The looming, and tricky, possibility of developing a maritime channel by Saudi Arabia along its border with Qatar will transform Qatar from a peninsula state to an island. The project, which is still awaiting a go-ahead, involves the construction of a maritime channel between the Saudi regions of Salwa and Khawr Al-Udayd. The proposed waterway will be 60km long, 200 meters wide and between 15-20 meters deep, enabling it to receive "container and passenger ships". The project seems to be endorsed by a Saudi Arabian investment consortium of nine companies. The initial cost of the project would be SR2.8bn ($750m), and once started, could be completed within 12 months.
In an unprecedented move, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt detached Qatar on 5 June 2017 by implementing a land, water, and air embargo. The move came after Riyadh accused Qatar of backing radical Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS. The tug of war between the two Muslim neighborhoods skyrocketed, resulting in an open diplomatic warfare.
Qatar, the wealthiest country on earth, used to rely heavily on its neighbors for trade and travel in and out of the region. The peninsula nation used to import most of its food through its land border with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia, a trustee of two sacred cities and admired by billions of Muslims around the world, drew fierce criticism when it closed Qatar’s only land border during the holy month of Ramadan. But Qatar managed the situation well, airlifting basic essentials from the international market. Turkey and Iran immediately came to Qatar’s rescue which further fueled the fire. Iran is Saudi Arabia’s biggest adversary in the region and UAE has its longstanding territorial dispute over the islands of Abu Musa, Greater Tunb, and Lesser Tunb, located at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. The shuttle diplomacy by the emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al-Sabah, an experienced and wise statesman who served 40 years as a foreign minister, and then as prime minister before becoming an emir in 2006, failed to bring a fruitful end to the rift as the Saudi-led bloc's refused to participate in a meaningful mediation process. Meanwhile, the US is heavily banking on the murky situation.
There are various small to large industries and merchandisers established in Saudi Arabia and UAE focusing on the supply to Qatar’s entire population’s needs. Cutting relations with Qatar made these business either shut down or cut down manpower, forcing hundreds of thousands migrant workers to go back to their countries. Qatar, being the wealthiest nation, could have found an alternative supplier overnight from the international market by paying the extra penny but Saudi and UAE may not find an alternative buyer overnight for their products.
Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain are all the member states of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a regional intergovernmental political and economic union formed by their respective forefathers on the basis of mutual brotherhood and respect. But they are no more been considered so by their third generation. GCC member states are now been ruled by modern but agitated leadership. The sudden rise of Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), the 32-year-old Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, First Deputy Prime Minister, President of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs and Minister of Defence and the world's youngest officeholder in present times, seems to be the power behind the throne of Saudi Arabia and has overshadowed the image of his father King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud.
In Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, a 37-year-old graduate of the British Royal Military Academy, is the youngest reigning monarch among the GCC countries and relatively polite, graceful and admired by many at the home and abroad. Many believe that the rift behind the Keffiyeh (Arab male headscarf) lies between the Qatari Amir and MBS over the latter’s personal dominance in the region.
If Saudi Arabia goes ahead building a canal close to its border, Qatar will definitely find this undesirable. Forcing Qatar to come out of GCC and join the Iran-Turkey club which will definitely change the geopolitical shape of the Arabian peninsula. Saudi Arabia, as the custodian of the holy shrines and host of Muslim pilgrimage, should handle the rift with maturity.
There are over 5 million Bangladeshi migrant workers in the quartette - Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt- countries who are contributing directly to our national reserves. Any escalation of conflict between the two oil-rich neighborhoods may not only affect a single nation but millions of expatriates living in the quartette.
Noor Mohammed is a columnist based in Doha, Qatar, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org