DUBAI: The move towards integration among the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations received further impetus with leaders calling for the six member states to be linked by causeways and rail-lines.
This comes at a most appropriate time as these nations are heading towards a common Gulf market in 2007 and a currency union in 2010.
Calling it "essential to consolidating our countries' integration socially and economically", leaders attending a GCC summit late last month said that this was to facilitate better relations and trade between the nations.
While a Saudi-Bahrain causeway already exists, announcements of a causeway linking the United Arab Emirates (UAE) with Qatar and another one between Bahrain and Qatar have been made recently. These announcements open up whole new vistas of co-operation and fraternity between the Gulf states.
"I travel to Qatar almost every month on personal work and I prefer to drive. As of now, I have to drive across Saudi Arabia to access the Qatari border. But if this causeway opens it will cut my driving time down by almost eight hours," Muhammad Al Rahma, a Dubai-based UAE national, told IPS.
Travellers between the two countries must now go through the Saudi Arabian desert for 125 kilometres before entering Qatar. Over the years, there has been a marked increase in traffic on this route.
"The drive across Saudi Arabia is through the desert and one is always worried about getting stranded. But even then, hundreds of vehicles take this route. The causeway will make our journeys shorter and safer," said Muhammed.
The thought of being able to see more of the region, using the causeway, excites Sandra Muller, a German expatriate living in Dubai. "I love to drive as I can explore the countryside at my will. Till now I have had to fly to Qatar as Saudi Arabia does not allow women drivers," she said.
Bahrain and Qatar have invited international bids to build the 1.8 billion dollar causeway. Meanwhile, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have eased the travel of their nationals along the King Fahd Causeway which links the two countries.
GCC nationals are no longer required to get their passports stamped. They can now travel either way with only identity cards. The causeway would also open up other opportunities.
Studies would also be undertaken on the commercial feasibility of an electrical power project to connect both countries and the possibility of employing Bahraini citizens who wish to work in Qatar, which sits on the world's third largest reserves of natural gas.
It will be the world's longest fixed link when Qatar and Bahrain become connected in five years time. The 45 kilometre long connection will link the West Coast of Qatar near the Zubarah fortress with the East Coast of Bahrain south of its capital Manama.
The link is expected to consist of a number of bridges combined with roads constructed on embankments and will be a natural extension of the King Fahd Causeway that connects Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, thus linking the entire region.
"Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are already linked through the King Fahd causeway, while Qatar and Bahrain are planning to build a causeway linking the two countries...This is also great news as it will allow direct traffic between the four countries," said Muhammed.
The 25-kilometer King Fahd Causeway linking Saudi Arabia with Bahrain is the second longest in the world. This engineering masterpiece, spanning long stretches of sea and reclaimed land, uses five bridges on 536 concrete pylons to link the two countries.
Built in four years, this is a 25-metre-wide four-lane highway cost 1.2 billion dollars and was financed entirely by Saudi Arabia. It was opened to traffic in 1986. An artificial island was created halfway across the strait separating the two countries, for customs and immigration formalities.
"The Saudi-Bahrain causeway streamlined the transport of goods and people and strengthened the cultural and social bonds between the two GCC states," said Ibrahim Khan, a Dubai-based manager of a trading company.
"Now with the proposed causeways between UAE and Qatar and between Bahrain and Qatar, the free flow of trade, people and culture will overcome geographical barriers," said Ibrahim Khan, a Dubai-based manager of a trading company.
Bahrain was once a main centre of pearling in the region, but the industry declined in the 20th century. Oil and petroleum products account for about 60 per cent of Bahrain's exports.
The Gulf country is also home to numerous multinational firms, and the government actively encourages foreign investment. The US navy's 5th Fleet, which patrols the Persian Gulf, is also based here.
Elsewhere in the region, plans to establish a causeway across the Red Sea, linking the northern Saudi port of Dhuba and the Egyptian resort of Sharam El-Sheikh have been announced. At present there are boat services from Dhuba to Egyptian ports of Safaga and Ghardaqa.
Egyptian Minister of Transport Essam Sharaf said in a statement that the implementation of the three billion dollar project would depend on the technical studies that are already at an advanced stage.
This causeway will not only facilitate transportation of pilgrims, tourists and goods but also strengthen political, social and economic relations between the two Arab countries. There are about one million Egyptian workers in Saudi Arabia. More than 500,000 Saudi tourists visit Egypt annually.
"The idea of open borders like in Europe is exciting and can be really beneficial. Trade, labour exchange and tourism will greatly benefit and, of course, people like me who wish to see the region will be thrilled at the prospect of these causeways," said Muller. -Dawn/The Inter Press News Service.