Oman's Duqm Port and US Exit from Afghanistan

14 Apr, 2014    ·   4389

Dr Vijay Sakhuja weighs in on the relevance of the port to the US

The US is keenly following developments in Duqm, an Omani port overlooking the Indian Ocean, and a number of US defense, military and civilian personnel have visited Oman in this connection. British Royal Navy ships have called at Duqm, and in 2010, HMS Enterprise conducted a hydrographic survey of approaches to the harbour. Likewise, HMS Echo has carried out logistic assessments of the port for future visits by Royal Navy ships. In March 2014, sixteen warships from the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) member navies were sighted in the port preparing for joint naval and live firing exercises in the Arabian Sea. Although Duqm does not have any military infrastructure, the above reports suggest that it could emerge as a strategic naval outpost in the Indian Ocean.

Till very recently, Duqm was a small fishing harbour and the township had a population of about few thousand people; most of them belonging to the Bedouin tribe. The ongoing developments at the port are part of a larger Omani plan to turn Duqm into an industrial city, create a Special Economic Zone, and complement the other Omani ports of Fujairah and Salalah which dot the 2,000 km coastline overlooking the Indian Ocean. According to the master plan, Duqm port would have a huge dry dock, receive vessels of up to 180,000 dwt and handle containers - dry, liquid and other cargo - which can also be linked to the proposed GCC rail network. 

There are at least two reasons for the US interest in Duqm port. First, the port offers the US Navy the ability to operate in the Arabian Sea without the fear of being ‘bottled up’ in the Persian Gulf in the event of the closure of the Strait of Hormuz. In the past, Iran has threatened to close the Strait in case of an attack on its nuclear facility. Iran has the capability to disrupt international shipping through the Hormuz by using sea mines that can hit shipping particularly the 20-30 oil and gas tankers which exit the Persian Gulf each day.

The second driver is the possible US plan to use Duqm for shipping home military hardware after its withdrawal from Afghanistan. The logistic expediency of transporting military hardware back home has been studied and it is estimated that nearly 20,000 containers would be required to pack US$7 billion worth of military equipment, particularly the 20-tonne Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected (MRAP) vehicles which are priced as high as US$1 million.

The other option for the US is to avoid heavy transportation costs and transfer the MRAPs to Afghanistan or Pakistan. The US view is that the Afghan Army is not capable of operating and maintaining these sophisticated and complex vehicles. As far as Pakistan is concerned, there have been several rounds of talks for the transfer of MRAPs which would help it to fight the Taliban insurgents. It appears that the US is not satisfied with Pakistan’s attempts to crack down on terrorism and support US anti-terrorism goals in the region, which may rule out a transfer of MRAPs. Further, Islamabad’s silence over the presence of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan looms large over the US decision to transfer military hardware to Pakistan. Also, the US would not like to annoy India and Afghanistan by transferring military equipment to Pakistan.

This would certainly disappoint Pakistan who may not offer guarantees for the safe transit of US convoys carrying military hardware to the port of Karachi for transshipment. There is a history of attacks on the US/NATO supply chains that transit through the provinces of Sindh, Punjab, Peshawar and the Khyber Pass and thereafter into Afghanistan. Given the uncertainties, Dqum offers good facilities for transshipment of US military hardware.

US and Oman enjoy robust relations and signed the Base Access Agreement in 1980 which was renewed in 1985, 1990, 2000, and 2010. Under the agreement, the US military uses a number of Omani military, air and naval facilities; these were effectively put to use in Iraq and now in Afghanistan.

Oman has followed a balanced foreign policy and has maintained friendly relations with GCC member countries and neighbours, particularly Iran. It was instrumental in the release of the 15 Royal British Navy personnel captured by Iranian forces in 2007. In 2011, Oman used its good offices with Iran for the release of three American hikers that were suspected to be engaged in espionage in Iran. In recent times, Oman facilitated and brokered a dialogue between the US and Iran to break the impasse over the nuclear talks much to the disappointment of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and some other Gulf states. In essence, Oman’s proactive diplomacy to ensure stability in the Arabian Gulf is acknowledged by the US.