A critical economic lifeline
The King Fahd Causeway has played an important role in facilitating trade between Bahrain and the rest of the GCC countries, as well as ease of travel around the Gulf. Launched in 1986, the US$1.2bn project connects Bahrain with the region’s largest market, Saudi Arabia, allowing the transport of passengers and freight between the two countries and beyond in just 40 minutes. The causeway is critical to the economy of Bahrain, one of the top tourist destinations for Saudi Arabia, and remains one of the busiest crossings for passenger in the Middle East. On January 11th, 2020, the causeway saw its busiest day yet, with a record 131,000 passengers making the crossing in just one day.
Rapid response to a crisis
However, the outbreak of COVID-19, one of the most significant public health emergencies of our age, has seen governments around the world taking unprecedented action to contain the pandemic. The race to stem the spread of infection has seen ports shut, flights grounded, and entire cities put into lockdown. The Gulf is no exception. Indeed, GCC members won praise from the World Health Organisation for their early and rapid response, temporarily replacing face-to-face schooling with online education and restricting non-essential travel. Among the actions taken was the temporary suspension of the King Fahd Causeway for passengers, in many ways a lifeline for Bahrain. How has the island Kingdom coped?
Technology is the answer
The answer is technology. While both countries were quick to work together to suspend passenger travel over the causeway, crucial transportation of commercial cargo and freight has been maintained. Cutting-edge technological solutions including blockchain, AI and IoT are being utilised, developed and trialled to streamline customs processes, from payments to pre-clearance approvals. Paperwork has been nearly eliminated entirely. AI-powered high-tech scanners have been installed along the length of the causeway, which increase efficiency by automatically uploading information about shipments online. This allows information on the shipment to be checked before the truck has even reached the border, significantly boosting speed of process. This automated system has increased the capacity for commercial trucks passing through the border and can comfortably screen 120 per hour – almost 3,000 per day.
Boosting efficiency; maximising safety
In this way, the Kingdom of Bahrain has managed to minimise disruption to trade with its largest partner at a time when global supply chains have been all but decimated. And the Kingdom is not stopping there. Other tech-focused initiatives, which will boost efficiency while limiting human contact and the exchange of paper money – crucial to minimising the spread of the virus – have been introduced or are in the works. For example, the Customs unit has recently introduced an e-payment system, which allows clients to pay customs taxes and fees online.
Flexible, agile and tech-friendly
Bahrain’s forward-looking promotion and adoption of emerging technologies reach back to well before the outbreak began. The first GCC member to begin diversification efforts, the Kingdom has invested considerable sums in building a thriving tech and startup ecosystem. This has strongly positioned Bahrain for coping with the virus, minimising disruption and saving lives. Nor is this technological innovation limited to the King Fahd Causeway. The COVID-19 outbreak has seen a rapid uptake in the technologies that Bahrainis have available to them, from mobile and digital banking services to government online learning platforms. At a time when most of the world has ground to a halt, the King Fahd Causeway serves as an analogy for how a flexible, agile and tech-friendly economy can keep business and day-to-day life moving as usual, even in the worst of crises.