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Mubarak al-Kabir vs. Al-Faw al-Kabir: What impact on Kuwait-Iraq relations and on regional stability?

By Mona Sukkarieh.

Tension between Kuwait and Iraq is a recurrent problem. The latest dispute between the two countries is related to Kuwait’s plans to construct a 1.1 billion USD port on Boubyan island, off the coast of Iraq. The contract to build Mubarak al-Kabir port, named after the founder of modern Kuwait, was awarded to South Korea’s Hyundai in 2010 and construction began on April 2011.

The project, which is expected to be completed in 2016, is deemed provocative by Iraqis who fear that access to shipping lanes in the extremely narrow strip of water will no doubt be threatened and will severely affect activity at Umm Qasr’s Port, south of Basra. Even more provocative for the Iraqis, the project, if completed as planned (as opposed to building only 3 out of the project’s 4 phases as it is sometimes insinuated) threatens Iraq’s own plans to build a mega-port in Al-Faw, a few kilometers away. Announced in 2005, and repeatedly delayed due to political instability and corruption, the 6 billion USD Al-Faw Grand Port is designed to have an estimated capacity of 99 million tons of cargo per year and to connect the Arab-Persian Gulf to Europe by rail, in turn threatening the role that the Suez Canal play in shipping cargo between Asia, Oceania and Europe, all the way to the Americas. A role that has already faced several setbacks in the last few years, the most important of which are the repeated attacks by mostly Somali pirates off the coasts of Somalia and the Gulf of Aden.

An August 2011 rocket attack near the construction facility, days after the Kuwaiti embassy in Bagdad was targeted by two Katyusha rockets and after a Shiite militant group threatened to take actions against the site and the Korean company working on the project, demonstrates how quickly the situation at the borders can degenerate.

Relations between Kuwait and Iraq went through repeated ups and downs since the beginning of the project. But controversial statements from both sides are quickly contained, and state visits suggest that, despite the high stakes, both countries seek to appease, not inflame, the situation.

Beyond Kuwait and Iraq, the issue does not escape the regional polarization and the ongoing struggle for influence between Iran and GCC countries. The GCC fully backs Kuwait in its dispute with Iraq over Mubarak al-Kabir’s port. Iran on the other hand shows strong interest in Al-Faw’s port, not only because it is being developed in a Shiite region close to its borders, but also for the trade opportunities it presents. Former Iraqi transport minister Amer Abdel-Jabbar revealed that Tehran has expressed interest in connecting the Iranian rail network to the “dry canal”, in reference to the Iraqi rail network connected to Europe via Turkey that would also be developed as part of the overall project surrounding the construction of Al-Faw’s port.

The American-backed project to build Mubarak al-Kabir in Kuwait recalls another American-backed project further north in the Caucasus region. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline inaugurated in 2005 is widely perceived as limiting Moscow’s influence in a region traditionally considered as Russia’s backyard, and consolidates Georgia’s independence. Similarly, the mega-port of Mubarak al-Kabir, if completed as planned, will serve to contain Iran’s growing influence in the region and to address Kuwaiti fears over what they perceive as their neighbor’s constant threat to their independence.

This, however, is not and must not be an end in itself. The port is part of an ambitious overall plan to boost trade and transform the country into a regional hub, which also includes the construction of a 250 km2 city, called the City of Silk, at an estimated cost of 90 billion USD, and a new railway and metro network. Kuwait harbors ambitions to become a major free trade zone linking Asia with Europe. This is impossible to achieve without close cooperation with Iraq and the linking of both countries’ transportation network. Can Kuwait and Iraq afford to build two mega ports at such close geographical proximity, economically and politically speaking? If they are to pursue their economic development plans they cannot afford strained relations and are bound to cooperate. The development of a major port managed by both countries would be a good start. Will the US and Iran encourage such a move?

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