In the past month, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE announced further developments in rail systems that will traverse major portions of the Arabian Peninsula. These projects will help to improve logistic chains, provide freedom of movement of goods and services, as well as promote greater economic unity between Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states for the first time. In addition, the network is illustrative of the continuing cooperation of the GCC to promote greater unity within the context of land-based supply-chain growth.
As we all know, railways have never been the preferred mode of transportation in the Gulf, neither for passengers nor for goods, for geographic reasons and, mostly, due to the affordable prices of fuel for road transportation. But the GCC rail network, which entered the planning phase in October 2008, will run down the Gulf coast from Kuwait, through Saudi Arabia, to the UAE and Oman, with branches linking Bahrain and Qatar. Each project fuses the Arabian Peninsula closer than never before.
Bahrain and Kuwait
Manama has said they will invest in a $8 billion railway system linking the archipelago to Saudi Arabia. The network will be 184 km and will be developed in phases by 2030.
As we all know, railways have never been the preferred mode of transportation in the Gulf, neither for passengers nor for goodsDr. Theodore Karasik
Kuwait will have to start developing a rail network of 547 km will cover the northern and southern parts of the country all the way to Saudi borders. The network will connect Kuwait City, al-Nawaseeb, al-Abdali, the airport as well as the ports of al-Shuaiba and Bubyan. The project could potentially also connect the Kuwaiti railway system to the Iraqi network, which would enhance the significance and importance of another major Kuwaiti project, the mega-port of Mubarak al-Kabir currently under construction in the island of Bubyan.
Oman and Qatar
Oman is building its network in three phases: first, a 230 mile line will connect the industrial zone of Sohar to Muscat, followed by a 560 km line linking the capital to Duqum which, in turn, will be connected to the southern city of Salalah in the third and final stage. Omani representatives are frequently in Riyadh discussing how to link Saudi Arabia to Duqum Port.
Doha will also see a series of national railway projects over the next 10 years. Qatari Diar Real Estate Investment Company, in partnership with Germany's Deutsche Bahn, has developed a conceptual design for the a national railway system for the country. This will include a line alongside the East coast, connecting Ras Laffan and Mesaieed, a high-speed link from Doha to Bahrain across the Qatar-Bahrain causeway, a freight link connecting to the GCC railway network.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE
KSA has already begun working on four different railway projects. Focus will be on the 1,000 km East-West Railway project, running from Jeddah and Damman and bridging the gap between the Red Sea and Arabian Gulf. The Saudi network will split into two separate tracks: one will run along the coastline until it reaches the UAE’s borders; the other will connect Saudi Arabia to Bahrain via a proposed causeway to be constructed parallel to the King Fahd causeway. This line will continue into neighboring Qatar via the Bahrain causeway before rejoining the main Saudi branch running along the coastline. The project will cover 449 kilometers and handle only passengers, while the second will stretch over 556 kilometers and be devoted exclusively to freight. On completion, it is estimated to transport some 300 million passengers per year and one billion tons per year. In and of itself, the Kingdom’s rail project will link the country’s regions together like never before.
The UAE established Etihad Railways in July 2009 to plan and develop a 1,200 km network throughout the country, connecting the seven emirates and linking the UAE to Saudi Arabia via Ghweifat and to Oman via al-Ain. Etihad Rail’s network will connect key centers of industry and population within the UAE, carrying both freight and passengers and promoting greater unity within the Federation. The network will connect urban and rural communities and create robust economic development across all the Emirates.
An economic merger
Overall, the GCC rail network signals a greater GCC economic merger that boosts concepts of political interconnectivity and cooperation of strategic significance. The networks will help to bypass the Strait of Hormuz, thereby mitigating an Iranian threat to shut down the narrow waterway, to ports outside of the Gulf littoral as well as lighten the use of cargo trucks on GCC highway systems. Land-based supply chains will only grow larger on the Arabian Peninsula and will help compliment the GCC’s growth as a commercial and cargo air hub. However, a key point that will need to be discussed by all GCC countries will be how to protect the railways from potential security threats by state and non-state actors, who historically target this mode of transport to make political statements.
Dr. Theodore Karasik is the Director of Research and Consultancy at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) in Dubai, UAE. He is also a Lecturer at University of Wollongong Dubai. Dr. Karasik received his Ph.D in History from the University of California Los Angles.