Mellanöstern och Nordafrika Tidningen
Published On: Wed, Sep 23rd, 2015

The Canal through Nowhere

The Arabian Peninsula has a lot of sand, especially in the famous “Empty Quarter.” So now a project has been envisioned that would cut a canal for 950 kilometers through the sand dunes from near Qatar in the north, into Saudi territory and then through Yemen to reach the Gulf of Aden.


This would be more than 10 times the length of the Panama Canal. But it will be far more than a waterway, as the commissioned study suggests:

The canal will also revive the Empty Quarter through the construction of two industrial cities, three residential towns, hotels and tourism resorts in its banks. Saudi Arabia will also achieve self-sufficiency in the fish sector thanks to pisciculture and fish farming in connected bays. In addition, there will be projects for energy generation, water desalination, residence building.

All this for a mere 80 billion dollars, much more than the annual budget of most countries.

Why would anyone want to build a canal through desert, where the evaporation rate is off the charts? Well, for the Saudis it would mean they did not have to ship their oil through the Strait of Hormuz. I doubt they are afraid of Oman, but it appears that the paranoia in the kingdom over Iran knows no limit. Are they really afraid that Iran would close the strait and the rest of the world would stand by and do nothing? Certainly the Saudi foreign policy could make Iran mad enough to do something crazy, but there is no way they could stop traffic through the strait. The American Fifth Fleet is never far away.

When I first saw this article, I thought it was from The Onion, a satire site. Making the desert bloom has long been an Israeli mantra, so perhaps this is a way for the Saudis to follow suit. But tourism along the banks of a canal through nowhere? I can imagine the sign in the Empty Quarter Sheraton, advertising that “Wilfred Thesiger slept here.” As for a price tag of 80 billion dollars, especially given the overruns all major projects end up with, this is a bit much. I wonder how many hospitals this amount of money could build or mouths that could get fed in Africa. Given the current low price of oil and the debts that are accumulating for the weapons purchases in the unending war on Yemen, it will be hard to find that many billions, even for the Saudis.

The Empty Quarter, Rub' al Khali.

The Empty Quarter, Rub’ al Khali (photo: NASA World Wind)

About the Author

- Anthropologist and historian with 40 years of experience researching and working in Yemen. Varisco is currently the President of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, Senior Fellow at the Annemarie Schimmel Kolleg of Bonn University, and an expert advisor to MENA Tidningen.

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