A war of words exploded on 5th June 2017 as Saudi Arabia and three of its biggest allies (UAE, Egypt and Bahrain) severed diplomatic ties with Qatar. Riyadh accused Qatar of backing radical Islamist groups and since then Libya, Yemen and the Maldives have also joined in the boycott. With President Trump backing Saudi Arabia, notwithstanding the fact that Qatar was recently identified by him as a “strategic partner” of the US, it is likely that the ramifications may yet widen. However, what is now in place is a trade embargo and in that sense, the Qatar crisis differs from the internationally imposed sanctions regimes arising for example, out of the closing of ports in Crimea and the security situation in Syria. However, some fifty-nine individuals and organisations have been singled out by Saudi Arabia with sanctions being made against them. As yet those named have not been listed by the UN or indeed the EU.

The “blockade” will no doubt present serious short term difficulties to Qatar who depends on its neighbours for trade.  Egypt has not imposed any restrictions on the use of the Suez Canal itself and given the revenue implications of banning ships it seems that would be an unlikely move, even if they had the appetite and means to police such a ban.

Article 25.2 of UNCLOS gives any nation the right to decide which of its ports are open to international shipping. There is no universal concept of a free and open port. The effect of the trade embargo means that ships flying the Qatari flag or ships owned or operated by Qatari companies or carrying cargo from or to Qatar cannot call at the ports of the countries listed above. However, there are already signs that the embargo is being circumvented with vessels being diverted to Oman with Qatar cargos now being discharged and loaded there instead. For those vessels already fixed, having widely drafted but clear “liberty clauses” will allow such deviations to take place without potentially prejudicing P & I Club cover. Further, being able to use Oman should prevent voyages from being frustrated in the legal sense although in the absence of liberty clauses, issues will certainly arise if the cargo has to be discharged other than at the port named in the bill of lading.

The steps taken by Saudi Arabia are being referred to as a “blockade” although in the maritime sense that usually refers to a situation where access to a country’s ports are prevented by naval and or other military forces. The best present day example perhaps being what is happening off Yemen where a coalition of naval forces are carefully controlling shipping entering the ports of Hodiedah and Al Saleef. Indeed this definition of a blockade is what is envisaged by most P & I Club rules where claims arising from “blockade running” are usually excluded.  However, there is no suggestion of naval forces blockading Doha for example and Qatari flagged vessels are free to move and trade other than at the ports of the new Saudi led alliance.

Otherwise ship owners in particular, must guard against undertaking “unlawful trades” where they contravene the laws of the country to or from which the vessel will trade. The embargo has been widely publicised which should mean that vessels will not deliberately fall foul of the embargo which closes ports to those ships (whatever their flag) bound to or coming from Qatar. They will simply be denied access rather than arrested although that is not clear. Owners given orders which potentially expose the vessel to detention or arrest or other state interference will no doubt seek “lawful orders” from their charterers. The difficulties come where there is an inadvertent breach for example in a casualty situation where a vessel bound for Qatar or a Qatar flagged vessel finds itself needing assistance from, or a port of refuge in, an alliance country.

The situation remains fluid and attention turns to the Kuwait initiative to defuse the situation before it escalates further.