Revolutionary developments are afoot for strategic control of major trans-Middle East transport routes. Kuwait and Iraq are tussling over control of Gulf waterways, amid plans for a route from Faw port through to Turkiye, and progress on an Iraq-Iran rail link.
The G20’s unveiling of plans for a major new trade corridor linking Saudi Arabia, India and Europe is a further game-changer. Meanwhile there has been fierce fighting between Arab and Kurdish factions in eastern Syria, as major powers seek to exploit these dynamics to gain control of routes through Syria and Iraq.
Iraq’s Supreme Court has declared that a law regulating maritime navigation along a crucial waterway with Kuwait was unconstitutional, triggering a furious response from Kuwaiti lawmakers. Many Iraqi parties welcomed the court’s decision, voicing concerns that the previous arrangement undermined Iraqi sovereignty, while questioning the motivations of those who had brokered that 2013 agreement under Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki. The Khor Abdullah waterway is critical to Iraq’s economic wellbeing, enabling the passage of 80 percent of the country’s imports and exports.
Leaderships on both sides have sought to keep negotiations cordial and pragmatic. However, with Iraqi provincial elections due December, the usual suspects have sought to inflame this issue for political gain, staging protests in Basra.
Sectarian Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi militias have threatened Kuwait and other Gulf states and fired missiles across the border to Kuwait, claiming it is a historical part of Iraq. When tensions flared over fishing rights last year, Hashd MP Ala Al-Haidari called for Hashd forces to be deployed in Khor Abdullah, while Hashd media outlets peddled anti-GCC incitement. Kuwaiti observers have meanwhile expressed disquiet at the doubling of the Hashd budget and force sizes.
Iraq’s ongoing Faw Grand Port project — if ever actually implemented — is envisioned as the largest port in the Middle East, with the potential to revolutionize Iraq’s economic landscape. Iraq last week also launched plans for a major naval base at the site to provide security in Gulf headwaters.
Iraq is meanwhile set to finalize agreements for a $17 billion high-speed Development Route railway from Faw through Turkiye toward Europe. GCC states are taking a keen interest, given the immense opportunities for trade and travel. Improved diplomatic relations between Iraq and Saudi Arabia have furthermore fueled hopes for reinvigoration of long-mothballed road-building plans, including linking up the holy cities of Makkah and Najaf as a major pilgrimage route. However, given Iraq’s record of endlessly stalled projects and funds siphoned off into corrupt hands, it will be a miracle if any of these plans ever come to fruition.
There are further glaring obstacles to Iraq becoming a core international conduit. Iraq’s borders and major road routes are festooned with illegal Hashd checkpoints for extorting revenue from commercial and private transport. Despite laughably feeble efforts to crack down on Hashd economic activities, a previous finance minister estimated that around 90 percent of Iraq’s customs revenues were being stolen by Hashd highwaymen.
Thus, the Hashd-dominated political echelons’ sudden enthusiasm for creating major transnational routes comes as little surprise. If these bandits can monopolize major trade corridors between Europe and the GCC, revenue-generating opportunities are infinite. The Sudani government, appointed by Hashd factions, has already given away immense territories to industrial conglomerates controlled by these paramilitaries for economic exploitation, including large areas adjoining the Kuwait and Saudi borders. Hezbollah has likewise been given vast fiefdoms in Syria, which it exploits for profit and to strengthen its regional strategic position.
A shadow war has been rumbling for control of transport routes from Iran to the Mediterranean, with the aim of profit from smuggling narcotics, munitions and other contraband. Despite massive Hashd fortifications established on the Iraq-Syria border at Albu-Kamal, the militants’ ambitions have been constrained by the presence of US forces near by.
Bashar Assad has sought to exploit the recent explosion of violence between Arabs and Kurds in eastern Syria to reestablish regime control through this volatile region, particularly through deployment of a motley assemblage of Shiite militias, including Hezbollah, and reinvigorated attempts to co-opt local tribes. Before this fighting, rumors were rife that the US was planning a major operation to definitively curtail the Hashd’s presence at Albu-Kamal.
As part of Assad’s longstanding ambitions to reestablish his control of the east, a so-called “Railway of Resistance” from Iran to the Mediterranean is underway. Last week, Iraq’s prime minister and Iran’s vice president held a foundation stone ceremony at the Shalamcheh border crossing near Basra, beginning the Iraq stretch of the project. Further routes from Albu-Kamal to Latakia and Damascus are expected, with China taking a strong interest as a crucial plank of its Belt-and-Road initiative.
These planned routes offer a spectrum of economic opportunities in a region experiencing sky-high levels of youth unemployment. But who actually benefits?
Given Hashd political supremacy, and dominance of territories through which these routes are planned, of course these militias will seek to monopolize these corridors for profit, with Hashd and Hezbollah enterprises well placed to be awarded lucrative construction projects.
With Syria and Iraq becoming fully-fledged narco-states, are plans afoot to ensure that ports and rail junctions don’t become major distribution hubs for Captagon, heroin and crystal meth?
This is where major powers such as Saudi Arabia, Turkiye, China, the US and EU must come in. Under current conditions, billions of dollars of investment will be corruptly frittered away. The Hashd stranglehold has raised costs of doing business many times over. The absence of major Iraq-straddling trade routes today is less the consequence of poor quality tarmac, and more because of routine extortion, security threats, and the ability of unaccountable militias to block major roads on a whim.
In short, Iraq cannot be both a major transport hub and a den of paramilitaries, pirates and highwaymen. Shiny new roads and railway infrastructure are not enough: Iraq must also have the political will and international backing to secure these routes as transnational corridors of free trade. Iraq’s neighbors, Kuwait included, meanwhile shouldn’t be exploiting Baghdad’s weakness, corruption and dysfunction to their own advantage.
For decades under various regimes, an isolated and shunned Iraq has failed to fulfill its global potential. The unveiling of this bounty of megaprojects should be Baghdad’s moment of decision: Does it want to perpetuate its isolation as a militia state and a marginalized rung in a bankrupt “Axis of Resistance,” or does it genuinely want to throw open its doors to the world?
Millions of young Iraqi protesters calling for economic opportunities, renewed Arab ties, and an end to militia governance have made it very clear which vision they favor.