UAE to overhaul maritime laws to protect sailors and allow foreign ownership

The legislation is set to come into force next year

Dr Abdullah Al Nuaimi, Minister of Infrastructure Development, said the new law would support growth and help to end shipping disputes. Leslie Pableo for The National
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The UAE will introduce tough rules to protect abandoned seafarers, clamp down on ghost ships in its waters and allow 100 per cent foreign ownership of maritime companies.

The new measures, revealed on Sunday, are part of the UAE’s draft maritime law, which is set to come into force by early next year.

It will also allow people to register vessels under the Emirati flag and establish a new dispute mechanism to relieve pressure on the courts, while a new maritime development fund aims to support citizens who wish to invest in the sector.

A “maritime navigation chamber” to represent the interests of the private sector will also be formed.

Full foreign ownership of companies will apply only in certain cases, however, and will be subject to the UAE Cabinet's regulations set out last week. That stipulated that a final decision on the percentage of foreign ownership rests with each emirate.

The crew of the MV Azraqmoiah were stuck at sea for two years. Courtesy: Ayyappan Swaminathan

Speaking on Sunday, Abdullah Al Nuaimi, Minister of Infrastructure Development, said more details about the law would be revealed in the coming months and that it has been in the works for the past two years.

The “new maritime bill” will completely overhaul the 1981 law, which he said was sorely in need of updating.

“Since then the law has moved on,” said Mr Al Nuaimi, who is also chairman of the Federal Transport Authority-Land and Maritime.

The issue of abandoned vessels and the plight of sailors has been documented by The National. Last April, the first seven ships abandoned at sea with more than 30 crew onboard were towed to shore. Some of the men had spent three years on the vessels and suffered financial loss and severe psychological stress.

Authorities had already bolstered existing shipping regulations, such as banning tankers that are more than 25 years old from UAE waters and ensuring shipping operators have insurance to cover crew salaries for up to four months. But the new federal law will hand stronger powers to maritime chiefs and the country’s ports to combat the problem.

"I feel two things with regard to the issues of abandoned vessels – pride and sorrow," Mr Al Nuaimi said. "I feel pride that [the UAE] is a haven for these ships – they didn't come here by accident."

Mr Al Nuaimi said these cases were sad for the sailors involved.

He also said the new law would clamp down on abandoned vessels by handing stronger powers to maritime chiefs and the country’s ports to combat the problem.

It would also enshrine the rights of sailors in law, Mr Al Nuaimi said.

“We are an open country and deal with trade in a civil way that you might not find in other places,” he said.

The new law will also update rules on insurance and collisions at sea, among other matters. Mr Al Nuaimi said it was important the law was malleable and could be changed or altered in the future.

“This law will be able to absorb the challenges of the future and be a capable addition to the maritime transport here in UAE.”

Rev Andy Bowerman, from the Mission to Seafarers, which takes supplies to stranded sailors, said current legislation has allowed disputes to run on for too long.

“We welcome any move by the UAE to protect those who work at sea,” he said. “But it is imperative that any legislation prioritises the seafarers rather than owners of the ships.”

“It is possible this could be done in a matter of days rather than months as is often the case,” he said.

“It will be interesting to see how quickly it [the new law] comes into force and then how successful it is in bringing prosecutions as well as protection for the seafarers.”