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DUBAI: A century after Lawrence of Arabia cut the Damascus-Medina railway, governments are embarking on plans to restore long-distance rail transport in the region and extend it across the Arabian Peninsula.
Official figures suggest around $100bn may be spent by the end of this decade laying over 6,000km of track for both national lines and a route linking all the states in the Gulf Cooperation Council: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain.
The governments face big technical challenges, such as making six national rail systems compatible and building on the shifting sands of remote deserts. But success could have far-reaching effects on economies in the region, cutting their dependence on expensive road and air travel, boosting trade and even bringing the GCC closer together politically.
“It will undoubtedly transform the economies as any major piece of railway does,” said Keith Hampson, director of global rail transit at Aecom, a US-based transport planning firm. “It opens up all sorts of trading relationships that probably otherwise would not have existed.”
The Turkish-built Hejaz Railway to the Saudi city of Madinah was never rebuilt in Saudi Arabia after Lawrence of Arabia’s raiding parties destroyed parts of it during World War I. Rail transport has been neglected in the Gulf since then; trade depends heavily on columns of smog-spewing trucks running along desert highways.
Currently, the only major rail systems operating in the GCC are a 60-year old freight and passenger link between Riyadh and the port of Dammam in Saudi Arabia, and Dubai’s metro. But that is set to change dramatically as growing populations and countries’ desire to diversify their economies away from oil exports cause them to pour money into railway construction.
Saudi Arabia is building a 2,750km line from Riyadh to its northern border with Jordan, aiming to complete it in 2014. About 2,260km of additional lines are planned in Saudi Arabia, including metro systems and high-speed train projects.
In the UAE, Etihad Rail has started building a link that is to transport granulated sulphur from desert gas fields to the southern port of Ruwais after it is finished in 2014.
The national networks are to be connected to a joint GCC line that would run from Kuwait along the Gulf coast to Muscat in Oman. The Gulf states are expected to prepare a detailed engineering design for the $15bn joint line by end-2013 or mid-2014, an official at the GCC’s Secretariat General said.
“Hopefully by the beginning of 2018, the railway will start operating,” said Ibrahim Al Sabti, director of the transportation department at the Riyadh-based secretariat. The network could help develop remote desert and mountain areas of the GCC. Trade within the GCC and its re-exports to other countries are expected to get a boost. Intra-GCC trade rose from $19.8bn in 2003 to $65.4bn in 2010, still only a tiny fraction of last year’s total GCC trade value of $1.3 trillion.
Ports in the GCC are making plans to expand partly on the assumption that they will be connected to the railway. One of them is the port of Salalah in the far south of Oman, near the border with Yemen. In May this year, Oman revealed plans to more than double port cargo handling capacity at Salalah by 2014, when it also aims to finish building a cargo terminal at the city’s airport.
The rail network “is probably good news in particular for those established trade hubs like Dubai, and for Oman and its plan of beefing up the port of Salalah,” said Farouk Soussa, Citigroup’s chief economist for the region.
In 2009, a GCC feasibility study forecast the joint GCC rail line would open in 2016, carrying 29 million tonnes of freight out of 61 million transported by all means in the region. Annual passenger traffic was projected at 4 million people in 2016-2020, with passenger revenue of $240m in 2016 rising to $600m in 2045.
Also, Salalah will become a major link between the GCC and the rest of the world. Because the port lies outside the Strait of Hormuz, it will reduce the GCC’s vulnerability to threats by Iran to close that key shipping route.
Despite the huge cost of the rail network, high oil prices and large state budget surpluses in the Gulf mean financial considerations look unlikely to block the project, at least in wealthy Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar. Politics and national pride may prove bigger obstacles in a region where governments have failed to agree on other areas of cooperation, such as creating a single currency and building a regional natural gas grid.
Another issue that GCC countries will need to resolve to make the rail system economically effective is customs procedures. big technical challenge is the unstable dunes of some of the region’s deserts, where sand builds up on tracks, increasing the wear and tear on them. But, such obstacles are not deterring scores of international firms, from US engineering giant Bechtel to South Korea’s SK Engineering & Construction, from hunting for railway business in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar. Reuters