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New railways could transform the Middle East

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New railways could transform the Middle East

12 August 2022 09:36

Land transportation from the Saudi hinterland hadn’t seemed so simple since adventurer and scholar TE Lawrence, during World War I, had traveled by land between Damascus and the holy city of Medina. On March 31, the first passenger train left Riyadh, the Saudi capital, accelerating north across 1,215 kilometers of sand dunes to Qurayyat, a city near the Jordanian border. Within a few weeks, the sleeping car was so popular that your disgruntled correspondent’s bunk was booked by someone else at the same time. “He will have his bed in heaven, if God wills,” promised the driver, leading him to one of the few seats left free for the night.

The railway routes of the colonial era, blocked or destroyed by conflicts or abandonment, are now being reconnected. From Marrakesh in Morocco to Mashhad in Iran, governments are investing tens of billions of dollars to expand the crumbling networks. By 2040 it is expected that the current approximately 25 thousand kilometers
they will grow by tens of thousands of kilometers. Saudi Arabia is tripling its network. The region already has two high-speed lines that whiz passengers at 300 kilometers per hour, and more are under construction.

This relaunch has been delayed for a long time, partly due to the lack of regional integration. After the collapse of the Ottoman, British and French empires, the independencies broke the lines that the colonial powers had built in order to govern vast expanses of territory. The new countries closed their borders and blew up the bridges. The birth of Israel in 1948 created a wedge in the lines linking Asia to Africa. Furthermore, most governments have prioritized private transport over public transport. “Everyone thought cars and trucks were enough,” says a spokesman for the Israeli railways.

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Ferrovie modern
The plans for an international railway in the Arab Mashreq with a hub in Baghdad have resulted in nothing. The six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have only verbally supported a railway project connecting Kuwait to Oman by crossing the Gulf. But traffic jams, dizzying population growth and climate change are driving a rethink. “People need to move faster and cleaner rather than busy and polluted streets,” says Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg of the GCC.

The volume of passengers in Israel has jumped from twelve million twenty years ago to seventy million today

Traveling on the planned new route through the United Arab Emirates (Eau) from Abu Dhabi to Fujairah will take half the time compared to driving. While the Iranian high-speed line from Tehran to Esfahan will reduce travel times from five hours to ninety minutes. Demand is booming. The volume of passengers in Israel has jumped from twelve million twenty years ago to seventy million today, and is projected to reach 400 million people by 2040. Egypt also needs to modernize its main lines, as the volume of passengers has increased fifteen times since the 1930s, on a route that has remained roughly the same.

Metropolitan transport systems are also multiplying. Algiers, Dubai, Doha (the capital of Qatar), Cairo and Tehran have all expanded their networks. While those in Riyadh and Tel Aviv should open next year. In addition, the new administrative capital of Cairo will have the first monorail in North Africa.

Tourists and pilgrims alike should benefit from the railways – Saudi Arabia’s first high-speed train commutes between the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Meanwhile, Egypt has just signed a contract to build a fast route that runs from Cairo along the Nile to the pharaonic statues of Abu Simbel, 1,100 kilometers away, near the border with Sudan. While Morocco is planning a high-speed line to the tourist center of Marrakesh.

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Many countries are too poor, war-torn or dysfunctional to be able to restore old rail lines

Trade should also benefit. Egypt’s first high-speed train, set to open in 2027, will connect the Red Sea port of Ain Sukhna to Marsa Matruh on the Mediterranean, offering an alternative to the congested Suez Canal. Saudi Arabia is planning a fast railway that will connect the port of Jeddah to the Gulf via Riyadh. The new line to Fujairah, on the Indian Ocean, will provide a means of transporting goods to or from the UAE to avoid the Strait of Hormuz, a bottleneck at the entrance to the gulf that Iran periodically threatens to close.
While Morocco hopes its high-speed train from Tangier will someday whiz along the coast through the disputed territory of Western Sahara to West African markets and even a submarine tunnel for Spain is envisaged.

China, a world leader in high-speed trains, wants to connect Asia to Europe by land via the Middle East to develop its new Silk Road. And he discussed these projects with Iran, Israel and the Emirates. But the German company Siemens has beaten its Chinese rivals to build the highways
Egyptian speeds. For the high-speed projects, Morocco instead hired a French company, Saudi Arabia a Spanish one and Israel a German one. While much of the Emirati line went to a consortium of British and German companies.

Ancient fears
But not everyone is embarked on the enterprise. Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, Libya, Sudan, Syria and Yemen are too poor, war-torn or dysfunctional to restore their old routes. State-owned airlines are lobbying to keep their profitable short-haul routes, and age-old fears still stir some governments. Oman, for example, always wary of reciprocal involvement, has pulled out. Kuwait, worried about the invasions, is nervous about a connection with Iraq. Qatar, which had long ago planned to build a high-speed line to Bahrain and Riyadh in time for this year’s World Cup, then pulled the brakes after its neighbors blocked it for reasons. policies.

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This basic fear is well represented by the fact that most of these routes stop a stone’s throw from the borders, so tempting yet unreachable. The Israeli “peace line” is cut off eight kilometers from the Jordanian border. The new Saudi route, which goes north from Riyadh, stops 28 kilometers before entering Jordan: a necessary caution since it is a route that would create a direct link between Mecca and East Jerusalem, an area occupied by Israel.

Although Morocco has built a shiny new station in Oujda, the old border crossing with Algeria, the connection between the two countries remains firmly closed. The Chinese dream of reaching the east is also blocked by a missing link, 22 kilometers long, between Iran and Iraq. Despite all the talk of regional integration and the new silk routes, the railway map of the Middle East is still moth-eaten with history.

(Translation by Francesco De Lellis)

This article appeared in The Economist. Internazionale has a weekly newsletter covering what’s going on in the Middle East. You sign up who.

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