Since its opening in early May, the 36-kilometer, US$3.6 billion Sheikh Jaber Al Ahmed Al Sabah Causeway has linked Kuwait’s capital directly to its northern territories – cutting a three-hour car journey to only 30 minutes.
However, venturing out over the blue waters of Kuwait Bay, the causeway does far more than provide a quick escape from the capital.
It also forms an elegant link to one of the world’s key geographies – the narrow northern end of the Gulf, where Kuwait, Iraq and Iran rub shoulders around the strategic Shatt-Al-Arab waterway.
On the southern shore of this maritime lifeline, Kuwait also now plans a future megalopolis – a $100 billion project known as Silk City. The new development is set not only to transform the oil-rich country, but also to hardwire Kuwait into the regional architecture of a rising global power: China.
The new transport, logistics and financial hub in the northern Gulf is set to join the People’s Republic’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
“China is already the largest investor in the Gulf and the Gulf’s number two trading partner,” says Degang Sun, Professor and Deputy Director of the Middle East Studies Institute of Shanghai International Studies University.
“Kuwait has already become one of the most active partners in the BRI, too, with it looking east for economic development, while China looks west.”
However, where the French-designed and South Korean-built causeway now comes ashore is a district of little more than a few roads, a power station and some scattered houses, surrounded by desert.
“It’s like a bridge to nowhere, right now,” one Kuwaiti real estate developer, who wished to remain anonymous, told Asia Times.
Silk City’s planners, however, see a future in which this region and the adjacent Al Bubiyan island – opposite Iraq’s Al Faw peninsula and a short distance from the Iraqi port of Um Qasr – will be transformed.
The city will stretch from the new Kuwaiti port of Mubarak Al Kabir – already under construction on Al Bubiyan Island, and at $9 billion, the most expensive port development in the region – to Al Subiya, where the causeway comes ashore.
An international airport, duty-free trade area, Olympic stadium and a 1 km-tall tower will join housing, workplaces and retail and entertainment facilities for 700,000 people.
Advocates argue that the city will help Kuwait achieve a number of goals, as it tries to diversify its economy – the country now has the world’s sixth largest oil reserves – and boost its regional and global standing.
A major population right on the border with Iraq will also help assert Kuwaiti rule over this largely empty region.
“After Iraq invaded through here back in 1990,” said a Lebanese developer long based in Kuwait, who also wished to remain anonymous, “Kuwait realized that population is a good stabilizer of territory – a first line of defense. Silk City is a way of consolidating sovereignty over this area.”
The city also aims to cement Kuwait into a larger, global picture.
“The selection of the northern area aims at transforming Kuwait into an international hub for huge foreign investments,” Sheikh Nasser Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah, Kuwait’s First Deputy Premier and Defense Minister, told Kuwaiti TV in March. The project “will enable us to reach out to far places like the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, Turkey and Eastern Europe.”
In this wider strategy, China plays a key role. The sheikh was speaking soon after meeting a major delegation from the People’s Republic and signing several key Memorandums of Understanding – including one to begin the first phase of Silk City’s construction.
“This all fits into the maritime component of the BRI,” said Jonathan Fulton, an assistant professor at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, who has long studied China and the Gulf. “China is involved in Khalifa port in Abu Dhabi, Duqm port in Oman, Jizan in Saudi Arabia, Djibouti and Port Said in Egypt. Kuwait can be part of this, while also connecting to the overland routes of the New Silk Road through Asia and down into Iran and Iraq.”
China’s participation in the project – and particularly in the port – is also likely to prove an astute move by Kuwait, as the People’s Republic is often seen as a neutral party in this part of the Gulf.
“China has good relations with everyone,” said Degang Sun. “Countries in the region may have conflicts with each other, but not with China.”
For Kuwait, “it’s in their interests that both of its neighbors, Iraq and Iran, see the port as a friendly facility,” the Lebanese developer added. “The potential for Kuwait to play a much bigger role in the region lies in this – as a conduit to these other markets.”
Yet Iraq and Kuwait have several contentious issues between them – such as still-missing Kuwaiti POWs from the 1990-1991 war and Iraqi war reparations, which Baghdad still pays.
Iraq is also now pursuing the second most expensive port development in the world, the $8 billion Basra Grand Faw Port, close to Mubarak Al Kabir – although progress with this has been slow.
Meanwhile, Sheikh Nasser – the driving force behind the causeway, as well as Silk City – has also proposed that the new megalopolis be governed by different rules than the rest of Kuwait.
This is in order to eliminate “painful bureaucracy,” he told Kuwaiti TV – yet a new draft law on the city proposed by the Sheikh may also create a more liberal culture there, including the sale of alcohol in an otherwise dry country.
This has caused some alarm amongst conservative Kuwaitis, with parliamentarian Safa al-Hashem calling the proposed law the “creation of a state within the state” and “the most dangerous law I have ever seen.”
At the same time, “Chinese neutrality in the Gulf is a big misreading,” said Fulton. “It’s true, China doesn’t have the colonial baggage of some other states, but China still has a very strong agenda.”
“China has been making very strong signals recently that it wants more of an active, mediating role in the Gulf in the future,” said Dagang Sun. “Stability is what China wants, with development part of this. Providing jobs, investment – that is the way to peace in the region.”
In the now-largely deserted northern wastes of Kuwait, then, it is not only the empty desert that may be changing under the tires of the bulldozers and dumper trucks.