Great societies remain great because they do big things and change the face of the world. Centuries ago Indian navies discovered a port at the other end of the Malacca Straits, a port that could facilitate naval commercial traffic as well as choke it if necessary. They named it Sinha-Pur, “Sinha” being the Sanskrut word for lion and “pur” being the Sanskrut word for city. This city was a part of the Sri Vijay Empire and again fell to Indian rule when Rajendra Chola I of the Chola Empire became sovereign of Malaysia around 1030 CE.
The Portuguese burned it to the ground in 1613 and the British rediscovered in the 19th century. In 1824, Singapore became a British possession under British India. In 2011, USA began preparing to “base some of the U.S. Navy’s new Littoral Combat Ships at the Changi Naval Base“. Discovered 1,000 years ago, Singapore is still just as important to naval traffic and geopolitics as it was then. Today,
Singapore is a thriving city-state that is a financial powerhouse and a great city to live. But its central importance derives from its geography. That will remain as long as naval traffic is important to the world.
So isn’t the potential emergence of a 21st century Singapore a major event? Robert Kaplan of Stratfor thinks so and that is why he wrote this week’s The Indian Ocean World Order on Stratfor.com. Kaplan has published more work on the Indian Ocean than anyone we know. He is an exceedingly smart observer of geopolitics and what we he writes, we read.
Back in 2007-2008 Kaplan discussed the “momentous shift” of the U.S Navy from North Atlantic and Europe to clearly seek “to be the preeminent South Asian power” and how the “United States…..will compensate by trying to dominate the doors in and out….the Straits of Hormuz and Bab el Mandeb; choke points where the naval presence of India and China will be expanding alongside America’s own“.
The United States is on its way to achieving this goal, Kaplan reports this week:
- “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.”
So what is this Duqm? And why is the US Navy going to operate from there?
1. Duqm – a grand vision
Kaplan wrote this week:
- “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. Alongside that, they may have to learn more about truck restraint installation, and how it can be a valuable piece of equipment for the efficiency of this facility once it has been built. 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”
Look where Duqm is located:
(courtesy – stratfor.com) (Duqm & Diego Garcia – courtesy wikipedia; our crude annotation)
Just far enough from the congestion of the Persian Gulf and Iranian bottleneck, but close enough to dominate the entry into & exit from the Straits of Hormuz. To the southeast of Duqm is the US naval base of Diego Garcia. These two together can serve to establish American naval primacy in the western half of the Indian ocean, an area where the emerging Chinese & Indian navies are seeking to expand.
As Kaplan writes:
- “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”.
The scale of the development in Duqm is “simply profound” writes Kaplan:.
- “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.”
2. What Duqm could mean to Oman? – Difference between America and China
China has been described by some as the 21st century’s Britain – a mercantile and deeply racist state that acquires resources & builds supply chain stations to support its acquisitions. China is accused of laying waste to other countries in its single minded pursuit of annexing wealth of others to take back to China, just as Britain did. The Chinese-built port of Gwadar is already under attack by Balochi fighters and it remains to be seen how much Gwadar actually delivers to China.
Duqm is different in that Duqm could alter the map of Oman in a big way. By focusing Oman towards the Indian Ocean rather than the Persian Gulf, Duqm could lead a resurgence in Oman. Robert Kaplan devoted Chapter Two of his book “Monsoon” to the old Oman with the title “Oman Is Everywhere“. This week he writes about Duqm:
- “Officials briefed me in f
ront 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.”
- “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.”
3. Where could Kaplan be wrong about Duqm?
Kaplan’s view of Duqm is rational but limited:
- “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.”
Remember what Dubai used to be in the 1950s & 1960s? A small little port of little consequence. Morarji Desai, then finance minister of India, came out with the Gold Control Act of 1962 which banned forward trading in Gold and withdrew gold loans. After a series of similar steps, Desai introduced the Gold Control Act in 1968 which banned Indians from owning gold.
Thanks to Desai, Dubai mushroomed into the center of gold smuggling into India. Flat little barges began loading gold in Dubai and going across to the western coastline of India to smuggle that gold into India. The Bollywood films of the 1970s are a testament to how big this gold trade became and how it transformed Dubai. No wonder Dubai is still the gold capital of the world and one of its great attractions is the Gold Souk.
The location of Duqm is far better than that of Dubai. It lies directly across the Arabian sea from the coast of Gujarat, the state with the “staggering ambition“, in Kaplan’s words, to be a South Korea. As Kaplan wrote in Chapter 6 of “Monsoon”, “South Korea is a vast peninsula open to major sea-lanes like Gujarat“. And as Kaplan wrote in that chapter, “Gujaratis, who were excellent sailors, made the Gulf of Cambay the eassternmost point for trade in the western Indian Ocean and the westernmost point for trade with the East Indies“.
If Duqm succeeds, it could provide a tremendous stimulus to trade between the entire western coast of India with the Middle East and Africa thus revitalizing the commerce of the first millennium and before. If this were to happen, then Duqm could quite possible mushroom into a financial & media center just as Dubai did. The proximity of Mumbai could drive an expansion of Bollywood and wealthy Indians into Duqm as a gateway to Arabia. That’s how Dubai succeeded in the first place.
The world is shifting back into the Indian Ocean becoming, in Kaplan’s words, the “geopolitical nerve center of postmodern times” as it was in the first millennium and before. And India was, is and will always remain the center of the Indian Ocean. So if Duqm succeeds, it could end up being a great gift from America to India, a perfect gift in the sense that it benefits both greatly and serves to foster that partnership.
This grand vision & massive implementation inspired by simply looking at a point in a map! This is the genius of great societies, the genius that makes them great and keep them great. And they call America a declining power!
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