Maritime skulduggery: how Kurdish oil shipments to Israel are 'disguised'
AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici
Companies transporting crude oil to Israel have adopted increasingly clandestine methods in order to disguise their origins in the oilfields of Iraq’s Kurdistan region, according to an industry watchdog.
Israel has been the chief buyer of Kurdish crude oil, i24NEWS reported last year, although more recent figures show that the trade has slumped since Kurdistan’s independence bid fizzled and the central government in Baghdad recaptured key oil fields.
Yet the ongoing shipments have ratcheted up attempts to hoodwink databases that track ship movements, according to TankerTrackers.com, a team of oil industry enthusiasts who track the global crude trade.
The cloak and dagger methods are likely used in a bid to avert legal challenges from Baghdad, who are at loggerheads with the autonomous Kurdish authorities over how to divvy up the revenues.
On January 25 the website’s team observed the Maltese-flagged Mabrouk tanker set sail from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) oil terminal at the Turkish port of Ceyhan.
Not long afterwards the vessel switched off its AIS transponder -- which allows the vessel’s location and other data to be tracked -- and vanished from MarineTraffic, a website that displays global ship movements in real time.
While the Mabrouk was still invisible, a brand new ship, the Maro, suddenly appeared off the coast of Israel’s southern oil terminal in Ashkelon. Yet, strangely, it transmitted the same registration number, dimensions and trajectory as the disappeared Mabrouk.
After depositing her 1,028,164 barrels of Iraqi crude into Ashkelon’s storage tanks, the Maro too disappeared.
Sure enough, several hours later the Mabrouk’s signal blinked to life on MarineTraffic’s radar, bearing all the same characteristics as the Maro but now empty.
Then on Wednesday, TankerTrackers.com witnessed a repeat performance, this time by the tanker Kriti Diamond. After departing the port of Dortyol in Turkey she went offline just south of Cyprus, and around six hours later a new ship with no trip history and bearing the exact characteristics of the Kriti Diamond appeared in Ashkelon with only a new name: Kiton.
The Kriti Diamond/Kiton was recently sold by Greece’s Ancora Investments to another Greek firm, Avin International, shipping news website Splash247 reported. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment sent on Saturday.
The port of Dortyol has been used in the past as the export point for crude oil extracted from the Shaikan field in Iraqi Kurdistan, from where the cargo is hauled by truck. In a regulatory filing last month, the company that operates the field, Gulf Keystone, announced they had struck a sales agreement with the KRG for the oil exports, with the authorities footing the bill for international transport costs.
The company’s London public relations firm did not respond to questions about the shipments.
Ancora Investments, whose website lists the Mabrouk as one of their vessels, also did not respond to a request for comment.
Companies shipping KRG oil to Israel have long attempted to disguise the trade by simply turning off their transponders before turning towards Israel. TankerTrackers.com suspects the new strategy may have been prompted by wintry weather that would render the practice even more dangerous.
Just under half of the crude extracted from KRG oil fields in the first three quarters of 2017 was snapped up in Israel, shipping data company Clipperdata told i24NEWS in October.
However following the successful independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan last September, tensions between the autonomous region and the federal government soared.
Federal forces soon swooped in to seize prize oil fields near Kirkuk, which the Kurds had themselves taken over during their fight against Islamic State three years earlier.
Since then exports of oil have been slashed in half, with Israel’s share of exports dwindling to just 15.3 percent, according to TankerTrackers.com, although the 8.5 percent of vessels who tried to shrug off trackers likely disgorged their cargo in Israel too.
Industry analyst Yesar Mustafa said in an interview last year that Israel is in a solid position to process Kurdish crude, noting that the refineries in Ashdod and Haifa "can process medium to heavy crude types, exactly like the ones produced by KRG. The close proximity of Ceyhan also plays in terms of shipping costs."
KRG oil is usually sold at a discount to offset the legal risk posed by Baghdad's opposition to the sales.
Israel is believed to also source its oil from Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, however the government refuses to comment on oil imports as a matter of policy.
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Good work. Keep helping the Kurds....the only human beings in iran, turdkey, iraq and syria worth the air the breathe. KURDISTAN!!!!!