GCC’s ambitious railway project gains momentum

17 July 2023

 

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The GCC railway project has continued to make progress in 2023. After an official announcement by the GCC secretariat in January 2021 that effectively restarted the project, a string of recent moves and statements have meant all six members of the bloc have either declared or signalled their plans for their sections of the rail network.

In early July, officials from Bahrain's Ministry of Transportation and Telecommunications met with a delegation from the GCC Rail Authority led by Nasser Hamad al-Qahtani and Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Samaani.

The two sides discussed the railway connecting Saudi Arabia and Bahrain across the proposed King Hamad Causeway and reviewed the progress of the new crossing. The meeting also included the exchange of information regarding engineering designs and contact points between the two countries.

The railway crossing the King Hamad Causeway will extend inland by another 21 kilometres into Saudi Arabia and 24km into Bahrain. It is understood the railway route extending inland into Bahrain will eventually link up with the planned GCC railway network.

In November 2019, the Netherlands' KPMG, US-based Aecom and Germany-headquartered CMS were appointed as advisers for the project.

Kuwait advances

The meeting between the two countries follows developments elsewhere in the GCC. In May, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud authorised the minister of transport and logistics services as his representative to discuss a draft agreement with Kuwait regarding a rail link connecting the two countries.

MEED reported in early May that Saudi Arabia Railways (SAR) and the Saudi Public Transport Authority had appointed France’s Systra to complete the feasibility study for a high-speed rail link connecting the kingdom and Kuwait.

Bid submission is currently in progress for study and detailed design services for the rolling stock and civil works packages 1 and 2.

Kuwait is also pushing ahead with the Kuwait National Rail Road (KNRR) project. The scheme is seen as a significant component of the country's contribution to the GCC railway. The project owner, Kuwait’s Public Authority for Roads and Land Transportation (Part), through the Kuwait Authority for Partnership Projects (Kapp), issued a request for proposals (RFP) in January this year. The original closing date was 21 February and the deadline was then extended to 11 July.

Oman links

Progress is also being made on the railway linking the UAE and Oman. In September 2022, the two countries established Oman-Etihad Rail Company to implement the 303-kilometre network. The project received a further boost after Oman-Etihad Rail Company inked a strategic agreement with Abu Dhabi-based Mubadala Investment Company to support its development.

The prequalification process is underway for the UAE Civil Package A, Oman Civil Package B and Oman Civil Package C projects, and is expected to be completed in the third quarter of 2023. Contractors based in the UAE, Oman, Turkiye, Greece, India and China have started seeking to qualify for the packages on the $3bn rail connection.

“The prequalification process is currently under way, and we hope to award [the project] on schedule as planned,” said UAE Minister of Energy and Infrastructure, and Oman-Etihad Rail Company chairman of the board of directors, Suhail Mohamed Faraj al-Mazrouei, in an interview with MEED.

Oman-Etihad Rail Company also signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Brazilian mining company Vale to explore using rail to transport iron ore and its derivatives between Oman and the UAE. Railways could connect Vale’s industrial complex in Oman’s Sohar Port and Freezone and its planned development, known as a Mega Hub, at Khalifa Economic Zones Abu Dhabi (Kezad).

Oman is also collaborating with Saudi Arabia for the establishment of a railway link connecting Duqm with Riyadh through the Ibri border. The railway line aims to serve the upcoming economic zone that the two countries are planning to build in the Al-Dhahirah area.

Qatar connection

Meanwhile, GCC railway projects have been progressing with renewed impetus following the Al-Ula declaration signed by the six member states in January 2021. Under the declaration, Saudi Arabia and Qatar agreed to restore their diplomatic ties and restart the rail link connecting the two countries.

In July 2021, Systra was selected to conduct a feasibility study on the proposed high-speed rail line connecting Riyadh and Doha, which could use maglev technology. The study works are still ongoing on the project. The railway line could be about 550 kilometres long. As well as maglev, the study will also evaluate using other high-speed rail technologies.

The restoration of diplomatic ties between Qatar and Bahrain in mid-April will improve the prospects of the $4bn Qatar-Bahrain Causeway. In March 2022, Manama called for work to restart on the causeway, which is a key link for the GCC rail network.

Rail authority

GCC leaders approved the establishment of the GCC Rail Authority in January 2022. The company was entrusted with the overall policymaking and coordination among member states to ensure smooth delivery and operations of the overall scheme.

With high project activity levels, governments in spending mode, and the agreements under the Al-Ula declaration, the latest efforts to restart the GCC railway project may make more progress than previous attempts. If the railway is finally completed, it could prove transformative for a region that feels connected to the world but divided between its constituent parts.

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Yasir Iqbal
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