by Feyzullah Tuna AYGÜN
In 2010, then Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced the project of al-Faw Grand Port to be built in Basra. However, the project experienced a setback due to Iraq’s financial hardships and the subsequent channeling of the Iraqi budget to the fight against the terrorist organization DAESH. Thus, the project that was launched in 2013 achieved limited progress until 2019. During the term of the previous Prime Minister of Iraq, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, the project was handled more broadly and received funding from the central budget. Even so, during this period, sub-projects for railways and motorways that constitute the Development Road started. After Kadhimi, Muhammad Shia al-Sudani’s government characterized the project as “the future of Iraq’ and granted it a prioritized status. Sudani’s government plan, which was approved by the Iraqi Parliament, outlines a commitment to prioritized funding of strategic projects such as the Development Road and implementation without any further delay.
Al-Faw Grand Port and the Development Road
Under construction in the province of Basra, the Grand Port of al-Faw is expected to receive its first freighter in 2025 and operate in full capacity in 2038. Upon its completion, the port will be the largest port in the Middle East. Since it will be deeper than many ports in the Basra Gulf, it will also serve the needs of larger cargo and freight ships. Iraq aims to utilize this new capability for bolstering its strategic position. The name of the project that will fulfill Iraq’s expectations is the Development Road, formerly known as the Dry Canal.
The Development Road constitutes the transportation network to be built between the al-Faw Grand Port and Türkiye. According to the plan, this network involves auxiliary projects in addition to motorways and railways. The ongoing construction of a motorway and tunnels between the port of Umm Qasr Port and the al-Faw Grand Port is a clear example to this situation. In addition, new industrial zones are envisaged along the route, and a cargo airport will be built in order to increase the impact of the project.
A New Trade Route
A new trade route will emerge as the port and transportation network start service. This new route is expected to operate at full capacity by 2029 and will be an alternative to the Red Sea-Suez Canal route. The al-Faw Grand Port will reduce the China-Europe transportation time by 20-25 days. Since it is built deeper than the Suez Canal, it will be able to accommodate larger cargo ships.
From another perspective, the Development Path points to Iraq’s vision for the future. In this respect, the similarities between the Development Road and the Saudi Vision 2030 program announced by Saudi Arabia are also striking. In order to prepare its country for the post-oil era, Saudi Arabia aims to create a new route connecting Africa and Eurasia by investing in the infrastructure and logistics sectors. These initiatives in Iraq are also important in terms of preparing the country for the post-oil era. This is because most of Iraq’s budget revenues come from oil revenues. According to the 2023 budget law, which will be used for three years, oil revenues are estimated at approximately 90 billion US dollars. Nevertheless, non-oil revenues amounting to approximately USD 13 billion cause the biggest vulnerability in Iraq’s economy. Therefore, one could argue that the Development Road is of vital importance for Iraq to diversify its economy. The General Company of Ports of Iraq estimates that the transportation network will generate annual revenues of approximately USD 4 billion once it is operating at full capacity, although it is expected to be completed with an investment of approximately USD 17 billion. This figure indicates a significant increase in Iraq’s non-oil revenues. In addition, this figure is expected to increase with the inclusion of different regions in the project in the later stages.
The impact of the Development Road project will go beyond merely connecting Türkiye and Iraq. It is also of great importance for China’s Belt and Road Project, announced in 2013. The loss of function of the Russia-Ukraine line as a northern corridor and the instability in the central corridor following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan pose great jeopardy against the Belt and Road project. These factors could make the maritime route more important for China, yet they may cause a decline in the overall impact of the Belt and Road. However, Iraq’s Development Road initiative is a factor that could reverse this process. The Development Road provides a new route through which the sea route can connect to the Central Corridor via Türkiye.
Development Road and Türkiye
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s statement during Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani’s visit to Türkiye on March 21, 2023, that characterizes the Development Road as the “New Silk Road” stands as one of the clearest examples of Türkiye’s perspective. In addition, President Erdoğan said in his speech at the 78th General Assembly of the United Nations, “We act with an understanding that strengthens Iraq’s political unity, territorial integrity, and reconstruction efforts and does not discriminate between the constituent elements of the country. We will hopefully further strengthen regional integration through the Development Road project that we will materialize in cooperation with regional countries.”
In addition to diversifying the Iraqi economy and creating a new global logistics line, the Development Road will also contribute to the development of relations between Türkiye and Iraq. In other words, Türkiye’s geopolitical position will be strengthened as a result of Iraq’s investment. The integration of the Development Road into the railroad expected to be built in the Gulf region will pave the way for Türkiye growing influence in the region and positively affect trade volumes.
Furthermore, Türkiye and Iraq are not directly involved in the India-Middle East-Europe Corridor (IMEC) announced at the G20 meeting. However, even if this project is implemented, its benefits are likely to be weaker than the Development Road. This is because the Development Road is important both for the Belt and Road Initiative and for the internal integration of the Gulf and the opening of the Gulf network to Europe.
Obstacles to the project
Despite these opportunities, there are significant challenges to the development of the project. Iraq needs to be supported in the areas of security and financing to complete these initiatives. International cooperation and investment are crucial to overcome these obstacles. In terms of security, the activity of the terrorist organization PKK around the possible route is one of these risks. The Baghdad administration has a duty to eliminate this. In fact, the agreement on Sinjar signed by Baghdad and Erbil in 2019 under UN auspices and the initiative to remove the terrorist organization from the region are closely related to the implementation of the project. In addition, the Baghdad administration’s attempts to take control of the so-called Makhmur Camp could be another example.
Indeed, the successful completion of the al-Faw Grand Port and Development Canal project will require cooperation and coordination not only between Türkiye and Iraq but also with other regional and global actors. Addressing potential challenges and risks, such as financial sustainability, demonstrations, and political tensions, will require sustained efforts and cooperation among various stakeholders. Involving other actors in the project will help to mitigate this risk. Regional actors therefore need to work together to realize the potential benefits of this project and ensure its success.
Despite these challenges, the potential benefits of the project are significant. The al-Faw Grand Port and Development Canal has the potential to transform the region’s economic landscape and provide new opportunities for trade and investment. Attracting more trade and creating more jobs will help Iraq’s reconstruction efforts. By working together against challenges and risks, Türkiye and Iraq can pave the way for a brighter future for both countries and the region.