According to reports in national media outlets, the Saudi government is considering an ambitious and controversial plan to construct a canal across its 60 km border with Qatar. If the project is realised, Qatar will effectively be made into an island cut off from the rest of the Arabian Peninsula.
There are already tentative plans to develop the proposed waterway for a variety of uses.
Predominantly Saudi and Emirati private investors are hoping to transform the area into an important economic zone, with the construction of marinas and resorts to build up tourism and two sea ports to divert marine traffic away from Qatar.
With Saudi forces having already seized control of the Salwa border crossing in April, there are also plans to set up a new military base on the island that is currently shared between the two countries.
However, the suggestion of the use of part of the banks of the canal as a site for the dumping of nuclear waste from a proposed nearby nuclear reactor is arguably the most controversial element of the role the canal could play.
The project, dubbed the Salwa Channel, gained traction last month with the invitation of five construction companies to compete for the enticing contract, reportedly amounting to $745 million.
The successful bid will be announced within three months and the chosen company is expected to complete construction within a year.
If given the go-ahead by the Saudi authorities it is expected that Egyptian companies with experience of canal digging in Suez will play a key role in the undertaking.
However, political analysts have been quick to point out that the idea might be being used by Riyadh to add to Qatar’s regional isolation and to put further pressure on its leadership.
Director of the Arabia Foundation, a think tank in Washington DC, Ali Shihabi was quick to dismiss the project as an attempt at psychological warfare.
Thomas Lippman, a Gulf expert at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, a think tank, told Al-Ahram Weekly that he thought it unlikely that a canal would be constructed because Saudi Arabia had little to gain from it.
Not only was there no need for a new maritime passage, he said, but it would also have no impact on Saudi security as the border with Qatar was already closed.
Nevertheless, comments by high-ranking members of Saudi Arabia’s and the UAE’s political elite give the reports a certain credibility.
Following the international invitation for bidding for the project, Saud Al-Qahtani, an adviser to Saudi Crown-Prince Mohamed bin Salman, congratulated “the Saudi people on this wonderful project that will transform the small terrorist state of Qatar into an island.”
When reports of the Salwa Channel first began to circulate in April, Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s minister of foreign affairs, tweeted that “the silence of Doha about the announcement of the canal project reflects fear and confusion.” He went on to call upon Qatari leader Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani to end the crisis.
Although the UAE minister is right about there not yet being an official announcement, the Al-Araby news agency, owned by Qatar, reacted to the news by saying that “the canal project would appear to be an attempt to further tighten the blockade on Qatar.”
It follows in the wake of a serious deterioration of relations between Qatar and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a regional group dominated by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
When the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain, exasperated at what they said was Qatar’s financing of terrorism and sponsorship of destabilising regional political movements, presented Sheikh Tamim with 13 demands in June 2017, he refused to act upon them.
This led to these four countries, since dubbed the Arab Quartet, to cut off diplomatic relations and stage a boycott of Qatari goods.
Despite the initial chaos as Qataris flocked to stock up in supermarkets as imports dropped by 40 per cent and a collapse in the country’s stock market, Qatar has been largely successful in averting a larger political and economic crisis.
Turkey and Iran acted quickly to stabilise the situation by helping realign Qatar’s trade and in the case of Turkey sending in soldiers to bolster its security.
Since the beginning of the blockade rather than strive for reconciliation with his neighbours Sheikh Tamim has turned increasingly to Iran as the solution to his country’s isolation.
After Qatar restored full diplomatic relations with Tehran, trade between the two countries grew by 117.5 per cent, and with the signing of new treaties and the creation of a joint chamber of commerce bilateral economic cooperation strengthened.
With Qatar now indebted to Tehran for shipping routes and use of airspace, it could be argued that the country is dependent on Iranian support.
Central to its perseverence has been Qatar’s continued strong ties with the West.
The country’s elites have been able through their extensive foreign financial investments and significant spending on public relations to maintain an influential political presence in the US and Western Europe.
In the face of Qatar’s growing cooperation with Iran and refusal to capitulate to the Quartet, it may be that the construction of the Salwa Channel will act as a potent gesture to Sheikh Tamim and a stark reminder of Qatar’s precarious and unsustainable position.
Regardless of whether the Channel ever comes to fruition, the proposal of the plan marks the latest and potentially most dramatic stage in the ever-deepening rift between the Gulf countries.
Many believe that if work on the canal does begin in September, it will mark an effectively irreconcilable division of Qatar from its most powerful neighbours.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Further isolation of Qatar