After a generation of inaction – and increasingly bad traffic congestion – the six GCC countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) have finally started to build decent public transport systems. Dubai’s metro opens in a few days’ time. Abu Dhabi’s metro is expected within five years, alongside an urban tram network. But the most exciting plans surround construction of an international rail network across the Arabian Peninsula and the whole Middle East.
A mammoth undertaking
It’s a mammoth undertaking. Although the terrain – and the long distances – suit train travel perfectly, there are only a few scattered lines currently in operation.
Saudi Arabia runs a passenger service between Dammam and Riyadh. Syria has a good network, which links – through the tenuous connection of the Toros Express – to Turkey. Israel also has a decent system, but for political reasons it is completely isolated from its neighbours: trains once ran from Cairo all the way along the eastern Mediterranean coast to Beirut, but the lines were cut in 1948.
And the old Hejaz Railway, built by the Ottomans to take haj pilgrims from Damascus to Mecca, blown up by Faisal and Lawrence of Arabia during the ‘Arab Revolt’ – and which, in its latter years, hosted passengers trains between Damascus and Amman in Jordan – is also no more. Jordan resurrected it as a novelty this month, running ‘Ramadan Specials’ between Amman and the nearby city of Zarqa, but hardly anybody took notice. As this article pointed out, Jordan has no culture of rail.
Yet big plans are afoot. Jordan is planning a new national network, incorporating a commuter light-rail line between Amman and Zarqa along the route of the old Hejaz track. The intention is to link up with Syrian railways, and idealists envision that – once there is sufficient political will – Jordan might also link up with the Israeli network. Relaxing one day aboard the Galilee Flyer from Haifa to Irbid, or the Umayyad Express from Damascus to Jerusalem? We can only hope.
But the biggest plans are on the Arabian Peninsula. Saudi Arabia’s rail expansion includes a Landbridge project to extend the Dammam-Riyadh line as far as Jeddah, thus linking the Gulf with the Red Sea for the first time. The Haramain high-speed rail line from Jeddah to the Holy Cities of Medina and Mecca will be partly ready for next year’s haj, and a driverless monorail is planned within Mecca to ease the traffic problems caused by 3 million pilgrims a year. The intention is for the Saudi network – specifically a new north-south line running from Riyadh to Ha’il – to continue to the Jordanian border, forming a connection with Jordan’s domestic railways.
Then the six GCC countries are well advanced on plans for an international railway along the Gulf coast from Kuwait to Oman, which would link to domestic rail networks planned throughout this region. The Friendship Causeway, a massive engineering project to build a road link across 40km of sea between Bahrain and Qatar – thus reducing the journey time between Doha and Manama from almost 5 hours to 30 minutes, when it opens in 2015 – was hastily redesigned at the last minute to include space for a rail line. Both countries are designing railways and urban metros within their own, small territories.
And the UAE is planning a national railway, linking Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah and crossing to the east coast to Fujairah. In addition, a triangle of high-speed lines will connect Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Al Ain. Lines will extend into Oman to the capital, Muscat.
Finally, the GCC line would join with the Saudi network, by then itself linked with Jordan, Syria and Turkey. Syria and Iraq are already connected. Trains could, in theory, run the whole distance from Istanbul to Muscat, across half a dozen countries or more, making the prospect of travelling by train from Europe to the Gulf a real possibility.
The potential for change is very exciting. Railways – or, more specifically, opportunities to travel easily and cheaply – make healthy societies: they foster social cohesion. Railways are progress. British policymakers forgot this in the 1960s and 1970s, cut lines and denied the railways decent investment. This contributed to the isolating, individualistic, London-centric reshaping of society which continued through the 1980s and which we are still grappling with today.
In the UAE, where 80% of the population are from elsewhere, Emiratis are very unlikely to use their new mass transit systems – at least for another generation, until the individualism (and subsidised petrol) which ties people to their cars is abandoned. Consequently, building railways seems to me to be a rare, tacit acknowledgement by the UAE governments of the contribution made by outsiders, in particular by South Asian expats. It is – momentously, for these fragmented societies – a step towards integration.
Rail buffs in the West may get misty-eyed about all this, dreaming of historic lines converted for a new age, trains as harbingers of peace, new networks in virgin territory – and, of course, the romance of all those ancient cities of Arabia linked by gleaming new high-speed expresses.
But for the people in the region, the plans for rail are far more meaningful than that. Never mind all those skyscrapers and multibillion-dollar megaprojects; railway construction represents the most tangible, realistic move towards nation-building yet seen in the region. For the first time, virtually unlimited public funds are being married with level-headed, long-term planning policies. Two generations on from the biggest lottery win in history – the discovery of oil – the Gulf countries are starting to find their feet again.
Railways really matter.
UPDATE 7/9/09: A specialist rail writer friend advises me that the Hejaz line was in fact built by the Germans, under Ottoman direction, and also points out that it might be misleading to compare Syria’s network with Israel’s; the latter is far more advanced. Also check out this great video (5mins), posted today, of a journey aboard one of the ‘Ramadan Special’ train services along the old Hejaz line in Jordan – atmospheric visuals, “slumdog” scenery, but no toilet paper! Commentary is in Arabic, but the footage and music speak for themselves.