GCC Rail: a train to connect the Gulf

Will a train linking the UAE to Saudi and Kuwait unleash the region's massive potential?

Alicia Buller August 4, 2015

The Saudi Arabian coastal town of Dammam may not be the Gulf region’s most talked about city, but it can boast of something that most other GCC towns lack: a train station.

The modest building located in the town’s industrial area is architecturally identical to the one at the other end of the line – 449km away in the country’s capital city, Riyadh. Currently, the four-and-a-half-hour train journey between the two is the longest a passenger can take anywhere in the GCC, but plans are afoot to change all this.

Over the past several years, the region’s governments have been devising a strategy to build a trans-Gulf train network that could see passengers boarding a train in Kuwait City in the north and stepping off in Oman’s eastern coast capital, Muscat, within the next decade.

It’s fair to say that inter-Gulf relations have rarely been easy, with opinions on methods of growth often being the main division. However, the creation of a region-wide rail system could be just the catalyst needed to help boost trade and relations between the six GCC member states. Factor in the growing young populations, robust economic growth and billion-dollar development plans on the horizon and, in fact, the future of the GCC has never looked brighter. 

The idea of a trans-Gulf railway is by no means a new one. For decades, the GCC has either stumbled over plans at the first hurdle or just plain rebutted the idea. The small size of its nations, unfavourable geographical conditions and the availability of cheap fuel are all reasons why rail plans have previously been scuppered. The lack of a rail system, has forced the region to largely rely on its road networks for the movement of its goods, which has proved inefficient, expensive, hazardous and prone to long transit periods.

Given the GCC’s growing international trade relations and well-stocked government coffers, the massive interstate benefits of a rail system has become increasingly difficult to ignore. So much so, that the last few years has seen GCC transport ministers finally putting their heads together to formulate a tentative plan for the ambitious rail network. 

Valued at $15.5 billion and dubbed ‘The GCC Rail’, the projected 2,177km route plans to connect all six wealthy Arab states, from Oman to Kuwait through the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain. The network will also provide a crucial secondary freight route that will bypass the politically fraught Straits of Hormuz. As things stand, each of the GCC states will work on individual links before the common network is connected, with the project’s mooted completion date set for 2018.

Currently there are around 24 rail projects under construction across the region, with some of the most expensive including the Etihad Railway Network ($11 billion), Riyadh Metro ($23 billion), Jeddah Metro ($11 billion) and the Qatar Integrated Rail Project ($40 billion). The early commitment shown has led local strategists to hail the rail network as an essential fillip for the next stage in the region’s social and economic journey.

“The network would help to transform the face of the transportation landscape, benefitting the region as a whole, and diverting traffic from road onto rail, reducing congestion,” says Helmut Scholze, Principal at Roland Berger Strategy Consultants. “The development of the trans-Gulf railway system would go a long way to serve the region’s expanded freight and passenger transport needs.” 

In a social sense, the rail system also has the potential to have a strong cultural significance. By creating new transport routes it can in turn help generate employment opportunities for GCC nationals and enhance cultural exchange. Since the GCC Rail Network was mooted in 2008, it has seen its final launch date adjusted on several occasions. To minimise any additional delays, an overarching GCC Railway Authority is in the process of being established this year.

Currently, the region’s GCC Secretariat-General is finalising a master cross-rail plan and schedule for all member states, with individualised states’ schedules taken into account. But as has been so often the case, syncronising plans is proving a stumbling block. While the rail network in Saudi Arabia is partially operational, and the UAE’s Etihad Rail is on track with phase one testing of its network, other countries have witnessed slower progress.

Some experts even doubt whether the 2018 deadline can realistically be reached, owing to a slow pace of development in some states. Tim Risbridger, partner and head of infrastructure, industry and utilities at EC Harris Middle East, says: “It is very unlikely that the whole planned network will be completed by 2018. Currently, only the UAE and Saudi are actually building their sections of the network whereas the other countries are at various stages of the planning process. Significant portions are likely to be in place by 2018 but most indicators are now suggesting the entire network won’t be fully operational until around 2020 or 2021. 

“Some of the biggest challenges are land acquisitions, services diversions and sand movement. The section between Al Ain in the UAE and Sohar in Oman passes through the Al Hajar Mountains, which rise to 10,000 feet; this terrain makes this section the most challenging of the whole GCC rail route.” Looking forward, it is crucial that each country has a legal and institutionary authority to run its rail network, both to assist with cross-border co-operation and to enhance safety measures and effectiveness.

“Currently it is the primary role of the ministries of transportation to regulate the railway system, as national railway authorities do not exist yet. The development of these regulatory institutions will be vital for the success of the rail systems.” says Scholze.

In the medium and long term, the GCC Rail network is pivotal to unleashing the region’s latent potential. A free-flowing passenger and freight rail system across the region’s harsh but beautiful topography represents the beginnings of a truly linked region and a networked powerhouse to be reckoned with.