Located between the Gulfs of Oman and Aden, Oman’s Duqm port has special importance as it lies along the Strait of Hormuz, Gulf of Oman, Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea.
With this strategic location, it is not only close to South Asian countries like India and Pakistan, it is also easily accessible from East Africa. Since joining the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2018, Oman has acquired additional importance as it has emerged as China’s first base-station in the Gulf.
Securing dependable and secure energy resources has always been a top priority for Beijing and there is no better place for attaining these goals than the Middle East which holds 48% of oil reserves and 40 % of gas reserves globally. Therefore, a $10.7 bn Sino-Oman industrial city and the Duqm Special Economic Zone (SEZAD) are being developed. Once ready, this will be the biggest SEZ of the MENA region.
Securing dependable and secure energy resources has always been a top priority for Beijing and there is no better place for attaining these goals than the Middle East which holds 48% of oil reserves and 40 % of gas reserves globally
As the first phase of construction approaches completion in 2020, Duqm will have the capacity to link several continents with the logistics and infrastructure built with Chinese investment. As China’s main energy corridors, these Middle Eastern routes are the “oil roads” of the BRI, according to Lu Ruquan, Director of the Strategic Development Department of the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC).
Notably, Oman will be the first energy producing country which is also a central BRI node in the Gulf with well-located ports. For successful business ventures, peace is the first requirement and Muscat has managed to have good ties in the region as well as with Iran, India, China and the U.S. simultaneously. Balancing its relations, Oman has encouraged foreign investment from all and the rivalry between various powers makes no difference.
Another interesting aspect about Duqm port is that it can be an alternate route outside the Straits of Hormuz with direct access to the Arabian Sea. Considering that the Strait is quite unstable due to U.S.-Iran frictions these days, it seems likely that more attention will be given to Duqm in the days ahead.
Another interesting aspect about Duqm port is that it can be an alternate route outside the Straits of Hormuz with direct access to the Arabian Sea. Considering that the Strait is quite unstable due to U.S.-Iran frictions these days, it seems likely that more attention will be given to Duqm in the days ahead. Recent attacks on oil vessels near the Strait of Hormuz might even force shipping companies to consider Duqm instead as a safer route. Located in Oman’s East, it is far away from the scene of the conflict these days.
Indirectly, the U.S.-Iran conflict could even promote Oman and most of all, Duqm port, owing to its crucial location. Being a stable, neutral state with no terrorism or war threats even though it is situated in a potentially volatile region, Oman could benefit from the ongoing tussle in the region. Having a strategic port deal with Oman, even Washington can have better access to the Gulf and an alternate route for its ships if the need arises.
Bypassing the Strait of Hormuz is an important military option right now as tensions with Iran show no signs of abating. According to a statement from the U.S. embassy in Oman, the bilateral agreement provides access to facilities and ports in Duqm and Salalah and “reaffirms the commitment of both countries to promoting mutual security goals.” Being a big port, Duqm can even turn around an aircraft carrier according to U.S. officials.
Considering the current geopolitical scenario, the time has come for Oman to reap the benefits of its strategic location as well as its neutral foreign policy. Even though Duqm and other Omani ports are right at the center of a global competition for influence, Muscat’s stance continues to be neutral and it does not seem perturbed.
Even though Duqm and other Omani ports are right at the center of a global competition for influence, Muscat’s stance continues to be neutral
Also having an agreement with New Delhi for logistics support and long-term anti-piracy operations, Oman provides maintenance facilities for Indian ships at Duqm, the only port in the area with repair facilities for large vessels. Only last month, joint exercises were held with the Japanese navy and the port remains a supply and refueling base for the British, Japanese and American navies.
In tandem, the Beijing-Muscat alliance is on its peak and this is what makes Duqm an interesting case. Instead of exclusively giving space to one country, it gives space to other nations as well and this may be the secret of its success. There are some drawbacks and just like with Gwadar, another BRI port in Pakistan, observers wonder whether China could use Duqm for military purposes.
observers wonder whether China could use Duqm for military purposes
According to the ‘string of pearls’ sea-lane strategy, China requires several ports in Pakistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh to achieve dominance. However, China invested to upgrade its energy security and build a large trade network to stem its slowing economic growth.
For now, the BRI has helped diversify Arab economies and boosted energy activities in the region. Nowadays, China is negotiating a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Once this is finalized, most uncertainties surrounding the BRI would be done away with.
Sabena Siddiqi is a Foreign Affairs Journalist and Geopolitical analyst based in Karachi, Pakistan. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.
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