A proposal to dig a canal along the length of the Saudi-Qatari border has emerged, in the latest surprising twist in the ongoing diplomatic and economic standoff between the two countries.
In early June 2017, Saudi Arabia was one of four countries (alongside Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE) to impose a boycott on most trade and transport links with Qatar. Their complaints – strongly denied by Qatar – included claims that their small but extremely wealthy neighbour had been interfering in their domestic affairs, supporting terrorist groups and drawing too close to Iran.
If the four states were hoping for a quick capitulation by Doha, they have been disappointed. Qatar has managed to weather the storm, not least by developing new commercial ties with the likes of Oman, Iran and Turkey. Its success in circumventing the trade restrictions led the IMF to note in early March that “the direct economic and financial impact of the diplomatic rift between Qatar and some countries in the region is fading.”
Now, however, some in Saudi Arabia appear to want to draw – or rather dig – a line in the sand, creating a permanent physical barrier between the two countries and essentially turning the Qatari peninsula into an island.
According to a report on the Sabq website – picked up by a number of other media outlets in the country – a consortium of nine local firms is involved in the proposed project, which has yet to receive official approval.
The commercial rationale is to develop tourism resorts along the new waterway, with plans for at least five hotels. Ports will also be constructed and a free trade zone set up.
However, it remains to be seen how much demand there will be for all this. The area is thinly populated and far away from any major industrial centres. And assuming the border with Qatar remains closed, one main target market for any commercial or tourism activity will be shut off. It would also make little sense for shipping traffic from further north or south to divert into the narrow channel and away from the Gulf itself.
According to the press reports, a 200m-wide channel will be dug to a depth of up to 20m, allowing the canal to accommodate cargo, container and passenger ships up to a length of 295m, a width of 33m and with a maximum draft of 12m. The preliminary cost has been estimated at SR2.8bn ($747m).
The canal will be dug 1km inland from the Saudi-Qatar border, with the zone between the new waterway and the frontier likely to be reserved for military and security use. It is not clear what access – if any –will be given to Bedouin tribes that have historically traversed the area.
Given the doubtful commercial benefits of the project, it is the security aspect which may prove of most interest to Riyadh if it does give the green light to the canal.
The Qatar-Saudi border has been the scene of violent clashes in the past, including an incident in 1992 when three people died. The two countries only finalised the demarcation of their border in 2001. In December last year, Saudi Arabia said it had permanently closed the only official border crossing with Qatar, at Salwa. Both countries have been spending huge amounts on military equipment in an ongoing regional arms race.
The reports suggest the canal will be 60km in length, although in reality it will have to be longer than that – 60km is roughly the distance as the crow flies from coast to coast across the isthmus, but the border travels in an arc and it is more like 70km from Salwa on the northern side of the peninsula to the ‘inland sea’ on the south – from where there is a shared channel out to the waters of the Gulf.
If the canal project does get the nod from officials, Saudi media reports say it could be completed within 12 months. On the surface that looks to be a tight schedule. The most recent major canal project in the region – a second, 72km-long lane of the Suez Canal – took around 12 months to develop, between August 2014 and August 2015. However, only around half of that distance involved digging a new channel, the rest involved expanding and deepening an existing path.