samedi 4 juin 2011

Iraq-Kuwait Argue Over Competing Port Plans In the Persian Gulf

Iraq and Kuwait have been trying to patch up relations for the last eight years. Saddam Hussein was considered an existential threat to the kingdom because of his 1990 invasion, and many Kuwaitis are still caught up in the past, and have been slow to adapt to the new Iraq. Still, the two have been carrying on a series of talks about a wide range of outstanding issues between them. The problem is that every time they seem to make some progress, something comes up, which strains relations. That’s happening currently over two plans to build ports, one in Kuwait and one in Iraq, which have led to a new series of accusations and recriminations.

In April 2011, Kuwait began work on its Great Mubarak Port. It is located on Bubyan Island, just off the coast of Iraq. Kuwait signed a contract with South Korea’s Hyundai to build the port, which is supposed to be completed by 2016 for a cost of $1.1 billion. It will include container docks, deep water harbors, a free trade zone, a rail network, and residential areas. By the end of May, an official from Kuwait’s Ministry of Public Works claimed that 48% of the first phase of construction had already been completed. When finished it will be the largest port in the Persian Gulf.

The problem for Iraq is that it plans on building the Grand Faw Port right across from Kuwait’s Mubarak. On April 15, 2009, Iraq signed a deal with Italy’s Technital to design the port. On April 4, 2011 Iraq’s Transportation Minister laid the corner stone for Faw. Construction is supposed to cost $6 billion. It will have a capacity of 99 million tons of cargo per year, and include a railway line to Europe via Turkey. Iraq wants it to be not only the biggest port in the region, but to make it a major transit point between Asia and Europe, and to compete with the Suez Canal. The government is arguing that it will be cheaper and faster to unload containers at Faw, and then ship them to Europe by rail, then going through Egypt. The entire project is supposed to be finished by 2017. The Transportation Minister has threatened to resign if Faw was not completed. Currently, Um Qasr is the only deep water port in Iraq, but it is old and lacks capacity. Faw is part of Iraq’s grand plan to rebuild and prosper after twenty years of wars and sanctions.
This map highlights the close proximity between Kuwait's Mubarak port being built on Bubyan Island and Faw where Iraq plans on building a grand port

With that vision it should have come as no surprise that Iraq was greatly angered when Kuwait started work on Mubarak. An Iraqi economist claimed that Iraq would lose 60% of its business if Kuwait’s port was built, and warned that plans for the Faw port could be scrapped as a result. The Minister of Transportation said that Mubarak was part of a conspiracy against Iraq, and that the issue should be sent to the United Nations because Mubarak encroached upon Iraqi territorial waters and contravened the international border between the two nations. Basra’s Governor Khalaf Abdul-Samad, claimed Kuwait’s port would devastate his province’s economy, and cost thousands of jobs. The Iraqi Overseas Captain told the press that traffic to Mubarak would push mud into Iraqi ports, affect its fishing, and cause a maritime traffic jam as vessels would have to travel up the same canal to reach both ports. The Iraqi parliament called for a special session on the issue, and there was a small demonstration in Basra on May 18 about it as well. Many other officials made similar comments, reflecting the general surprise and indignation that Iraq felt about Kuwait’s action. At the same time, they are making so many accusations that the only possible positive outcome for them is if Kuwait scraps Mubarak, which is not going to happen.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was forced to act. On May 17, a joint technical committee was created to deal with both ports, and a high level delegation has been put together, which will travel to Kuwait to discuss the matter soon. Since so many have framed the Mubarak-Faw issue of national importance to not only Basra, but the entire country, Baghdad had to become involved.

Kuwait so far has expressed a willingness to talk. Kuwait’s ambassador to Iraq said that his country would negotiate over the ports, and that it would even sign an agreement over the issue. The ambassador stated that Mubarak would not affect Um Qasr or Faw, and that Mubarak was 20 kilometers from any Iraqi docks, not the one or two that Iraqis claimed.

At the same time, Kuwaiti papers and analysts have made some inflammatory statements as well. The head of the Kuwait Center of Strategic Studies told Al Jazeera that Mubarak would benefit both countries. He said Iraq was incapable of building a deep water port, and that therefore Kuwait had to be the supply route for goods heading there. He went on to say that the only reason why Iraq was complaining about Mubarak was that they were pro-Iranian, and Tehran wanted to cause trouble in the region. He even said that Mubarak was safer because it was out of range of Iranian artillery while Faw would not be, as if that was going to be an issue anytime soon. A Kuwaiti paper also interviewed a local analyst who said that Iraq was controlled by Tehran, that Iran was going to annex southern Iraq, and that therefore the Persians were behind all the problems over the ports. Those comments reflect the general paranoia Kuwait, and many other Gulf States have about Iran’s influence, and their trepidation at Shiite rule in Iraq, which they associate with being under the thumb of Tehran.

What has largely been left out of the argument is the fact that Iraq itself can be blamed for much of this problem. It has been talking about building a port at Faw since 2003, with little to show for it. Former Basra parliamentarian Wail Abdul Latif claimed that the province came up with a plan for Faw right after the U.S. invasion. Plans were laid out the following year. An Iraqi news site posted a text of a government document from Iyad Allawi’s time as prime minister in 2004, which said that Baghdad had agreed to the port. Nothing happened until April 2009, when Iraq signed the design contract with Technital. On February 1, 2010, the Transportation Ministry said that it would be laying the corner stone at Faw in a few weeks, but did not do so until April 2011. In April 2010 the Ministry held a ceremony in Basra to announce that construction would start that month, but nothing happened. In fact, Technital will not be finished with its design until the end of 2011, and 2012 is when work is supposed to start. The government still doesn’t have the funding together either. Parliament has not allocated any money, and Baghdad has not raised any foreign capital. A tender is not due to be offered until the end of the year. Like too many major projects in the country, Faw has largely been talk, with little action. Iraqi politicians are acting like it is just about to become reality however, which is why they are so mad at Kuwait.

Many have tried to explain why it has taken Iraq so long to move ahead with the Faw port. The head of the economic development committee in Basra’s provincial council blamed the Transportation Ministry for never getting any money for the project. Others have said individuals and other countries have been bribing officials to hold up work. Another factor was the long delay in forming a new government after the March 2010 election. While any and all of those might have played a role, it’s also true that Iraq has gone through the American administration, and four separate governments since the Grand Faw Port was first discussed, and the only thing they have accomplished is a design contract being signed, and one stone laid down.

Iraq-Kuwait relations are characterized by taking one step towards reconciliation, and then two steps back. The Mubarak-Faw dispute is becoming a huge issue between them, and the two countries are making bold statements about each other. Iraq thinks that Kuwait is purposely undermining their economic future, while Kuwait argues their port will not have a negative affect upon Iraq, and that Baghdad is only making noise because it is controlled by Iran. Neither is quite true, but as long as they stick with those positions the argument can only escalate. Iraq is also in denial about its own lack of capacity and incompetence in following through with its plans for Faw, which have been discussed for the last eight years. The slow pace they are working at could mean that Mubarak will be a fait accompli before Iraq even begins construction on its own port. Rather than escalating the rhetoric, Iraq and Kuwait need to take a step back, conduct some technical studies upon how the two plans will affect each other, and then negotiate some compromises. That may not be possible because the politicians carry so much baggage about each other that it clouds their judgment.


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