UMM QASR, Iraq: Iraq and Kuwait, two countries that share a small border and big history of mutual suspicion and war, are at it again. This time they are arguing about Kuwaiti plans to build a mammoth port that Iraq claims interferes with its shipping lanes in the Gulf.
Although it seems unlikely the tiff could escalate into another conflict, the remarks are disturbingly reminiscent of the recriminations that preceded Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iraq in 1990 and point to the uneasy tied that have persisted long after Saddam’s ouster.
“With this project, Kuwait has laid the cornerstone to put an end to Iraqi-Kuwaiti relations,” said Aliyah Nisayef, an Iraqi lawmaker who collected more than 70 signatures from parliament members denouncing the planned port, which would be among the Gulf’s largest and potentially overshadow Iraq’s proposals to attract shipping to its own tiny slice of the Gulf coast.
An Iraqi delegation recently returned from Kuwait after inspecting the port and is expected to deliver a report to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki later this week.
Kuwait announced plans in 2007, when Iraq was deep in a sectarian war, to build the $1.1 billion Mubarak al-Kabir port on Bubiyan Island, one of the biggest islands in the Gulf.
But it wasn’t until the Kuwaitis laid the cornerstone in April that Iraqis really noticed.
The accusations flew fast and furious that Kuwait was trying to strangle Iraq’s shipping channels and scuttle a planned Iraqi port project. In response, the Kuwaitis claim their project could benefit the whole region and accuse Iraqi opponents of risking years of slowly improved relations.
Last week, dozens of Iraqi protesters gathered less than 300 meters from the Kuwaiti border to denounce the port plans. Kuwait’s interior minister, Sheikh Ahmad al-Humoud al-Sabah, warned that security forces would have “zero tolerance” for any cross-border protest attempts, according to the official Kuwait News Agency.
The dispute, too, mirrors the wider apprehensions around the region.
Kuwait and other Gulf Arab states are deeply worried about widening Iranian influence in the Arab world, particularly Tehran’s close ties with Iraq’s Shiite-led government. Iran made its views on the port known through Kataeb Hezbollah, a Shiite militia group funded and controlled by Iran that operates in Iraq. The group in July warned companies working on the port to stop and said the project would “besiege the Iraqi economy.”
But it’s not just Shiites who oppose the plan. Politicians across Iraq’s political spectrum have rallied against it – reflecting fears that Iraq’s access to the lucrative Gulf shipping trade will be cut off just as the country is regaining its economic footing.
Iraq’s only sea access is through a narrow strip of water going from the Gulf to the port of Umm Qasr. Iraqis question why Kuwait with its hundreds of kilometers of coastline positioned its port where it directly juts into Iraq’s only access to the sea.
Already Iraq’s access to Umm Qasr is dependent on Kuwaiti largesse. The border negotiated after Saddam’s forces were evicted from Kuwait drew a line straight through the narrow waterway. But that’s not the way ships travel. Instead, they need to traverse the deepest point of the channel, which sometimes snakes into Kuwaiti territory.
Iraqis are worried Kuwait’s port plans will clog an already crowded waterway and make it difficult for ships to get to Iraqi ports. It also competes with a port Iraq plans to build on Al-Faw peninsula opposite Bubiyan Island.
“The effect of Mubarak port on Al-Faw port would be a jam of vessels and ships in this area that would risk the stoppage of ships,” said Basra Provincial Council deputy chairman Ahmad al-Sulaiti. Basra province includes Umm Qasr and Iraq’s small coast.
Sulaiti said the waves created from the movement of ships at the Mubarak port could halt or close work at Al-Faw.
For Kuwait, the port is seen as a critical step in restoring the country’s status as a center for international commerce and investment, which has largely migrated to Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in the past two decades.
Kuwait envisions the port as a type of regional free-trade shipping and commercial hub also used by Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia – although none have so far expressed interest.
The project would be among the largest in the Gulf and could one day rival Abu Dhabi and Dubai as a transit hub between Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Kuwait says the port is expected to begin operations in 2015 as one of the first steps in a $100 billion vision to create a network of commercial zones and skyscrapers modeled after other Gulf mega-projects.
“The vision is to make Bubiyan the crossroads of transport, sea, railways and highways linking all the countries,” said Sami Alfaraj, director of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies.
But Alfaraj believes that Iraqi opponents of the project are trying to score political points by playing off of nationalist sentiment.
“We are not scared by threats,” said Khalid al-Jarallah, from the Kuwaiti Foreign Ministry in early August after a visit by Iraqi officials to discuss the planned port. He vowed Kuwait would continue the project.
Joost Hilterman from the International Crisis Group said Kuwait is also afraid Iraq will once again invade.
Comments by Iraqis referring to Kuwait as Iraq’s “19th province” do not help. Many Iraqis do not even accept that Bubiyan Island is part of Kuwait – although the Kuwaiti military has a garrison there. By building the port Kuwait can further plant its flag there.
Kuwait also has been demanding Iraq make good on roughly $25 billion in reparations it was owed by Saddam after the 1990 invasion. It was just such demands that Iraq repay the debt racked up during the Iran-Iraq war that helped push Saddam’s decision to invade Kuwait in 1990.
The port showdown threatens to set back progress on easing tensions between Iraq and Kuwait.
Kuwaiti and Iraqi navy and coast guard leaders meet regularly and have developed strong relationships, say U.S. military officials.