MANAMA, Bahrain — One of the world's most expensive causeways will open in December, linking the island state of Bahrain with Saudi Arabia and highlighting the closer political, economic and defense ties being forged by Persian Gulf Arab countries.
Saudi Arabia is footing a bill totaling about $1 billion for the 15.6-mile causeway--including five box-girder road bridges and a man-made central island--constructed by Ballast Nedam of the Netherlands.
The four-lane causeway will provide immediate security and economic benefits for Bahrain, a regional trade and banking center, and end its geographical isolation from its partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Work on the causeway began in 1981 when Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates formed the Gulf Cooperation Council in response to the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan and Iran's Islamic revolution, both in 1979.
Diplomats say it will help minimize the risk of foreign aggression against Bahrain and possible threats to Saudi Arabia's east coast oil fields as a result.
"The causeway could quickly become a conduit for Saudi tanks and other weapons," one diplomat said. The link can take some of the heaviest vehicles in use today.
Bahrain relies on Saudi Arabia for air cover as part of the gulf council's defense cooperation. The causeway will be less than a minute's flying time from Saudi air bases, while the central island will have two harbors for coast guard vessels.
Construction of the causeway has fueled speculation that Bahrain's life style will be made to conform more closely with that of Saudi Arabia, where alcohol is banned and women are not allowed to drive cars.
But Bahrain Information Minister Tariq Almoayyed said the island's policy would not change "in any respect" as a direct consequence of the causeway.
The causeway reflects "a political will" by the two governments to forge closer economic and social links, he said.
Bahrain has a population of 350,000, while close to 10 million people live in Saudi Arabia.
Almoayyed said Bahrain's industries, including tourism, will benefit from the causeway, which will be capable of taking up to 30,000 vehicles daily.
The tourist industry is expected to benefit from an influx of Saudis and of people who now use regular air links.
Real estate agents say some Saudis plan to build vacation homes near the Bahrain side of the causeway and land prices in the area have risen by about 25% in the past year.
In theory, it should take about 30 minutes to an hour to cross the causeway. This compares with considerably more time to make the short plane hop, including checking in and customs formalities, between Bahrain and the Saudi city of Dhahran.
Ballast Nedam, which won the $575-million contract to construct the causeway from Saudi Arabia's Finance and National Economy Ministry, received a further $90 million order last year from the ministry to build the customs facilities.
The company is also bidding with about 14 other firms for a contract worth about $300 million to build 31 miles of approach roads at either end of the causeway.