Asian investors bet on Haifa as Israel draws closer to Arab Gulf
Israeli port to become transport hub with Chinese, Indian backing
Published: Jul 28, 2022 07:17 PM
The Haifa port in Israel Photo: VCG

The Haifa port in Israel Photo: VCG

The city of Haifa is set to become an increasingly significant east Mediterranean shipping hub, with Chinese and Indian firms buying into its ports as Israel normalizes ties with its Gulf Arab neighbors under a US diplomatic push.

Earlier this month, as US President Joe Biden visited the Middle East, India's largest port developer Adani Ports and Israeli minority partner Gadot agreed to buy Haifa Port for 4.1 billion shekels ($1.18 billion)

Its founder, Asia's richest man Gautam Adani, said on Twitter that the deal was of "immense strategic and historical significance", and the company is betting that the port will become a link to Europe and create new trade lanes with Asia.

A year ago, Chinese rival Shanghai International Port Group (SIPG) said it saw the same potential when it inaugurated its 5.5-billion-shekel Bay Port container shipping terminal next door.

Their convergence on Haifa touches on a broader contest among Chinese, Indian and US interests, said Carice Witte, executive director of SIGNAL, an Israeli policy group that specializes in China-Israel relations.

"When you see China at a port in Haifa, Haifa now becomes an incredibly important strategic point," she said. "Whereas maybe in the past it was not perceived that way, Israel in general and Haifa very specifically - its relevance as a piece of the puzzle has changed."

The two ports are too big to serve just Israel, and officials expect the underdeveloped bay of Haifa to become a hub for trade and transshipment, meaning the handling of goods that are unloaded in Israel and then sent to other countries.

This would have been unthinkable just a decade ago, when Israel was politically isolated from potential trade partners in the region.

But while peace talks with the Palestinians remain stuck, Israel has normalized ties with new markets like the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco, all the while forging deeper trade ties with countries in the Far East.

"Israel is a very important place, connecting east and west," Miao Qiang, CEO of SIPG's Bay Port, said at the terminal's control center. "All ships from the Suez Canal from east to west are (passing) through this area."

Night view of Haifa Photo: VCG

Night view of Haifa Photo: VCG

Regional integration

Just outside, new cargo railways are being constructed that will link into the nationwide network and, should regional integration continue, potentially into Jordan, which could then link up Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

Adani Ports did not respond to Reuters' requests for comment. Opher Linchevski, chief executive of Gadot, said the joint venture aimed to benefit from "the warming relationship between Israel and the Arab Gulf countries".

The expansion of Haifa bay is also expected to alleviate problems with congestion, after crises from COVID-19 lockdowns to Ukraine fed into a global supply chain crunch that earlier this year snarled one-fifth of the global containership fleet in ports.

Average ocean dwell times - the period a vessel spends at a port - are currently 2.5 days per load at the Port of Haifa, down from a peak of 3.5 days in May but still 75 percent higher than at the start of the year, data from supply-chain tracking platform FourKites showed.

The country's ports currently handle a total of about 3 million standard containers. SIPG expects that to jump to 5 million in five to eight years, at which point Bay Port's capacity could double to 2 million containers, with half of the business dedicated to transshipment.