Transportation and Intelligence Minister Israel Katz is heading to Oman to discuss a regional rail line at a transportation conference in Muscat. This comes on the heels of the the prime minister's visit and foresees a regional peace train that would connect the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean. There hasn’t been such an ambitious plan for 100 years in the region. A survey of the exiting rail infrastructure in the region shows why any plans would take decades to complete.
The Ottomans built the first great railways in the Middle East. They strung a web of lines across Syria that stretched to the Hejaz, Baghdad and Haifa. It wasn’t easy going though. The rail line from Haifa to Damascus that passes through Dara’a took 15 years to build. The line to Baghdad that begins in Istanbul and goes through Aleppo and Mosul wasn’t complete until the 1940s, after the empire had expired. The British contributed the next layer of lines, from Egypt to Beersheba and beyond, partly used during World War I to supply troops in the field.
The War of Independence changed any fantasy of a region linked by rail lines. Because of Israel’s strategic location, from the Gulf of Aqaba to the Mediterranean, rail lines that once connected Egypt to Jordan and Syria became dormant. But Katz’s ideas might revive that. Jordan could become a regional transportation hub under new plans. In 2010, Amman began to look at the feasibility of a railway project according to the Jordan Times. But the idea never materialized.In August 2018, reports indicated that a Chinese company might help build several lines linking Aqaba to Amman and Amman to the Syrian border via Irbid or Mafraq. Another line would go through Zarqa to the Saudi and Iraqi borders. It would replace part of the historic Hejaz (Hedjaz) railway that the Ottomans built.
Iraq once had a railway network from the British period to the era of Saddam Hussein. After 2003, the new Iraqi government planned several lines, including one to Syria and Jordan. However, the only one that functions and has continued to commission trains is a line from Baghdad to Basra. In 2012, Iraq bought a new locomotive from China. Ideas for refurbishing other lines were put on hold due to the war on Islamic State. Similarly in Syria, the civil war destroyed the rail infrastructure. Neighboring Lebanon also once had a railway system, much of it developed by the French. A plan to resume its use from Beirut to Tripoli, and perhaps onto Homs in Syria, was scrapped due to the Syrian war and other tensions. A Chinese delegation arrived in September this year to look at the feasibility of investing in the project again.
Unlike Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, with their decaying rail infrastructure, and Jordan, which has infrastructure but has yet to invest in new lines, Saudi Arabia’s Saudi Railways Organization has 1,380 km. of track, mostly from Dammam on the Persian Gulf to Riyadh. A second line called the Haramain High-Speed Railway, the largest electric train project in the Middle East, opened in September and links Mecca with Jeddah, with plans to reach Medina.
In the United Arab Emirates, Etihad rail is planning a 1,200 km. line that will eventually reach the Saudi Arabian border and Oman. It is being built in stages with a freight line that will run along the coast including the major cities such as Abu Dhabi and Dubai. It has a line, opened in 2013 that links oil fields at Shah and Habshan to the port at Ruwais. It was envisioned as part of a Gulf railways network, but has run into some hurdles. In 2016, parts of the project were put on hold but are expected to be re-activated according to an article in The National.
Oman, where Katz is speaking, has been increasing its rail network in recent years. In 2015, Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said signed off on two more phases of a multi-phase rail network. The first phase links Al Buraimi on the border with UAE with the port of Sohar. A second phase would stretch down to Ibri and another phase would go down to the port of Al Duqm. Eventually it could be 2,135 km. long.
To link all this together, Saudi Arabia has to complete its North-South Railway project. The 2,400 km. line would link Riyadh to Al-Haditha on the Jordanian border. It would give Saudi Arabia around 3,900 km. of track. The project began in 2005 and was supposed to have portions completed by 2012. In 2017, the first passenger train traveled from Riyadh to Qassim, but a lot of work remains to connect it to the UAE, Oman and Jordan. Whatever fantasies there are for a peace train to connect Israel and the Gulf states will take decades to complete, judging by the relative snail pace of other railway plans in the region.