This striking photograph shows a massive sandstorm sweeping over the Persian Gulf state of Qatar as it races southward toward southeastern Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on February 15, 2004. A major upper-level, low-pressure system over southwestern Asia led to a series of storms sweeping through the area. The crew of the International Space Station acquired this image with a digital camera using a 50-mm lens.

An Island in the Desert: The Salwa Canal and the Isolation of Qatar

While Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman continues his tour of the West with a layover in Paris to meet with President Emmanuel Macron, ambitious plans to turn the Saudi-Qatar border area at Salwa into an extensive canal have been announced. This news appears to represent a new low in the continuing stalemate of the Gulf Coalition Council (GCC) split that has defined relations between Riyadh and Doha in recent months. In this piece, we examine the project’s plan, the current state of the GCC dispute and Qatar’s ability to survive this crisis.

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On the 5th April, the Saudi news outlets Sabq and al Riyadh simultaneously reported that a 60 kilometer long canal construction proposal was being considered in the Salwa region, running the entire length of the Saudi Arabian border with Qatar. If realised, this project would effectively turn the 11,500 square kilometre peninsula into an island, although in reality since the 19th December closure of the border this is already essentially the case. The reports suggest that the Salwa Marine Canal Project will be funded by Saudi and Emirati investors and engineered by Egyptian companies with experience in the Suez Canal. Other sources have also added to the rumours with reports that Riyadh – in what would likely prove an equal snub to Doha if true – would also construct an extensive military base and a facility for nuclear waste processing from its planned reactors in the canal zone. Reports have also circulated that the United Arab Emirates also plans to process nuclear waste at its closest territorial location to Qatar.

This true-color Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) image from January 31, 2003, featuresthe Persian Gulf in the Middle East. Seven countries sit on the Gulf(clockwise from top right): Iran, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, SaudiArabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and Iraq. In addition to the tip of the peninsulareaching toward Iran, Oman also stretches to the southeast along the Gulfof Oman (bottom right corner).  The Persian Gulf, officially known as The Gulf, features clouds ofblue and green in its dark waters. These clouds likely indicate a mixtureof sediment and microscopic marine plant life. At the top of The Gulf,where Kuwait, Iraq, and Iran meet, two rivers flow into the Gulf and addtan streaks to the water. These rivers are the Euphrates and the Tigris,the source of the Fertile Crescent valley and between which the ancientMesopotamian civilization flourished.  A number of fires were detected in this scene by MODIS and are markedin red. They are concentrated in southern Iraq and western Iran. The onesin southern Iraq are likely associated with oil wells. Snow can also beseen blanketing the Zagros Mountains of Iran at the upper center of the image.

Fig 1.0 – Satellite imagery with the Qatar, Saudi Arabia and UAE borders

If this plan – slated to cost an estimated 2.8 billion Saudi riyals – were to be realised, it would almost certainly deepen the rift between the feuding states, and add to the tense diplomatic situation since an alliance between Saudi, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut trade and diplomatic ties with the peninsula nation in mid-2017. Qatar continues to deny allegations from the alliance bloc that it supports terrorism and deliberately influences sovereign state affairs across the region. The allied nations have presented Doha with a list of requirements in order for normalised relations to be resumed, although Qatar continues to refuse to meet these demands.

The Salwa border crossing is the only land-based border point between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The border had been temporarily reopened in August 2017 during a brief respite in the diplomatic crisis to allow Hajj pilgrims to travel to Saudi Arabia. The permanent closure of the border crossing is already proving disruptive to businesses on the peninsula, although Qatar has sought to mitigate this by adapting its trading policies. Nevertheless, although Qatar is one of the wealthiest Gulf monarchies, food imports and infrastructure have been impacted already by the closure, given the nation’s heavy reliance on imported goods to sustain its population.

Qatar, having labelled the border closure part of an “economic war”, was able to arrange a deal with Oman for increased trade intended to open up additional import routes in late January. While Oman is known as a staunchly-neutral player in the region and as such has been able to assist Qatar without substantially harming ties with the other GCC powers, Turkey has also – more controversially – rerouted food shipments to the blockaded nation since the early days of the border closures. Some reports indicate a 90% increase in Turkish exports to Qatar in the months following the crisis. Despite this, Qatar has still seen food prices increase dramatically, putting pressure on poorer elements of the resident population. Qatar has invested $444 million into the construction of a food processing and storage centre at Hamad Port in order to alleviate the strain placed on its existing facilities, and the nation also now – somewhat ambitiously – plans to domestically produce 70% of its food requirement by 2024 as part of a National Food Security Programme. Despite these efforts, Qatar’s finance ministry announced last week that the country would run a $7.7 billion deficit in 2018, claimed to be a result of low energy prices and a complex economic diversification process, although also certainly tied to the ongoing crisis.

In addition to Turkey, the crisis has also been pushing Doha towards Tehran in search of import options, and an increasingly pro-Iranian Doha is likely to intensify the Saudi-Iranian rivalry that is playing out through several regional proxy conflicts. Although Iran has remained on a relatively unchanged foreign policy course, it is likely that Saudi Arabia’s increasingly muscular foreign policy will spark an intensification of belligerent rhetoric between the two powers. Prince Mohammad bin Salman has recently amplified his anti-Iranian rhetoric, while also openly discussing nuclear ambitions and even normalising ties with longtime cold-shouldered Israel in the hopes of securing a stronger regional position.

Qatar’s ruling emir, Sheik Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, is currently in the United States with plans to meet with President Trump in the coming days, where the crisis will likely be discussed. The U.S. maintains its largest regional military base on the peninsula, but has largely remained neutral in the dispute given its close ties on both sides.

Beyond the border issue, the crisis between the GCC member states appears to be getting progressively worse, potentially threatening the organisation itself. The December 2017 GCC summit ended prematurely following a surprising announcement of the creation of a new Saudi-UAE alliance and the refusal of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain to send senior officials to the summit in Kuwait. At this stage, despite mediation efforts by Kuwait and Oman, it is possible that the GCC will become little more than a symbolic organisation that will most likely be supplanted by the new Saudi-UAE alliance.

While the Salwa canal-military-nuclear-waste project rumours may have been intended as a final insult and blow to Qatar, the reality is that the small nation has long punched above its weight geopolitically, and is now beginning to show strains from attempting to outlast Saudi Arabia and the other GCC nations through this crisis. Whether the project ever comes to realisation is debatable, but it certainly highlights Doha’s vulnerable position should it find itself facing intensified pressure from Riyadh.

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Lewis Tallon is a former British Army Intelligence Officer with several years experience working and living in the Middle East and North Africa region and Asia Pacific in geopolitical, armed conflict risk and threat intelligence roles. Lewis currently specialises in providing MENA-region geopolitical intelligence support to the oil & gas industry, and the financial sector.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

Photo credit: NASA / Astronaut photograph ISS008-E-16355 showing a sandstorm over Qatar // NASA / MODIS imagery showing the Qatar peninsula


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