Princess Anne calls for more women to join maritime workforce at Dubai conference

Only 2 per cent of the world's seafarers are women

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More women should be encouraged to take up careers at sea to increase the woefully low numbers of female seafarers around the world, the UK's Princess Anne told a Dubai audience on Friday.

As part of a brief visit to the UAE, Princess Anne visited the DP World pavilion at Dubai Expo City in her role as president of The Mission to Seafarers charity calling for greater female representation in the shipping industry.

Currently, just 2 per cent of the 1.9 million seafarer posts around the world are occupied by women – a proportion the Princess Royal wants to see increase with greater support networks at sea, and on shore.

In short, women have not been provided with the support they need or deserve to succeed in this sector
Princess Anne

Princess Anne, who has headed the Mission since 1984, is a regular visitor to the UAE since her first official appointment in 1987 to open Dubai’s first international showjumping event.

On Friday, she visited Jebel Ali port – one of 200 across 50 countries where welfare teams from the charity conducted 39,000 ship visits last year, supporting more than 270,000 seafarers.

“I have always been proud that our services have been open to all seafarers without discrimination,” Princess Anne said in her speech at the Women in Shipping and Trading Conference in Dubai.

“For many years, we operated the Flying Angel in Fujairah – the world’s first floating seafarers’ centre.

"More recently, our work has focused on providing support to visiting crews and to those with acute justice and welfare needs, such as those abandoned by their employer.

“The mission team here has worked closely with the Federal Maritime Authority and other stakeholders to bring about a dramatic reduction in these types of cases.

“I am encouraged greatly by this, and hope that by further collaboration, the problem can be eradicated entirely.”

Fewer abandoned ships

A drastic reduction in the number of reported abandonments have been praised as a success in the UAE in recent years, resulting from tougher penalties for ship owners who neglect staff or delay payments and repatriation at the end of contracts.

One of the most high-profile cases was that of the MT Iba that ran aground in Umm Al Quwain in January 2021, almost four years after the five crew on board left port in the 5,000 tonne oil tanker.

The men had not been paid for 32 months by the vessel’s owner Alco Shipping, and were kept alive by support from the Mission to Seafarers.

Their case won worldwide attention, pushing authorities to change the way seafarers are treated when shipping companies hit financial difficulties.

A Ministry of Energy and Infrastructure framework now protects the rights of seafarers on board ships in UAE waters and ports.

Owners of abandoned vessels face a Dh20,000 fine, and an additional Dh10,000 fine for each seafarer on board, with fines doubled for repeat offenders.

A short film has since been made about the crew’s experience on board the Mt Iba.

The documentary, called Floating Prison, was directed by Palestinian-Jordanian Laith Al Ramahi and Spencer Shea, with funding from the Al Qasimi Foundation for film grants.

It was shown at the Ras Al Khaimah Fine Arts Festival in February.

At the DP World Pavilion, Princess Anne said focus should also fall on to the role of women seafarers, and the specific challenges they face.

“All seafarers experience a range of challenges when working at sea – including long contracts, months apart from family and friends, loneliness, isolation, and risk of injury,” the princess said.

“But women seafarers also face challenges that arise from the predominantly male working environment.

“In some countries, employers do not employ females because they think they will work at sea for shorter periods of time than their male counterparts.

“Women are often forced to wear male boiler suits and footwear, which are uncomfortable and impractical.

“In short, women have not been provided with the support they need or deserve to succeed in this sector.”

Welfare issues

In 2022, The Mission to Seafarers published a discussion paper entitled Beyond the 2 per cent to start a dialogue within the welfare sector regarding female seafarers.

The report consulted widely with industry and associated bodies and looked specifically at female seafarers working on cargo ships, cruise ships and superyachts.

Women were more often in the vast minority on board cargo ships, the report found, with key issues around how women found access to space limited.

Sexual harassment, bullying and isolation were common issues raised by speakers at the Dubai conference.

“I started my career as a seafarer nearly 40 years ago,” said Karen Davis, managing director of the Oil Companies International Marine Forum, who was a master mariner for 15 years.

“When I was a cadet, I was usually the only woman on board a ship.

“Quite often we were kept in different rooms in differed parts of the vessel for various reasons.

“We had locked doors, and someone on our watch would have to walk us to our rooms at night.

“Then, drinking [alcohol] was allowed on board ship,s so that was a dilemma.”

Ms Davis described an incident in which she received a public dressing down from her captain, and told reasons why she should not be at sea.

“Having those tough experiences helped me in situations later,” she said.

“Training is key and I have seen a real change in mood, with better policies and more encouragement for women to further their careers.”

Brighter future ahead

Recent graduates from the Sharjah Maritime Academy attended the conference to discuss their experiences of shipping in the UAE.

Cadets said the academy was bucking the global trend, with the majority of places at the academy – 60 per cent – occupied by women.

Khalid Alhammad, president at Bahri Ship management in Saudi Arabia, said the kingdom was also rapidly changing its approach to recruiting more women in shipping.

“This change was brought in by Vision 2030, which is diversifying and modernising our society,” he said.

“I had never thought women would start driving in my lifetime.

“Then in 2017, there was this major shift in how society moves forward together.

“Suddenly women had that freedom. It was amazing to see my sister and my nieces driving.

“Another thing was job opportunities, and an enormous number of women have joined the workforce.

“We've already started bringing on female cadets, and have changed processes, procedures and policies to ensure there will be no harassment for women.

“We have video conferences with vessels and free Wi-Fi on board – this is a major shift.”

Updated: March 03, 2024, 6:15 AM