By Zuhair Jum’a Al-Maliki

When the Chinese Admiral Zheng He launched his expeditionary fleet of 62 ships in the fifteenth century AD, he could not have imagined that the seven trips he undertook would provide the inspiration for a new war at the beginning of the second millennium. These expeditions took the Chinese Admiral to the shores of several countries on the Indian Ocean, South Asia and Africa, until he reached the Arabian Gulf and the Red Sea. These trips also inspired other countries who sought control of the trade routes in the Indian Ocean, Sea of China and the Horn of Africa, where 70% of the world’s trade passes. This occurred in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union when China realised that it could be the next target. So in 1994, the Chinese Premier Li Peng embarked on a tour of Central Asian countries to try to find ways and means of discouraging any possibility of a blockade being imposed on China; thus sparking an unsavoury war for control of the ports, and the establishment of military naval bases which overlap with the protection of economic and political interests.

Following Li Peng’s tour, Japanese Prime Minister Hashimoto proposed in 1997 the idea of ​​cooperation between his country and the countries of Central Asia and the South Caucasus. In 2002, India introduced a North-South transport corridor strategy to link India with Russia through Iran and the Caucasus. In 2009, the EU proposed the so-called “New Silk Road Program” to build a natural gas pipeline from Central Asia to Europe in order to reduce dependence on Russian gas. The United States was never far away from such initiatives. In 2011, The US proposed a new Silk Road strategy, which also became known as the “Iron Silk Road”, with the aim of building a rail network to promote economic cooperation between Afghanistan, the Central Asian Republics and South Asian countries.

As the political situation unfolded, China realised that it was surrounded by a series of American military bases and alliances stretching from Australia, all the way to Pakistan and down to Japan. The only remaining gap which the United States sought to plug in the face of  China’s political and economic expansion was the gap represented by Iran in the direction of the Mediterranean Sea. These fears multiplied with the onset of the world economic crisis of 2008, which led Dr. Xu Shenda, Vice President of China’s National Public Tax Authority, to introduce the idea of ​​a Chinese Marshall Plan based on the strategic use of China’s foreign reserves to make loans to developing countries, which would then contract Chinese enterprises for major projects of infrastructure and construction. This idea was further developed into a more comprehensive strategy known as “One Belt One Road”, which was announced in greater detail by President Xi Jinping in 2013.

These developments led to the emergence of two new poles in a new Cold War between the United States and China. Today, a geopolitical struggle is more focused on the economy, with both parties realizing that wars and military conflicts were futile and tantamount to suicide. Today, real victory is achieved by restraining the enemy through a power struggle, more centred on reaping economic gains. Smaller countries have entered the fray to prove that they are an indispensable ally, and the stage for this struggle are the coasts of Africa and Asia. Because of this, countries all around the world are working hard to take control of sea ports in those areas, and to establish military bases to serve their economic objectives.

In this article, we will try to follow the race for control of sea ports along international trade routes between Asia and Africa; Europe and the two Americas.

Following a prolonged struggle, the UAE through DP World was able to sign two concession agreements with the Cypriot government for the commercial operation of the port of Limassol. “DP World – Limassol” has been awarded a 25-year concession that gives it exclusive rights to operate the multi-purpose marine terminal, which includes cargo handling, general cargo and shipping, as well as operating the passenger terminal.

“P & O Maritime Cyprus”, marine services, a wholly-owned subsidiary of DP World, has also acquired a 15-year concession for the exclusive operation of tow boats and maritime piloting at Limassol Port. A concession was also granted to a joint venture between DP World and  G.A.P. Vassilopoulos Group – a logistics services company listed on the Cyprus Stock Exchange. DP World will retain 75 per cent of the equity capital in each joint venture, as well as management rights. This UAE victory resonated with Turkey who were motivated to invest in the port of Kyrenia in the Turkish occupied part of Cyprus.

The UAE has also sought a foothold in Turkish ports. DP World Yarimca’s container terminal, is the first infrastructure project in the Turkish Izmit Gulf managed by an international operator. The UAE has also successfully obtained a contract to operate the Lebanese port of Beirut. In Africa, the United Arab Emirates has secured management contracts for several ports, including the port of Algiers, the port of Djinn Jinn, the containers at Port Maputo in Mozambique, Port de Future in Senegal and the Dakar Port Container Terminal.

The Arab Republic of Egypt has sought to expand the Suez Canal, adding a new channel to accommodate more vessels and reduce waiting times in the canal area. The UAE has been awarded a contract for the development of the Egyptian port of Ain Sokhna. DP World has also acquired the Sokhna Development Company, owner of the concession for the container terminal and the liquid casting station in Sokhna port. For its part, Saudi Arabia is trying to strengthen its influence in the Red Sea by investing in the islands of Sanafir and Tiran, which Egypt handed back to Saudi in accordance with the treaty on the demarcation of maritime borders signed between the two countries. However, this agreement transformed these territorial waters, which had previously been part of Egyptian territorial waters, into international waters. This development has revived Israel’s appetite for the rethinking of the Mediterranean Sea canal project, which could have a significant impact on the Suez Canal.

Saudi Arabia is now promoting the idea of a land bridge linking Sinai and the Egyptian ports with Saudi Arabia, and announced that it intends to invest $25 billion in the canal and in the Sinai towns. However, this project requires the approval of both Israel and Jordan, since it passes close to their respective international waters . In addition to these projects, Saudi Arabia has announced its intention to increase its investments in Somalia, Eritrea and Djibouti in order to enhance its presence in the region and to prepare for the dawn of a new economic era.

Through the ongoing war in Yemen, which has enabled Iran to gain a strong foothold in Bab al-Mandab; the Horn of Africa region, at the south mouth of the Red Sea, has witnessed massive competitive economic and security rivalry both regionally and internationally. As a result, the Ansar Allah movement now controls vast areas in Yemen, most notably Sanaa, and even the strategic Hodeidah port region at Bab al-Mandab.

Following the Arab alliance’s attack on Yemen in 2015, UAE forces took control of the port of Aden and the port of Al-Mukha, in the west of the Taiz province. In the process, the UAE took control of Bab al-Mandab port, through which 12% of world trade passes.  DP World secured the contract for the management of the port of Berbera, which it won in 2014, with a 30-year concession, and an automatic extension of another 10 years, to develop and manage a mixed-use port project in Berbera. A joint venture was established to manage and invest in Berbera Port in partnership with the Government of Somaliland. For its part, Turkey, through the Turkish company Al-Bairaq, secured the right to manage the port of Mogadishu after the Somali government granted it a concession to operate the port for twenty years in September 2014, on condition that it pays 55% of its annual revenue to the treasury of the Somali government.

In Eritrea, the UAE was granted a concession to manage the ports of Massawa and Assab through DP World in 2015 for 30 years in return for Eritrea receiving 30% of the revenues from the port, scheduled to start operating in 2018. Along with the port, the UAE was given the management of an airport with a 3500 metre runway, capable of handling large transport aircraft. The UAE and Saudi Arabia exploited the port of Assab and its base very effectively in the attack on Yemen in 2015. In 2005, DP World obtained the right to manage the port of Djibouti, which is located at the southern entrance of the Red Sea, as well as the Durali container terminal in Djibouti.

Qatar has also entered this highly competitive market through an agreement with the Government of Sudan to construct a port in Port Sudan City which will eventually become the largest container port on the Red Sea coast. The Qatari venture to build the largest container port at Port Sudan may be seen as a major challenge to the Saudi-UAE port of “Jebel Ali” in Dubai, as well as the other ports controlled by Abu Dhabi in Africa.

Elsewhere, Turkey has secured the right to manage the Sudanese island of Suakin, located in the Red Sea, opposite the Saudi port of Jeddah. The island boasts the oldest port in Sudan, and was mostly used to transport passengers and cargo to the Port of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia.

With the intensification of the conflict, the Horn of Africa and Bab al-Mandab became an attractive area for military naval bases. The American Camp Lemonnier, built after the September 11, 2001 attacks, is located close to Djibouti International Airport; and not far from there is the Chinese naval base off the coast of Yemen and Somalia. There are also French, Chinese and Japanese bases in Djibouti, as well as a Saudi one. In Eritrea there are two military bases, belonging to Israel and Iran. Somalia has a Turkish military naval base outside the capital Mogadishu.

In terms of the Gulf region, there are 37 ports, but the majority of their capacity is limited to ten of these port: one third of them in the Jebel Ali Port, followed by Qatar’s Hamad International Port, which ranks eighth in the Gulf in terms of capacity. The Qatar Ports Management Company, “Qatar Ports”, recently announced the launch of a direct route connecting the Port of Hamad to the port of Sohar in the Sultanate of Oman, considered to be one of the fastest developing ports in the world. The port is located at the cross-roads of the international trade routes between Europe and Asia. Qatar has also signed an agreement to transport containers between Hamad Port in Qatar and the port of Shuwaikh in Kuwait. In addition, Qatar announced the signing of a strategic partnership agreement with Turkey in the economic, investment and shipping sectors, and the launch of a direct transport service for refrigerated goods between Qatar and Turkey.

Saudi Arabia owns nine major commercial and industrial ports, which handle 95% of the Kingdom’s exports and imports, except for crude oil; in addition to the dry port in Riyadh, which relies mainly on the port of King Abdul Aziz in Dammam for its commercial activities.

It is a known fact that China relies on the provision of 70% of its oil imports from the Gulf, transported in tankers that have to travel 16,000 kilometres to reach China’s only commercial port in Shanghai. It takes almost three months to transport the oil from the Gulf of Oman across the Indian and Pacific oceans. China imports more than 60% of its energy needs through the Strait of Malacca between Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, however, with America operating three quarters of its fleet of warships in the Pacific ocean and Indo-Asian region; China has had to secure alternative routes.

In the Sea of ​​China, Beijing succeeded in 2015 in signing an agreement for the construction and development of the Kyauk Phyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in the state of Rakhine, west of Myanmar. Th SEZ comprises a 16-meter deep port to accommodate containers, and a 1,500-hectare industrial zone on Yanbai Island, at an initial cost of over $200 million.

The construction of oil pipelines between China and Myanmar will make it possible to transport oil from the port of Sittwe in Myanmar to China; while shortening the distance by 1200 kilometres at a cost not exceeding two billion dollars. Sri Lanka and China have also signed an agreement for the southern port of Hambantota, which is located near the main shipping lanes between Asia and Europe, and is likely to play a significant role in China’s “One Belt One Road” initiative.

It is anticipated that the ports of Chabahar and Gwadar will have a great impact on the economic and geopolitical situation in the region. These two ports are capable of relegating the role played by the ports of the United Arab Emirates, especially Jebel Ali Port. Based on this premise, China has focused all its efforts on investing in the port of Gwadar in Pakistan, situated between the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman. It is the nearest port to China, even by comparison to the Chinese ports themselves and has the advantage of being deep. China has leased this port from Pakistan for 40 years; thus avoiding the stranglehold which may be imposed on it at any time in the Gulf of Malacca. The distance from China’s Xinjiang province to the Gulf is about 3,000 kilometres. China has invested about $46 billion, and Qatar accounts for about 15 percent of the total investment in Gwadar Port.

The Iranian port of Chabahar contains two harbours: Shahid Kalantari and Shahid Beheshti, each with five berths. The investment arm of the project – India Ports Global – which belongs to the Ministry of Shipping, is seeking to build a partnership between Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust and Gujarat Kandla Port to develop two 640-meter container ports and three multi-cargo berths with an investment of US $85 million.

The port of Chabahar is increasingly important to India because it can bypass Pakistan when transporting goods to Afghanistan. It is the main gateway to the North-South international transport corridor, which includes sea and land routes between India, Russia, Iran, Europe and Central Asia. This will benefit India and help increase its imports of iron ore, sugar and rice. India will also see a significant drop in the cost of oil imports. India has in fact already increased its purchases of crude oil from Iran, after the lifting of the embargo on Iran, and the port will help it overcome China’s presence in the Arabian Sea.

After a review of the international struggle for control of sea ports and naval bases, we can now discuss the impact of this conflict on the situation in Iraq. It is evident that Iraqi ports are much smaller compared to ports in the surrounding region. In Basra, Iraq has commercial, industrial and maritime ports overlooking the Arabian Gulf, such as: Umm Qasr, Khor al-Zubair, Abu Flus, and al-Maakal; however, none of them more than 13 meters deep, that is to say, they are all of medium depth. Basra has four other ports, in addition to al-Maakal and Fao.

In 1965, the port of Umm Qasr was built. In 1989, the construction of the Khor al-Zubair port was completed, which contains industrial piers and warehouses for iron ore, phosphates and urea fertilizer. In 1976, the Abu Flus port was built on the west bank of Shatt al-Arab within the district of Abu al-Khasib, and is currently considered to be one of the most active commercial ports despite its small area, and the inability to accommodate larger vessels.

By studying world trade maps, we see that of Iraq is at the hub of the transport routes; all land trade routes between East and West inevitably pass through it. Moreover, future gas pipelines, whether part of the Russian North Stream project or America’s Napco, will also pass through it. Qatar’s gas pipeline to Europe via Turkey must also pass through Iraq, such that proper investment in this site could potentially transform the country into the most important spot on the planet. Investments based on scientific grounds can change the global maritime transport map; because it will facilitate the transport goods from South-East Asia to Europe via Iraq through investment in the construction of a dry canal, which can consist of railway lines and fast transport routes for the transportation of goods instead of the Suez Canal. We can envisage the development of rail links between Iranian ports and Iraqi ports, running all the way to the Syrian border at Rabia; then crossing Syrian territory all the way to the Turkish border with Syria, at a length of some 1120 km or more.

Hence, the goal is substantial and comprehensive and is needed to enhance links with the global network of railways within the Turkish border. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary to accelerate the construction of the Great Fao port, which will reduce in importance the role played by Jebel Ali Port. The rail link between the Iranian port of Chabahar and the link with the Pakistani port of Gwadar will provide a cheap land alternative to shipment by sea through of Jebel Ali in the UAE, or Hamad port in Qatar, and even the port of Mubarak in Kuwait. All this may help explain the size of the conspiracy that has been hatched to delay the construction of the  Great Fao port. Yet still, the situation is even more critical today with DP World attempting to secure agreements to invest in Iraqi ports, which is seen as a conspiracy to stifle any further development of Iraqi ports, as happened with the port of Aden.

The last attempt to influence the Iraqi development projects is the “catastrophic” project announced by the Iraqi Ministry of Transport, to dig a channel from the Gulf to the Governorate of Najaf, a project that if implemented will lead to the destruction of agricultural land in the region between Basra and Najaf, which is the most fertile land in Iraq, as well as the destruction of aquifers in the southern Iraq, which already suffers from water shortages due to the inevitability of seawater intrusion into the groundwater, as well as the absence of any economic feasibility for the project. Raising the level of the Gulf water, situated on lower ground, to higher ground in Najaf makes the whole project totally unfeasible.  It will also cost Iraq an invaluable resource, of no lesser importance than oil; namely the dry canal project, which has the potential to help secure vast and badly needed revenues for Iraq, and may help to make it an effective and influential player in international politics.