Gulf tanker war gives region's shipyards a booming business. But conflict has sharply reduced their breadand-butter contracts
Muharraq Island, Bahrain — Alongside the jetty, the Japanese tanker stands motionless in the blazing 108-degree Gulf summer, like a melt-proof, rust-colored iceberg four stories tall. Sections of new steel about the size of a Little League infield have been welded into place in the hull.
Men in sweaty coveralls with water bottles slung at their sides emerge from a six-by-eight-foot opening in the hull 20 feet up, amidship.
It is lunch time at the Gulf's second largest shipyard. And work has temporarily halted on the Japanese tanker, a victim of Iran's latest tactic in the Gulf: mine warfare.
Across the yard in the dry dock, a Greek supertanker, hit by an Iraqui heat-seaking missile, is being fitted with a new propeller and undergoing major engine-room repairs.
Business at the Arab Shipbuilding and Repair Yard Company (ASRY) has been brisk in recent months. And shipping industry sources say that the Gulf's other major shipyard, the Dubai Drydocks, has more work than it can handle, largely because of an upsurge several weeks ago in Iranian and Iraqi attacks on tankers.
``They are making money hand over fist,'' says a shipping executive. ``It is a boom,'' adds another shipping source. ``It has never been better.''
ASRY officials cringe at the suggestion that the shipyard is profiting from the Iran-Iraq war. They say that despite temporary increases in business from flareups in the ``tanker war,'' the ongoing conflict is costing the shipyard dearly.
Shipyard executives say that the war has sharply reduced the total volume of Gulf shipping business and thus has reduced the number of ships requiring standard maintenance work. It is standard maintenance - parts replacement, engine repair, painting, etc. - that is the bread-and-butter of shipyards, they say.
The more-conservative ship owners have refused to send ships into the Gulf in the three years since the tanker war began for fear they will fall victim to mines, missiles, or other attacks, industry sources say. And with the discovery in the last two weeks of more mines in the northern Gulf and in the Gulf of Oman near the Strait of Hormuz, there is concern that more owners will refuse to sail in the region.
Industry sources note that much current Gulf trade is already conducted by firms unable to compete for safer, more lucrative routes elsewhere. Also, rising insurance rates and the constant threat of attack have encouraged shipowners not to permit their ships to linger in Gulf waters. Standard maintenance is often postponed until ships are safely out of the Gulf. Shipyards in Europe and Asia are benefitting, the executives say.
``It has two edges,'' says an ASRY manager, referring to the war. ``I might have a good repair on a big vessel from the war, but I lose a lot of other ships.''
Executives add that, in the current depressed shipping market, competition for war-damage repairs is tough.
ASRY submitted a bid to repair the mine-damaged reflagged Kuwaiti supertanker Bridgeton. But it was underbid by the competing Dubai Drydocks, which, with 150 ships repaired last year, handles roughly three times ASRY's annual volume of business. Other ships that have been attacked by Iran's Revolutionary Guards but are still sea worthy have sailed to Singapore for repairs.
The location of mine damage can offer important clues about whether a mine was intentionally planted or simply adrift in the Gulf.
Sources say that mines adrift cause damage to tankers at the waterline, while mines intentionally moored under the Gulf's surface rip into the bottom of the ship. Gathering such information has become increasingly important as the United States Navy attempts to prove that Iran deliberately planted the mines it is discovering in Gulf sea lanes.
Iran counters such US charges with accusations that the US is planting mines in a bid to escalate tension in the region.
The issue has been made more difficult by the occasional discovery of stray floating mines in the central Gulf. A week ago, three fishermen near Bahrain accidentally detonated a sea mine that had drifted into their nets. Their boat was damaged but no one was injured. It is thought that the mine and several others found near Bahrain in recent months broke free of moorings near the Iran-Iraq warfront in the Shatt Al-Arab waterway.
The mine that rocked the Bridgeton on July 24 is estimated to have been moored 30 feet below the surface. The blast tore a 27-by-10-foot gash in the bottom of the 401,382-ton supertanker's hull. It damaged two crude-oil cargo tanks, a fuel tank, and the ship's collision bulkhead, sources say.
Bridgeton repairs are expected to be completed in one of Dubai's three dry docks. It may take up to a month, a source says. And because of the current rush of business, the shipyard isn't expected to start the work until the mid-September.
The Bridgeton, which has undergone temporary repairs, is reportedly still waiting in Kuwaiti waters to be escorted by US warships back down the Gulf to unload a partial cargo of crude oil and then proceed to Dubai for repairs.