Special to Times of Oman
A noteworthy geopolitical shift is emerging that the media have yet to report on. In future years, a sizable portion of the US Navy's forces in the Middle East could be spending less time in the Arabian Gulf and more time in the adjacent Indian Ocean. Manama in Bahrain will continue to be the headquarters of the Fifth Fleet.
But American warships and their crews, as well as the myriad supply and repair services for them, could be increasingly focused on the brand new Omani port of Duqm, located outside the Arabian Gulf on the Arabian Sea, which, in turn, forms the western half of the Indian Ocean.
A few years ago, Duqm was just a blank spot on the map, facing the sea on a vast and empty coastline with its back to the desert. Now, $2 billion has been invested to build miles and miles of quays, dry docks, roads, an airfield and hotels. Duqm is a stupendous development that aims to be a logistical supply chain city of the 21st century, whose basis of existence will be purely geographical and geopolitical. Duqm has little history behind it; it will be all about trade and business. If you look at the map, Duqm lies safely outside the increasingly vulnerable and conflict-prone Arabian Gulf, but close enough to take advantage of the Gulf's energy logistics trail. It is also midway across the Arabian Sea, between the growing middle classes of India and East Africa.
For Oman, Duqm is key to nation building, as it will further link the south western Omani province of Dhofar and its port of Salalah with the ports of Muscat and Sohar in north eastern Oman.
For China, Duqm can be a trans-shipment hub for its consumer goods bound for the Indian subcontinent and East Africa — especially for the growing markets of Tanzania and Mozambique. In other words, container ships would arrive from China, and the containers themselves would then be off-loaded at Duqm for transport on smaller ships to various points in Africa, India and the Greater Middle East.
Salalah, farther southwest, already serves this purpose. But local officials maintain that there will be enough commercial sea traffic in coming decades to make Duqm viable as well.
The scale of development here is simply profound, attesting to the Indian Ocean's increasing geopolitical importance. I drove five hours across the desert from Muscat to reach Duqm.
Upon arrival, I saw a 4.5-kilometer main breakwater built of reinforced concrete octopods protecting the new port, which already features mobile and rail harbour cranes, as well as rail lines already laid for future gantry cranes. Sixteen ships from the Gulf Cooperation Council sat along the pier in preparation for a live exercise the next day.
Officials briefed me in front of a large and detailed scale-model of Duqm as they hope it will appear years hence: composed of fisheries, an oil refinery, a transit hub for petrochemicals, a rail link, mineral-based manufacturing, a desalinisation plant, a hospital, a mall, an international school, a town centre and a tourist zone. Obviously, the airport here will have cargo facilities. The runway, already built, is long enough to receive flights from Europe.
With 80 kilometres of virginal coastline allotted to Duqm, the new city-state could be larger than Bahrain or Singapore. And this is all just phase one — being built from scratch and inspired only by location on the map. The very fact of Duqm, as it exists and as it is envisioned, constitutes testimony to the fact that geography will be as important to the 21st century as it was to all previous ones. New natural gas discoveries in the desert to the rear should help service Duqm's energy needs, as a population of 67,000 is envisioned here by 2020. The new railhead will link Duqm to Muscat, Dubai and ports all the way north to Kuwait at the head of the Arabian Gulf.
If a rapprochement between the United States and Iran is achieved, Duqm will repair Iranian ships and be an offshore base for the burgeoning Iranian economy. If the rapprochement never materialises, Duqm will be a port of choice for merchant shipping companies that do not want their mega-ships diverted to the volatile Gulf region. Instead, they can make landfall here and potentially take deliveries of hydrocarbons by rail or pipeline from inside the Gulf.
To spur development, Duqm will have a new legal framework and will feature 100 per cent foreign ownership of local businesses. Foreign companies that invest here will enjoy tax-free status and the ability to operate without currency restrictions, I was told.
Strategic geography for a port requires not just an advantageous location vis-a-vis the sea, but vis-a-vis land, too. And it is road, rail and pipeline connections from Omani ports outside the Arabian Gulf — Salalah and Sohar, as well as Duqm — to ports inside the Gulf, from Dubai to Kuwait, that potentially make this place so attractive.
If Duqm succeeds it will become a great place name of the 21st century, just as Aden was in the 19th and Singapore was in the 20th. Given continued demographic growth and the theoretical prospect for economic dynamism in India and East Africa — even as Europe hovers around zero population growth with stagnant, over-regulated economies — the Indian Ocean, as I have been writing for years, could become the geopolitical nerve centre of postmodern times.
The author is renowned American journalist and was included in the list of Top Global Thinkers. All the views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of Times of Oman.
Republished with permission of Stratfor