By Robert D. Kaplan
A noteworthy geopolitical shift is emerging that the media have yet to report on. In future years, a sizable portion of the U.S. Navy’s forces in the Middle East could be spending less time in the Persian Gulf and more time in the adjacent Indian Ocean. Manama in Bahrain will continue to be the headquarters of the Fifth Fleet. But American warships and their crews, as well as the myriad supply and repair services for them, could be increasingly focused on the brand new Omani port of Duqm, located outside the Persian Gulf on the Arabian Sea, which, in turn, forms the western half of the Indian Ocean.
High-ranking U.S. defense officials, military and civilian, have been visiting Oman and particularly Duqm of late. A few years ago, Duqm was just a blank spot on the map, facing the sea on a vast and empty coastline with its back to the desert. Now, $2 billion has been invested to build miles and miles of quays, dry docks, roads, an airfield and hotels. By the time Duqm evolves into a full-fledged city-state, $60 billion will have been spent, officials told me during a visit I made there — a visit sponsored by the government of Oman.
Duqm is a completely artificial development that aims to be not a media, cultural or entertainment center like Doha or Dubai, but a sterile and artificially engineered logistical supply chain city of the 21st century, whose basis of existence will be purely geographical and geopolitical. Duqm has little history behind it; it will be all about trade and business. If you look at the map, Duqm lies safely outside the increasingly vulnerable and conflict-prone Persian Gulf, but close enough to take advantage of the Gulf’s energy logistics trail. It is also midway across the Arabian Sea, between the growing middle classes of India and East Africa.
For Oman, Duqm is key to nation building, as it will further link the southwestern Omani province of Dhofar and its port of Salalah with the ports of Muscat and Sohar in northeastern Oman. For the United States, Duqm will be a partial answer to the Chinese-built port of Gwadar on the nearby coast of Pakistan. As China continues itsgrowing involvement in Indian Ocean ports (as I documented in my 2010 book, Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power), the United States will seek to preserve the balance of power in the Indian Ocean with its own military and commercial footprint. The reported new emphasis on Duqm would be a giant step toward the U.S. Navy becoming an Indian Ocean-Pacific sea force instead of an Atlantic-Pacific one, as it has been for all of its previous history. From Duqm, the U.S. Navy would still be close enough to the Persian Gulf to bomb Iran, yet without American warships being as hemmed-in and exposed to attack as they are in Bahrain. To be clear, this will be a gradual and subtle shift over time. The U.S. Navy is not deserting Bahrain and the Gulf.
For China, Duqm can be a transshipment hub for its consumer goods bound for the Indian subcontinent and East Africa — especially for the growing markets of Tanzania and Mozambique. In other words, container ships would arrive from China, and the containers themselves would then be off-loaded at Duqm for transport on smaller ships to various points in Africa, India and the Greater Middle East. Salalah, farther southwest, already serves this purpose. But local officials maintain that there will be enough commercial sea traffic in coming decades to make Duqm viable as well. Though China has openly expressed interest in utilizing Duqm, Omani officials assured me that China will never have the influence over this new port as they have at others around the Indian Ocean.
The scale of development here is simply profound, attesting to the Indian Ocean’s increasing geopolitical importance. I drove five hours across the desert from the Omani capital of Muscat to reach Duqm, with almost nothing in between but a bare-knuckled wilderness in innumerable shades of gray and little else besides goats and camels in sight. Upon arrival, I saw a 4.5-kilometer main breakwater built of reinforced concrete octopods protecting the new port, which already features mobile and rail harbor cranes, as well as rail lines already laid for future gantry cranes. Sixteen warships from the Gulf Cooperation Council sat along the pier in preparation for a live fire exercise the next day. The dry docks were filled with merchant vessels in need of repair. American Navy ships have been arriving for shore visits in greater frequency. Port authorities are planning for enhanced facilities in order to, perhaps one day, service U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines.
Officials briefed me in front of a large and detailed scale-model of Duqm as they hope it will appear years hence: composed of fisheries, an oil refinery, a transit hub for petrochemicals, a rail link, mineral-based manufacturing, a desalinization plant, a hospital, a mall, an international school, a town center and a tourist zone. Obviously, the airport here will have cargo facilities. The runway, already built, is long enough to receive flights from Europe. With 80 kilometers of virginal coastline allotted to Duqm, the new city-state could be larger than Bahrain or Singapore. And this is all just phase one — being built from scratch and inspired only by location on the map. The very fact of Duqm, as it exists and as it is envisioned, constitutes testimony to the fact that geography will be as important to the 21st century as it was to all previous ones.
New natural gas discoveries in the desert to the rear should help service Duqm’s energy needs, as a population of 67,000 is envisioned here by 2020. The new railhead will link Duqm to Muscat, Dubai and ports all the way north to Kuwait at the head of the Persian Gulf. If a rapprochement between the United States and Iran is achieved, Duqm will repair Iranian ships and be an offshore base for the burgeoning Iranian economy. If the rapprochement never materializes, Duqm, located safely outside the Gulf, will be a port of choice for merchant shipping companies that do not want their mega-ships diverted to the volatile Gulf region. Instead, they can make landfall here and potentially take deliveries of hydrocarbons by rail or pipeline from inside the Gulf.
To spur development, Duqm will have a new legal framework and will feature 100 percent foreign ownership of local businesses. Foreign companies that invest here will enjoy tax-free status and the ability to operate without currency restrictions, I was told.
Duqm’s biggest advantage for the Americans is that Oman has been for decades among the most stable, well governed and least oppressive states in the Greater Middle East — whereas the problem the Chinese have in Gwadar is that Pakistan is among the least stable and worst governed states in the Greater Middle East. Strategic geography for a port requires not just an advantageous location vis-a-vis the sea, but vis-a-vis land, too. And it is road, rail and pipeline connections from Omani ports outside the Persian Gulf — Salalah and Sohar, as well as Duqm — to ports inside the Gulf, from Dubai to Kuwait, that potentially make this place so attractive.
If Duqm succeeds — still a big “if” — it will become a great place name of the 21st century, just as Aden was in the 19th and Singapore was in the 20th. Given continued demographic growth and the theoretical prospect for economic dynamism in India and East Africa — even as Europe hovers around zero population growth with stagnant, over-regulated economies — the Indian Ocean, as I have been writing for years, could become the geopolitical nerve center of postmodern times. Duqm constitutes a multibillion-dollar bet that I am right.