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Is it stalemate for the GCC Railway Network?

The GCC Railway Network’s deadline extension has provided welcome breathing space for participants, but the project’s long-term success will require shared accountability

COMMENT, Projects, Bahrain, Construction, GCC Railway Network, Infrastructure, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia

The construction timeline for the GCC Railway Network has been pushed back by three years. According to a senior Emirati official, Gulf leaders have agreed to a new ‘ceiling’ of 2021 for the project’s completion.

The deadline extension was announced by Abdullah bin Mohammed Belhaif Al Nuaimi, the UAE’s Minister for Infrastructure and Development, according to a report published by Gulf News. When questioned on whether the oil drop had influenced the decision to lengthen the construction timeline, he responded: “I wouldn’t say no.”

In reference to a gathering of leaders from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, held in April 2016, Minister Al Nuaimi added: “The objective of that meeting was to get greater coherence in terms of where each of the GCC states are [in relation to] the implementation of the project. It makes no sense to build your network if everyone else is several years from being able to launch it.”

Indeed, in January 2016, Etihad Rail, the company responsible for the development of the Emirates’ national railway network, suspended the tendering process for Phase 2 of the UAE portion of the project. Once completed, this section of the network will connect the country’s borders with Saudi Arabia and Oman, in addition to other areas within the UAE.

In a statement released at the time, Etihad Rail said that it would review its options concerning the timing and delivery of the railway’s Phase 2.

Soon after, reports emerged that Oman was reconsidering its efforts in relation to the GCC Railway Network. The sultanate said that, in light of regional uncertainty, it would focus on national rail activities rather than the slated connection to its neighbouring UAE.

Phase 1 of Qatar’s stretch of the GCC Railway Network, meanwhile, comprises a 143km line that will link to the its border with Saudi Arabia. Qatar Rail floated tenders for the project’s oversight in summer of last year, but these activities were later put on hold.

Speaking to Doha News in March 2016, Abdulla Al Subaie, managing director of Qatar Rail, said that Qatar was also waiting for its neighbours to commence work. He added: “From our side, we are ready. We need other GCC countries to start the work in order to be able to start our contract.”

Such concerns are understandable. No country wants to push ahead with rail development, only to reach the border and find that it has been stood up. But if every country waits for one of its neighbours to make the first move, the GCC Railway Network could find itself in a state of indefinite inertia.

As Minister Al Nuaimi’s comments suggest, the effects of the low oil price have certainly contributed to this regional trepidation. If today’s financial reality simply will not allow the project to proceed as planned, then that is a frank but necessary conversation for regional leaders to have.

But financial concerns aside, if this project is to meet its revised 2021 completion deadline – or any other, for that matter – participants cannot afford to operate unilaterally, nor cast blame upon one another. All GCC countries intend to benefit from this project in the longer term, so it is only fair that they face the challenges involved in its construction collectively.

The creation of a 2,117km-long pan-regional rail network is certainly a significant undertaking. Not only does it necessitate coordination between six sovereign states, but it also requires construction experts capable of blazing a trail through some of the most inhospitable terrain on the planet.

Yet few would deny the GCC’s ability to pull it off. At a domestic level, the region is home to numerous world-class rail projects, the vast majority of which are progressing smoothly.

If sufficient funding can be secured, the GCC Railway Network can be a success. However, shared accountability is also a prerequisite if the project is to avoid permanently missing its connections.

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Construction Week - Issue 751
Oct 13, 2019