Why the Salwa Canal project would constitute a severe blow to Qatar

If irreversibly cut from its only land border, Qatar would be faced with a new conundrum in hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Sunday 24/06/2018
A traditional dhow floats in the Corniche Bay of Doha, Qatar. (AP)
A traditional dhow floats in the Corniche Bay of Doha, Qatar. (AP)

When Saudi Arabia announced plans to dig a 60km canal stretching from Salwa to Khor al Adaid, which would effectively turn Qatar into an island, Doha did not take the threat seriously. Saudi Arabia, however, advanced with the project, with a deadline coming up for tenders to dig the waterway.

The Saudi daily Makkah reported that five international companies with expertise in digging canals have submitted tenders for the project. The winning bidder is to be announced within 90 days after the June 25 deadline and will have one year to complete the task.

Saud al-Qahtani, adviser to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, retweeted a video June 18 with a caption that reads: “Starting [to dig] the Salwa Canal. Congratulations to the Saudi people for this wonderful project that will transform the small terrorist state of Qatar into an island.”

While the progression of the Saudi canal plan can be considered an indirect response to the Qatari-Iranian nexus coming into the open following Tehran’s pledge to stand beside Doha, its implementation should be a serious source of concern for Qatar.

If the canal plans materialise, they would highlight three significant points:

First, that Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Manama, which have been boycotting the Qatari regime since June 2017, are more convinced than ever that Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and his government do not intend to reverse their political choices.

Second, that Saudi Arabia does not see relations between itself and Doha thawing anytime soon.

Third, that Qatar will eventually be forced into the realisation that, more than one year after the worsening crisis, it cannot remain in a state of denial and expect its situation to improve.

Qatari media have labelled the Salwa Canal project “a propaganda tool” but statements by high-ranking Saudi officials indicate they could follow through with it.

Indeed, there are significant benefits of such a project for the Saudis. Not only would it serve as a reprisal for Doha’s detrimental politics, it would be an economic project to generate jobs, stimulate tourism and revitalise trade.

The Qatari media, however, have deceptively claimed that Riyadh’s announcement regarding the project is an attempt to scare Doha into giving away the keys to Qatar.

What Qataris should realise is that their regime is free to keep the keys for as long as it wants and for as long as they wish for such a regime to keep them. In fact, no one in the Arab region expects Sheikh Tamim and his ruling family to embrace the democracy they advocated in other Arab countries during the “Arab spring.”

It is clearer than ever that Doha, the self-proclaimed preacher of “democracy” and “revolution,” is unwilling to tolerate any protest movements at home. Doha apparently believes political instability, violence, religious extremism and economic collapse are only for others, especially Arab countries that it wishes to exert control over.

That said, no one is interested in the keys to Qatar. What Arab countries and peoples really expect from Doha is a reversal of its policies, particularly limiting its ties with regional arch-foe Iran and ending its support for Islamist groups, which pose a serious threat to Arab stability.

For Qatar to understand the wishes of Arab peoples, it only needs to look at the disastrous repercussions of its involvement in Syria, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen and Egypt. Beyond supporting the Muslim Brotherhood financially and logistically, Doha has disseminated fake news and propaganda material, fanning the flames of social and political discord.

Doha has been involved in recruiting mercenaries and arming militias to wreak havoc across the region. Leaked documents in April painted a bleak picture of Qatar’s murky dealings, which potentially sent $275 million-$1 billion to extremists intent on destabilising the region.

Now, why is Doha so obsessed with discrediting the Salwa Canal project, telling its people it is simply a bluff on the part of the Saudis?

If implemented, the canal would irreversibly end land trade with Qatar and allow shipping routes to bypass the emirate, making it even more isolated than it already is. The canal would nullify Qatar’s land borders and make the terrestrial area adjacent to Qatar a military zone for protection and monitoring.

If irreversibly cut from its only land border, Qatar would be faced with a new conundrum in hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Despite Qatar’s best efforts to upgrade its infrastructure, there would be no way for Qatar to accommodate all World Cup guests if cut off from its neighbouring state, where some fans and players would consider staying.

While Doha has a lot to lose from the canal, Saudi Arabia has a lot to gain: Tourist resorts with private beaches in Salwa, Sakak, Khor al Adaid and two in Ras Abu Qamis; seaports in Salwa and in Aqlat Al Zawayed to complement the one in Ras Abu Qamis and marinas for yachts and water sports on the two banks of the canal.

Doha, meanwhile, is concerned that its population will realise the regime is gradually losing its handle on the crisis.

If simple discussions about the Salwa Canal project are damaging Doha, then what would happen if the project were to be implemented? Maybe it is time for Qataris to seriously consider that scenario.