Risks remain for GCC railway project

28 August 2023


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When the GCC secretariat agreed to restart the GCC Railway Project in 2021, it set the tone for one of the region’s most ambitious transnational projects.

The endeavour aims to connect the six Gulf nations with a sprawling railway network that will be a game-changer for the region’s infrastructure. The potential to boost trade, connectivity and regional economic development is enormous. 

But risks and challenges also lie ahead, including cost overruns and technical risks related to the project design, engineering and complexity that must be assessed, managed and monitored to ensure the project’s successful delivery.

Political risks

Political factors play a significant role in the development and operation of the GCC railway. Given that the network will traverse multiple geographies, one of its biggest tests is manoeuvring through the regional political landscape.

First and foremost among political considerations is the level of cooperation and diplomatic relations between the member states. The railway’s seamless operation relies on harmonised regulations, standard operating procedures and open communication between nations, as well as geopolitical stability. 

In this respect, the Al-Alu agreement of 2021 is key, as it laid the strong foundations for a more robust mechanism to ensure better cooperation between the GCC countries.

“The Qatar blockade was a big challenge to manage and the GCC countries have seen the consequences of the situation,” Alexandre Busson (right), director of rail, Hill International, tells MEED.

“They realised that there was no benefit in it for the region. So the Al-Ula declaration is really important.”

But while the agreement mitigates the political risk related to the GCC railway project to some extent, the potential for geopolitical tensions or disputes between the involved states remains and could impede the project’s progress by delaying decisions, complicating negotiations and disrupting work.

The GCC countries' wide-ranging economic interests and priorities could also impact their commitment to the railway project. Member states will need to consider their existing investments in other forms of transportation infrastructure, such as ports and highways. Balancing these interests requires careful negotiations and alignment of economic visions.

PPP contracts are more complex to negotiate and manage. But it [will be] very interesting to see how it goes because a successful PPP project could lead to the opening up of the market
Alexandre Busson, Hill International

Financial risks

The enormity of the GCC Railway Project becomes apparent when considering the huge costs involved. Laying tracks spanning six countries and crossing diverse terrains and urban areas, building stations, installing signalling systems and ensuring the safety of the network demands billions of dollars’ worth of investment.

With the financial stability of GCC nations closely tied to the global oil market, fluctuations in oil prices could significantly impact the ability and political will of governments to allocate funds to the GCC Railway Project.

“When GCC countries budget for infrastructure projects, they are very conservative with regards to the oil price in their budget,” says Busson. “And in terms of projects financing, they realise [the need] to diversify the economy and not be too dependent on oil prices.” 

Nevertheless, economic diversification plans mean each GCC nation faces its own set of budget constraints and priorities. Regional governments must juggle allocating limited funds to sectors such as healthcare, education, defence and infrastructure. The GCC Railway Project’s financial demands could strain these budgets, potentially diverting resources away from critical sectors.

To bridge the financial gap, governments are likely to explore a combination of public financing and private investment. Public-private partnerships (PPPs) have attracted interest from large-scale infrastructure projects in the region and the GCC railway will be no different. Luring private investors, however, requires a stable and attractive investment environment, coupled with clear revenue-generation models and risk-sharing agreements.

“The PPP model is quite new in the GCC. Even more so in transport,” says Busson. “Those kinds of contracts are more complex to negotiate and manage. But it [will be] very interesting to see how it goes because a successful PPP project could lead to the opening up of the market.”

You need to look at the consortium members and say, do we have the right balance within that particular consortium to be able to manage this project
Christopher Harding, Hill International

Technical risks

The technical risks of rail systems running across international borders are well documented. Examples include the Tan-Zam railway between Tanzania and Zambia and the rail link connecting Spain and France, where the adoption of different gauges meant construction was fraught with technical difficulties when joining the networks to each other.

“Inaccurate or complex specifications sometimes lead to extra efforts [needing] to be put into the interface management and getting interface agreements between the contractors,” explains Christopher Harding (right), a senior project management professional currently working on the Cairo Metro project for US-based consultant Hill International.

“That leads to claims from contractors and hence may lead to cost overruns.”

The complexity of the GCC Railway Project raises the stakes when it comes to technical risks. Meticulous planning and implementation will be required to ensure seamless connectivity across deserts, mountains and coastal areas, while the need for bridges, tunnels and viaducts to overcome geographical obstacles demands robust engineering solutions. 

Addressing these engineering risks requires a comprehensive understanding of the local environment, as well as innovative and consistent engineering techniques.

“There needs to be a common policy on the control systems for each country and how they talk to each other,” says Harding.

The involvement of multiple contractors will bring contractor-related risks too. Coordination between these entities will be key, as delays in one segment could cascade through the entire network, causing misalignments and operational bottlenecks.

“You need to look at the consortium members and say, do we have the right balance within that particular consortium to be able to manage this project,” says Harding.

Another significant challenge will be maintaining uniform quality standards across the contractors working on the GCC Railway Project to prevent differing construction techniques, materials and safety practices from potentially compromising the railway’s overall integrity and efficiency. 

“The rules around aspects like recruitment localisation, In-country Value (ICV), In-Kingdom Total Value Add (IKTVA) and regional headquarters requirement could be a challenge for new companies,” adds Busson.

The establishment of the GCC Railway Authority to oversee the overall implementation of the project will go some way towards resolving the technical issues outlined here. The authority is tasked with ensuring common standards and specifications, and supervising the railway’s interoperability and regional integration.

For the project to succeed, the authority must develop robust risk management strategies, effective communication channels among contractors, stringent quality control measures and transparent procurement processes.

Yasir Iqbal
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