Qatar and its northern island neighbour Bahrain have agreed to enhance regional co-operation by building closer links across the 45 km of seawater that separates them. The latest statements from the two countries' governments indicate that the proposed Qatar-Bahrain Friendship Bridge, discussed on and off for the past three years, is currently on again.
On February 23, at the end of two days of wide-ranging discussions in the Bahraini capital of Manama, the governments of the Gulf region's two smallest countries issued a joint communique outlining a series of points on which they had agreed to co-operate and co-ordinate their policies. Some of the points related to social issues, such as youth, sports, women and the family. Others, however, were explicitly directed at physical infrastructure, such as natural-gas supply lines, industrial development, electricity and water.
In their grandest bid for linkage, Qatar and Bahrain agreed to push for faster completion of the engineering studies for a planned 45-km causeway that is meant to link them together as part of a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) road network, roughly five years from now.
The two states had sent their respective heirs apparent to co-chair the meeting and sign the associated documents. According to the Bahrain Tribune of February 24, Bahraini crown prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa and his Qatari counterpart, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, "stressed the importance of co-ordination and consultation to ensure mutual benefits". The two-day session - the fourth meeting of the Qatari-Bahraini Joint Higher Committee - was held to implement a set of December 2003 directives from the two countries' rulers.
Building the causeway to link the two countries is expected to take around five years, at an estimated cost of $2bn. Local contractors who might eventually bid for work on the project say it could take even longer, while costs can also be expected to mount. "Like any capital investment project with no guaranteed revenue, this causeway is a political and social, as well as economic decision," the head of a Doha-based construction firm said. In strictly business terms, "it's not viable," he said. "But if you add the political dimension, it becomes viable."
A Bahraini official, quoted by al-Jazeera, said the causeway would have "huge repercussions for the two countries". Since the committee last met two years before, relations had been strained over Qatar's repeated arrests of Bahraini fishermen in its territorial waters.
Previously, the two countries were embroiled for decades in a more serious territorial dispute, which flared up into brief hostilities in 1986. The dispute was resolved peacefully by an International Court of Justice decision in March 2001, leaving the contested island of Hawar in Bahraini hands, but with Qatar gaining sovereignty over a larger portion of the water separating the two states. Official talks on the causeway soon followed, though discussions have been periodically put on hold amid the residual tensions over fishing rights.
Another complicating factor may be Bahrain's close ties with Saudi Arabia, which increasingly regards tiny, gas-rich Qatar as an upstart power in the region. Bahrain has frequently joined Saudi Arabia in complaining about satellite news coverage on Qatar-based al-Jazeera. Saudi Arabia and Qatar undoubtedly share the most antagonistic bilateral relationship within the six-country GCC, particularly following Qatar's rise as a gas producer, media centre and US military base. Nonetheless, the prevailing mood within the GCC is one of co-operation, as member states discuss the possibility of currency unification by as early as 2008, as well as enhancing their road and infrastructure linkages.
Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are already linked by the 35-km King Fahd Causeway, completed in 1986 and heralded as an engineering triumph at the time. Around 3m cars have crossed it since then, according to Saudi statistics. The proposed Qatar-Bahrain causeway, assuming it happens, will therefore be a major step in GCC integration.
Qatar already has overland road links and a border crossing with Saudi Arabia, although the associated cross-border traffic is relatively light. Qatar also used to have a minor overland road connection to the United Arab Emirates, but the former crossing point is gone - along with the 20 km border - following Saudi Arabia's seizure of an ill-defined swath of Qatar-UAE border land in 1999. Upcoming pipeline links between the UAE and Qatar will be routed underwater, a project engineer confirmed.
The Qatar-Bahrain Friendship Bridge will run from near Zubara, at the north-western edge of the Qatar peninsula, to the eastern coast of Bahrain, south of Manama. The 45-km road will be the world's "longest fixed link", according to European contractors involved in on-site planning. The lead contractor for this initial phase of construction is the Danish consulting-engineering firm COWI.
Another Danish firm, DHI, has been selected as a sub-contractor for environmental management. More than two-thirds of the planned causeway route runs across a sensitive coral reef area. DHI says it will carry out studies of water exchange between the Gulf and the Bay of Salwa, which could be impeded by bridge piers. The reef's complex marine ecosystem supports the fishing industry in the area.