Saudi Arabia Plans to Cut Qatar Off

The project’s preliminary cost has been estimated at SR2.8bn ($747m).The project’s preliminary cost has been estimated at SR2.8bn ($747m).

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 neighbor had been interfering in their domestic affairs, supporting terrorist groups and drawing too close to Iran, Forbes reported.

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 International Monetary Fund 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 centers. 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 Persian 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).

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.

If the canal project does get the nod from officials, Saudi media reports say it could be completed within 12 months.


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