With Suez closed, Morocco reopens abandoned route

Morocco has for six years avoided directing plunder vessels via South Africa, whose courts have ruled the phosphate plunder of occupied Western Sahara to be illegal. First test is taking place now. 

28 December 2023
Graphic from VesselFinder, 23 December 2023, showing the U-turn of Teal Bulker (IMO 9668908). Download. The ship can be followed on the site of MarineTraffic. Se further graphics below. 

The last weeks have seen panic in the transportation sector, as rocket attacks have threatened civilian traffic through the Red Sea. One of the attacked ships includes a chemical tanker that was carrying phosphoric acid from a Moroccan port. 

Some shipping companies have announced that they let their ships steer the long, southern route around the African continent when transporting goods between Europe and Asia.

Around midnight between December 22nd and 23rd, the first redirection of a vessel carrying conflict minerals from occupied Western Sahara took place. 

At that moment, the bulk carrier Teal Bulker, which was steaming eastwards north of Libya, made a sharp U-turn. WSRW has never seen a similar manoeuvre, and deduces that it must be related to the risks related to the Red Sea transit. 

The Panamanian-flagged ship had left El Aaiún harbour in the occupied territory on 16 December with phosphate rock, and was since then heading towards the Suez Canal. After the U-turn, it changed its destination to Las Palmas, where it is estimated to arrive on 30 December. 

Above: WSRW obtained images of the ship as it was about to bunker the controversial cargo exported by the Moroccan state company OCP in the occupied territory. The video was shot early December.

But - and here is the twist - redirecting vessels to Asia via South Africa is seemingly something Morocco has been trying to avoid. 

The Moroccan export of phosphates from occupied Western Sahara takes place in violation of international law, and has been found to be illegal by the High Court of South Africa. 

Ever since the bulk vessel NM Cherry Blossom was detained in South Africa on 1 May 2017, every single shipment of phosphate rock from occupied Western Sahara to Asia has taken the Suez route.

The High Court of South Africa in 2018 ruled that the cargo on board NM Cherry Blossom - 50.000 tonnes of phosphate rock from occupied Western Sahara - was illegally exploited and exported by the Moroccan state owned phosphate company OCP. After a 370-day long arrest in Port Elizabeth, the ship was released, having caused the charterer around 10,000 dollars in daily costs, according to court documents.

Western Sahara Resource Watch (WSRW) monitors the shipping of Western Sahara products daily, and has not observed a single ship taking the southern route around Cape of Good Hope since May 2017. A reefer transporting frozen fish from the territory barely avoided arrest in South Africa in 2019, by making a U-turn upon entering the port of Cape Town, escaping an international arrest order.

Once in Las Palmas, WSRW supposes that Teal Bulker will refuel in order to make the trip to Asia non-stop. As such, it will be the first phosphate cargo making the journey around the cape since April 2017. As OCP took part in the legal battle in South Africa in 2017-2018, it is well aware of the legal-financial risks with that route. 

The Asian imports of the commodity is not insignificant. A subsidiary of the Moroccan state company OCP that is located in India, Paradeep Phosphates Limited (PPL), has over the last years been among the biggest importers of phosphate rock from occupied Western Sahara. 

The trade of Saharawi phosphates to India really only started in 2016. Since then, between 18 and 64 percent of all rock annually exported from the Bou Craa mine in Western Sahara has ended up at the Paradeep factory in India. 

The arrest of vessels in South Africa - and Panama - in 2017, instigated by the Saharawi people, caused a severe change in the trade pattern of the commodity. The exports to certain countries stopped, whereas all trade through Panama and South Africa abruptly and completely ended. It took six entire months from the arrest of the NM Cherry Blossom in May 2017, before the first ship departed to Asia - via Suez. From October 2017 to the end of that calendar year, four vessels transporting Saharawi phosphate sailed through Suez. Ships bound for New Zealand via Panama have since taken the route via the Strait of Magellan in Chile. 

WSRW's daily monitoring of ship traffic in 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022, shows that in total 61 ships have sailed from occupied Western Sahara to Asia since the NM Cherry Blossom arrest. 

They went all via Suez. 

The absolute majority, 51 of the 61 vessels, sailed to India, while 2 went to the Philippines, 6 to China and 2 to Japan. 

This is in stark contrast to the shipment practice from the time prior to the arrest, when transports to Asia via South Africa were a lot more common. The two ships that departed from Western Sahara to Asia in 2017 before the arrest - Spar Lyra in February and GH Northern Dancer in April - both passed via the waters offshore South Africa. 

To make this week's Teal Bulker saga even more complex: the ship lies very deep in the water - 12,9 meters. Of all the ports that are currently known to be taking in the stolen product, the port of Paradip in India is most likely the only one that can receive such a deep vessel. 

The ship can most likely not discharge in the port of Coatzacoalcos in Mexico, which over the last two years has been the most important recipient of Saharawi phosphate rock. The deepest vessels arriving to Coatzacoalcos have usually been around 11,8 meter deep. The deepest shipment that WSRW has observed to the deepest port in New Zealand - the one in Tauranga - is 12,8 meters. 

The trade via South Africa was normal prior to the arrests of vessels in South Africa and Panama in 2017. This WSRW map illustrates the phosphate transports of 2016, the year before the arrests.

It is not clear who the client of the Teal Bulker cargo is, but taking into account the trends of the trade, it is most likely Paradeep. 

A Prospectus (or download) filed by Paradeep Phosphates Limited (PPL) in 2021, indicates that the Indian company entered into a long-term supply agreement with OCP on 1 January 2021 for the procurement of what the firm calls “our most important raw material by value, Phosphate Rock”. The agreement has a term of three years, expiring 31 December 2023, and can automatically be renewed for successive periods of two years. 

WSRW has contacted the importing company in India, PPL, numerous times since 2015, without ever having received an answer. 

Teal Bulker is managed by the Japanese company First Marine Service Co., and registered through the company Diamond Griffin S.A.

Western Sahara is not part of Morocco, and as such, Morocco has no permission to export the resources from the territory that it holds under occupation.

Graphic from VesselFinder, showing the U-turn of Teal Bulker around midnight between 22 and 23 December 2023. Download
Graphic from VesselFinder of Teal Bulker, 23 December 2023. Download


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