be provided in the future. Ship bunkering is an obvious example and there is considerable interest in expanding present facilities and developing new ones to offer in-harbour and offshore bunkering services. New bulk handling equipment at Ma’alla, greater economic activity and higher efficiency allowed Aden to raise its tonnage for major imported commodities by 87% in 1996 over 1995. YPA predicts that this will increase to 1.4 million tonnes by the end of the century and to 1.9 million tonnes by 2003.

Ship repair services are also seen as having considerable potential for expansion. Classification Societies which were formerly based at Aden may be expected to re—establish offices at Aden. Marine surveying and insurance services will grow. At the airport a ‘cargo village’ will support sea-air cargo business. Crew changing, supply of spare parts for machinery and electrical items, ship stores etc. are also expected to expand. Calls by passenger ships, at around 18-20 per year at present, help to develop the growing tourist business in Yemen, while yachts find Aden a good place to visit for fuel, stores and communications and many now call during the winter months.


When one looks at the chart of Aden, the sheer size of the natural harbour contained inside the rim of hills and shore is impressive. The twelve kilometres east-west and six kilometres north-south provide a very large area of sheltered water.

When Captain Haines first surveyed the harbour in 1835, water depths on the south side of what is now the inner harbour were around 20 feet. It took eleven years to complete the first deepening programme to increase the depth to 30 feet. Dredging technology has moved on and the current deepening by 4 metres has taken a total of around thirty weeks. Sea bed materials of excellent quality are being used for constructing Phases I — III of ACT and YPA has reclaimed over eighty hectares of land on the north side of the ‘Rubble Mound’ for future construction.

YPA visualises the expansion of the Port to the west, to provide a sheltered basin within the natural basin formed by hills and shore. It would be developed for various purposes, including industrial processes which need access to deep quay space. Yemen can provide workers for some of the more labour-intensive industries currently looking for sites and, with easy access from all points of the compass, it would be difficult to improve upon Aden’s location.


Visitors to the Port of Aden often comment that Aden is a very ‘real’ place. A real city with real people, with a real port in a place where God intended one to be. After years of decline and under-utilisation, Aden will enter the next millennium challenging others for its rightful place as a major distribution centre. The dreams of three years ago are assuming tangible form.

A number of strategic planners, looking at container movement in the next century, conclude that ‘hub’ and ‘spoke’ operations for containers are here to stay, and that trans-shipment will be focused on a small number of ports in key locations. The physical characteristics, expertise, and facilities of these ports will enable them to handle very large container ships with great efficiency. One recent report predicts that by 2010 there will be just five major ports handling the bulk of the world’s trans-shipped container traffic. Aden is identified as one of these.

We believe in the future of Aden, and hope that many of you will have good cause to visit Aden in the coming months and years. You will be following in the steps of some famous travellers. And perhaps you will capture something of the vision which we have whenever we look out from the hills around the Port.

November 1998