Sea links: A vast new port on Boubyan Island is set to expand capacity

Of all Kuwait’s upcoming transport infrastructure projects, none inspire quite as many strong opinions as the development of the Boubyan port area. To some, the port promises a much-needed outlet for the northern Gulf, providing an indispensible export terminal for the northern part of Kuwait, as well as a fast-redeveloping Iraq. Others, however, see risks inherent in such a massive project in a relatively underdeveloped region, and have questioned whether the economic benefit the port might bring is worth the preliminary outlay it will entail. Furthermore, resistance from Iraq, which views the port as a challenge to its own maritime ambitions, has galvanised opinions on both sides of the debate.

EXTRA CAPACITY NEEDED: After all, the Boubyan project is not being built to cater to existing demand. Rather, it is aimed at projected demand increases over the long term due to demographic and trade expansion. Kuwait’s two ports are both operating at below their pre-financial-crisis peaks, with total container throughput at Shuwaikh and Shuaiba down 17% and 23%, respectively, on pre-2009 levels.

However, demand is on the upswing again, with throughput expected to increase 2.93% at Shuwaikh and 3.44% at Shuaiba in the 2011/12 financial year. Furthermore, in the context of Kuwait’s ambitious overall development plan, expanded port capacity is indispensible. This could be met either through an expansion of Shuaiba port (Shuwaikh, the country’s first port, is hemmed in by existing buildings in downtown Kuwait), or the new project at Boubyan Island.

The advocates of expanding Shuaiba port’s capacity argue that it would be both cheaper and less controversial. Shuaiba already has a deep-water harbour, whereas Boubyan will require extensive dredging before it can accommodate the kinds of larger ships that Kuwait would like to see making their way to the northern Gulf. Shuaiba is also located closer to the country’s existing infrastructure. Furthermore, there are some concerns about the environmental consequences of dredging and large-scale development on the marshy Boubyan Island.

JUSTIFICATIONS: Nonetheless, the government has elected to move forward with the Boubyan project for several reasons. Perhaps the most important argument is that the lack of existing infrastructure on Boubyan – which currently supports a military base and little else – will allow the new port to be custom-built to the highest standard. The essentially greenfield development at Boubyan will also offer room to expand, with a free zone, a large industrial park and an additional airport all considered probable additions to the Boubyan plan in the long term.

In addition, Shuaiba’s proximity to existing infrastructure is not necessarily an advantage. Indeed, there are several significant benefits for locating away from where the key infrastructure is situated.

Shifting some of the weight of Kuwait’s economic growth into the less-developed northern part of the country has its obvious advantages.

NEIGHBOURLY BENEFITS: Relations with Kuwait’s northern neighbour will be an important ingredient in the port’s success. The rebuilding of Iraq’s economy will require a major export terminal on the Gulf, and it has plans to build its own multibillion-dollar port on the opposite side of the same waterway.

Kuwait’s Boubyan developments could aid in the construction of the planned Grand Faw port, as dredging the mutual waterway will be of implicit use to both ports, and Kuwait could provide logistical support. However, with Iraq’s port project delayed by parliamentary wrangling, Boubyan may yet be the only major intermodal port in the northern Gulf.

The decision to move forward with the Boubyan port is perhaps the most potent example of Kuwait’s ambition to reclaim its position as the major transport and logistics hub that it was prior to the Iraqi invasion in 1990. Kuwait’s growing economy, not to mention that of a resurgent Iraq, will in time demand the kind of facilities that Boubyan aims to provide.

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