06/06/2023, 12.15
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Washington, Delhi and Beijing in 'rail war' for Middle East routes

by Dario Salvi

Iraq has drawn up a plan dubbed 'Development Road' that wants to connect the south with the Turkish border in the north. An almost 17 billion euro project that involves other partners from Iran to Qatar. In response to the 'Silk Road', the United States - with Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and India - are studying a capillary network from Asia to Europe

Milan (AsiaNews) - In order to strengthen the transport system and connections between nations with strategic economic, industrial and commercial partnerships, several Middle Eastern countries are looking to rail transport by developing new routes or updating the (few) existing ones.

The latest ambitious project is from the end of May at the hands of the Iraqi government, which aims to connect Asia and Europe with a project costing around 17 billion euro and over 1,200 kilometres long. Baghdad's declared goal is, at least on paper, to make Iraq a regional transit hub thanks to a plan that combines rail and rail with road transport, improving long-distance roads.

However, the Iraqi plan is not the only project under development: others have emerged recently, starting with the route that aims to connect the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and then reach India through maritime connections. 


Baghdad's ambitions

The Iraqi plan is a route that crosses the entire country, more than a thousand kilometres long, running from East to West and renamed 'The Road to Development' to make its purpose and objectives clear from the very name. Illustrated recently by Prime Minister Mohamed Shia al-Sudani, it aims to connect the port of Grand Faw in the south, an oil-rich area, to the Turkish border in the far north, in Iraqi Kurdistan.

According to experts and planners, it will rival the Egyptian Suez Canal as a regional hub and since its presentation it has captured the interest of many nations in the area. Officials from the Ministry of Transport of Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria and the United Arab Emirates were present at the launch.

'We see this project as a pillar of a sustainable economy that is not based solely and exclusively on oil, a link that also serves Iraq's neighbours in the region and a contribution to efforts in the direction of economic integration,' al-Sudani emphasised.

The project will include high-speed trains that will move both freight and passengers at speeds of up to 300 km per hour, but will not exclude road transport, with a plan to upgrade the country's road network, which is obsolete in some places.

The current rail network includes slow freight and oil transport, as well as an overnight passenger train from Baghdad to Basra that takes up to 12 hours to complete the 500 km. The new route consists of around 15 stations, includes the cities of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul and should - at least according to the promoters - be completed 'within three to five years'. Work has already begun at the commercial port of Gran Faw, on the northern tip of the Gulf.

The project is a way of looking to the future for Iraq, leaving behind 20 years of wars, sectarian violence and jihadist fanaticism triggered in 2003 by the US invasion that led to the fall of the then raìs Saddam Hussein.

Certainly, in recent years the bloodiest and bloodiest phases of the country's recent history seem to have passed, armed clashes have decreased, as have the attacks that claimed many civilian victims. However, the political stalemate, confessional and partisan interests combined with the economic crisis have slowed down - at least so far - the reconstruction process that must also embrace the network and infrastructure.

A network to counter China

The Iraqi one is not the only rail project planned for the Middle East in the coming years. Proof of this is the recent meeting in Riyadh between US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, UAE National Security Advisor Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Indian counterpart Ajit Doval.

The US news website Axios reports on a project being studied to develop a regional railway network sponsored by Washington (and New Delhi) to counter similar projects promoted by Beijing on the Asian continent.

The aim is to connect the Gulf region and the Arab nations through a comprehensive network, which should also involve India via sea routes departing from regional ports. As far as the giant of the Asian sub-continent is concerned, the topic of transport these days is the subject of strong controversy and accusations following the dramatic train accident last week in which hundreds of people died.

The disaster has spotlighted the issue of safety, including rail safety, in a country where it is common practice to see vehicles packed with people, even on roofs or clinging to the outside.

The project is one of the key initiatives that the White House wants to implement in the Middle East, to counter China's growing influence along the New Silk Road (Bri). In particular, the region is a key part of the mega-project promoted by Beijing that risks encompassing, or cannibalising, the area's trade routes and economy.

Hence the idea of a similar plan to oppose the Chinese one, born during the talks held over the past 18 months from a forum called I2U2 that includes the United States, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and India.

A working group launched in late 2021 precisely to discuss strategic infrastructure projects in the Middle East region. A US official, on condition of anonymity, confirmed to Axios that the project's stone guest 'from day one' was China although 'no one said it out loud'.

The idea of the rail link originated at the instigation of Israel, which is currently not involved in the project but could become a partner in the near future. Even and especially if plans to 'normalise' relations with regional realities continue, above all Saudi Arabia in the current phase of stalled negotiations.

Returning to the project, the United States and the administration of President Joe Biden have from the outset insisted on the entry of Riyadh, which, in recent times, has allegedly forged far too close ties with China, which has been able to exploit the progressive US disengagement in the area.


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