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Pan-Arab railway: myth or fact?

Pan-Arab railway: myth or fact?

A railway network spanning the Arab world seems like it may never happen, but the global downturn may help make it a reality.

May 5, 2009 9:18 by

Plans for a regional railway began in 1998, at a meeting in Beirut by members of the United Nations’ Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (UN-ESCWA; members include Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, UAE and Yemen). The project, which was dubbed the “Arab Mashreq International Railway Network,” consists of north/south and east/west axes, and 16 different routes covering 19,500 kilometers.

To implement it, an international agreement was adopted under UN auspices in 2003 by the ESCWA member countries, which entered into force two years later. Most countries in the region have either ratified or signed it (a few, such as Iraq, are preparing to sign on).

The task is titanic: when the agreement was signed, more than 60 percent of the network had yet to be built, and there were technical discrepancies where railways already exist.

But today, what had seemed unrealistic may actually happen. “In 2003, the region had no railway, except in Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Jordan, and a 400 kilometer line in Saudi Arabia between Dammam and Riyadh,” says Nabil Safwat, coordinator of the ESCWA transport committee. “Four years later, a good part of the plan is either being implemented, budgeted for, or under feasibility and profitability study.”

Work on another 900 kilometer line in Saudi Arabia to connect Jeddah to Riyadh should start soon (the government is currently reviewing offers). Another passenger line will link Medina to Jeddah and Mecca. A connection between Syria and Iraq is expected to launch in 2010, and feasibility studies are being conducted in the GCC and Yemen. Jordan has also started renovating the old line that connected Amman to Damascus for an estimated $6.1 billion (when finished, it may extend as far as Turkey).

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