For GCC Countries, a Challenge Within Reach: The Gulf Rail Network

With budget surpluses accumulating over the past few years (and trade balance expected to reach around $500 billion in 2012) Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have multiplied their spending especially in the wake of uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world. A significant part of the spending has been allocated to much-needed infrastructure projects. Among these, an ambitious project to construct an approximately 1,200 mile rail route extending from Kuwait to Oman and linking all GCC countries, with the possible inclusion of Yemen in the future.

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 in the next few years, and in order to boost trade, Gulf countries are expected to spend more than $100 billion on rail and metro investments. Work at the national level is still in its early stages in most of these countries, with considerable progress being made in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Existing or planned national lines will either be part of the wider GCC network or link to it. Each country is responsible for building its own segment of the GCC network, along with its stations and terminals. The construction phase will begin in 2013 and the network is expected to become operational in 2017.

Kuwait will have to start developing its own rail system from scratch. A rail network of 340 miles will cover the northern and southern parts of the country all the way till the Saudi borders. It 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. The longest segment of the network will obviously run in Saudi Arabia, which holds one of the most developed rail networks in the region. Rail lines will border the eastern coast and will link the Kingdom to Kuwait in the north, Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE. The Saudi network will split into two separate branches: one will run along the coastline until it reaches the UAE 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 UAE, for its part, established Etihad Railways in July 2009 to plan and develop a 745 mile network throughout the country, connecting the seven emirates and linking the UAE to Saudi Arabia via Ghweifat and to Oman via Al-Ain. Oman is building its network in three phases: first, a 143 mile line will connect the industrial zone of Sohar to Muscat, followed by a 348 mile line linking the capital to Duqm which, in turn, will be connected to the southern city of Salalah in the third and final stage.

The development of a regional rail network involves great challenges. Operating a unified network spanning over six countries requires a common understanding over technical issues (type and size of tracks and locomotives), legal issues (pertaining to the movement of people and goods across borders and raises the question of further liberalization of trade among the six countries), safety procedures (the signaling and communication systems must be unified in all six countries) and, finally, commercial issues (related to the implementation of a common fare structure for the whole region). Discussions of all these issues would be easier within a regional framework, or structure, overseeing the implementation of the project.

The GCC rail network is part of a wider GCC economic merger strategy, which in its turn, reflects a certain will for political integration. It is an opportunity to test the six countries’ ability and readiness to cooperate and implement large-scale projects of strategic importance. Beside boosting trade, the rail network will allow these countries, especially those without a direct access outside the Gulf such as Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar, to transport goods to the rest of the world without passing through the Strait of Hormuz. Previous ambitious projects such as a political union or a monetary union failed to materialize for obvious reasons. Earlier experiments, such as Gulf Air – once a leading carrier initially owned by Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and Abu Dhabi until they starting pulling out one by one leaving Bahrain as the sole owner – serve as a reminder that regional cooperation is more easily planned and discussed than implemented.