June 21, 2018 at 8:23 AM
For more than a year, a Saudi-led bloc has staged a boycott of Qatar, accusing the Persian Gulf state of sponsoring terrorism and committing other misdeeds. As the months have dragged on, however, Qatar has proved surprisingly resistant to those punitive economic measures.
Saudi Arabia may now be seeking to change the nature of its relationship with Qatar in an even more dramatic way. If local news reports are to be believed, Saudi Arabia plans to cut a canal along its 38-mile border with Qatar — and transform the tiny emirate from a peninsula into an island.
It is an ambitious idea that would turn one of the Middle East's symbolic divides into a geographic reality. However, it remains unclear whether such a canal will ever be dug — or whether this is mere propaganda designed to unsettle Qatar's 2.6 million residents.
According to a report published Tuesday in the Makkah newspaper, five international companies have been invited to bid for the project, with a deadline set for Monday. Authorities reportedly will then announce the winner of the contract for the canal, called the “Salwa Channel,” within 90 days; the hope is for the canal's construction to be finished within one year, unidentified sources told the newspaper.
The news suggests that the canal project is progressing. Two months ago, the online newspaper Sabq reported that plans for a canal along the border with Qatar were still awaiting Saudi government approval.
That outlet had said that the canal was expected to be 650 feet wide and about 130 feet deep to allow ships to pass, and that, as the canal would be built at least 0.6 miles from the border with Qatar, the entire project would be under Saudi sovereignty. The cost of the project was estimated at 2.8 billion Saudi riyals, roughly $745 million.
Despite the reports that the plan is gathering steam, the Saudi government has offered no public confirmation. The Saudi Embassy in Washington and the Riyadh-based Center for International Communication did not respond to requests for comment.
A number of state-owned news outlets have carried their own reports about the canal. Saud al-Qahtani, an influential Saudi political figure with ties to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also shared stories about the canal on Twitter this week. In April, the same adviser had dismissed the idea that the canal would breach international law, saying Saudi Arabia's sovereignty over the area was the only point that mattered.
However, several analysts doubt that such a canal will ever be dug. Ali Shihabi, founder of the Washington-based Arabia Foundation, said the Salwa Channel reports were probably psychological warfare. Even if the canal were built, he said, it would make little sense. “If you create a canal, you do Qatar a favor because you create a 'moat' to protect them when now their land borders are fully exposed to Saudi Arabia,” Shihabi said.
In an email, Bruce Riedel, director of the intelligence project at the Brookings Institution and author of the recent book “Kings and Presidents,” also suggested that the aim of the reports was to psychologically manipulate Qataris. The tactic was “failing,” he added.
Qatar's only land border is with Saudi Arabia, and it has been closed since last June. In April, local media reported that Saudi border guards had taken control of the Salwa crossing, the last terrestrial link with the Arabian Peninsula. However, Qatar has retained sea and air links to the outside world and has largely weathered the financial pressure put on it by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and others.
Despite the obvious geopolitical implications, Makkah reported this week that the canal was being pitched as part of a “tourism revitalization” that would include making the Saudi shoreline suitable for sea voyages and build up a number of beach resorts. However, other reports have suggested that the plans would include a Saudi military base between the canal and the border with Qatar, as well as a site for nuclear waste.
Andreas Krieg, an assistant professor in defense studies at King's College, London, wrote Tuesday on Twitter that the idea of building a canal had been proposed before by Qatar itself but abandoned because of the high costs entailed. Describing Saudi Arabia as “financially struggling,” Krieg expressed surprise that it would want to “spend that money on a PR stunt.”
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