By Arab News
Saudi Arabia and the other states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) live by trade.
Inevitably then, the rising tensions in the Gulf are rightly causing concern among all GCC members. Iran’s threat to close the 55-kilometer-wide Strait of Hormuz would impact massively on all the economic life of GCC members, as well as Iraq.
The geopolitical lesson from the long-simmering strains between Iran and its Arab neighbors is clear. Alternatives must be found for the transport of oil and merchandise between the GCC and its trade partners. One of the most powerful is undoubtedly the 2,000-kilometer rail link that is planned to connect Kuwait, the UAE and Saudi Arabia to Oman and port facilities on the Arabia Sea.
Unfortunately, this long-mooted project is still at a very early stage. Engineering studies will only be completed sometime later this year. Then will follow the detailed design phase, followed by the tendering for contractors, the completion of financing and finally, the construction of the line itself. At the current rate of progress, it is hard to see the first train running for at least a decade.
Can we wait that long?
It seems very clear that this whole project should be given top priority. The GCC members already enjoy one major advantage, which is that they have no shortage of funds. Of course, huge capital works like these always take time to repay the initial investment. If the GCC had to turn to private capital to fund the project, it might be harder to raise. We have seen in the Kingdom the challenges that arose with the planned Public Private Partnership envisaged for the funding of the Landbridge linking Jeddah, Riyadh and the Eastern Province.
But a north-south Gulf rail corridor is a matter of the utmost strategic importance for all GCC members. The truth, moreover, is that the money for it, all of it, could be found tomorrow. Here in Saudi Arabia alone, we enjoy strong budget surpluses which the government is committed to invest wisely to promote strong growth. The financial strength of most other GCC states is hardly less strong.
What is lacking at the moment appears to be a proper sense of urgency. Following its groundbreaking summit in Riyadh last month, when the goal of unity was accepted by all six members, the GCC was widely seen to have come of age. Its firm stance on Syria’s bloody repression of its people and Iran’s regional interference demonstrated its maturity, 30 years after it was created. Now it must act to drive through the early completion of this key lifeline that will bypass the Strait of Hormuz.
It may well be that the Saudi government will decide to work with the UAE and Oman to get its part of the rail line up and running as soon as possible, so that the rest of the GCC could link into it as their own sections are completed. There are other grounds that make this option attractive. Though the Landbridge will link the Kingdom coast to coast, there are also issues over our southern access to the Red Sea. The Bab-el-Mandeb Strait that separates Asia from Africa is even narrower than the Strait of Hormuz — just 40 kilometers wide. Pirates from Somalia on its southwestern side continue to plague international shipping in the surrounding waters. Meanwhile, the continuing political instability in Yemen poses a potential threat from the opposite side of the strait.
Saudi Arabia has massive coastlines but they depend not only on narrow outlets to the rest of the world, but narrow outlets at real risk of being blocked or, for financial or political reasons, held to ransom by threats of closure. The geopolitical case for the railway to the Arabian Sea and onward to key markets in Asia is thus overwhelming. The economic case is hardly less attractive, since in the event of either the Gulf or the Red Sea being blocked to shipping, the financial consequences could be very severe.
Therefore, the sooner the first train can run from Kuwait to Oman, the better. Saudi Arabia already boasts the world’s biggest rail project in the shape of the Landbridge. The trans-GCC rail link to the open sea will be an even bigger undertaking, but that should not for one moment cause any country to hesitate. This railway will be a powerful symbol of the unity to which GCC members are now committed, as well as a potent weapon to combat future instability at two major strategic maritime pinch points.