Saudi Arabia's Yanbu Commercial and Industrial Port has seen rapid growth in recent decades and is today one of the kingdom's fastest growing ports, due to its strategic location on the Red Sea, to the north of the larger port of Jeddah.
Though its history stretches back for over two millennia, Yanbu -- once a stop on the ancient spice trade route -- remained a small port for centuries.
Development of the port began in earnest in the 1970s, but it was only during the Gulf War that its true potential as a strategic asset began to be recognised.
Should conflict disrupt shipping in the Arabian Gulf, Saudi Arabia said, oil could be transported across the kingdom via several key pipelines and shipped out of the Red Sea port, raising the profile of the once sleepy terminal.
"The port of Yanbu proved its importance during the Gulf War in 1990," said Saudi military expert Mansour al-Shehri.
As well as serving as an alternate shipping route, Yanbu served as an additional gateway for military forces and facilitated the flow of logistical support to different parts of the kingdom and to the neighbouring Gulf states, he said.
Maritime routes that pass through the Suez Canal link the Red Sea with the Mediterranean Sea, and the rest of the world, al-Shehri noted.
This means ports like Yanbu can be used to facilitate the movement of naval and land forces from bases around the world into Saudi Arabia, and beyond, he said.
A key Red Sea hub
A natural harbour that is one of the oldest Red Sea ports, Yanbu serves as a maritime gateway to the holy city of Medina, and now welcomes more than 2,000 pilgrims each year via its updated and expanded passenger terminal.
One of the nine ports overseen by the Saudi Ports Authority, it is the second largest Saudi port on the Red Sea coast, after Jeddah, and is linked with the rest of the kingdom via a network of modern roads.
Situated between the ports of Duba to the north, and King Fahad Industrial Port and Jeddah Islamic Port, to the south, Yanbu is about 460 nautical miles south of the Suez Canal, and is the nearest major Saudi port to the Mediterranean.
In recent years, development of the port's facilities, berths and services has turned Yanbu into a key hub, which in turn has fueled comprehensive economic development for the entire region.
Its 12 berths have a combined capacity of 13.5 million tonnes per year, and can accommodate passenger and cargo vessels of various types. It has a fleet of tugboats, pilot boats and mooring boats, and modern cargo handling equipment.
This includes bulk grain discharging equipment, forklifts to handle general cargo and containers, trailers, tractors and telescopic cranes. There also are two silos for bulk storage, each with a 20,000-tonne capacity.
Two of the port's berths are dedicated to passenger ships, and a passenger terminal, with associated luggage handling facilities and transportation services, can handle up to 1,500 passengers. There also is a screening hall for pilgrims.
A network of modern roads links the port with other parts of the kingdom, and Yanbu's upgraded airport (YNB) offers domestic and international flights.
Historic gateway to Medina
The port of Yanbu "has historical significance", said Faisal al-Khawaldi, who lectures at King Abdulaziz University's faculty of economics and administration.
Historical records and archaeological discoveries indicate it was in use since the time of the ancient Greeks and during the Islamic Golden Age, when it served as the main marine gateway to the holy city of Medina.
Today it remains a hub for the pilgrim trade and for export of agricultural goods.
The goods that are loaded and unloaded at Yanbu port include "all types of cargo, petroleum coke, all kinds of grains, fertiliser, livestock feed, white cement, chemicals and zinc and oil concentrates", al-Khawaldi said.
Yanbu has the capacity to accommodate large quantities of grain and to unload up to 600 tonnes of bulk grain per hour, he said, noting that it is equipped with loading machinery and equipment such as winches and cranes.
Al-Khawaldi said the port will be of great importance in the coming years, as it will have the ability to supply the kingdom and Gulf states with foodstuffs, particularly grains and cereals.
The port's location and its storage facilities make it a hub for the import and re-export of grain to all the countries of the region, he said.