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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 Nathalie Bontems
“This all appears to the public as bits and pieces because these projects are advertised as part of national plans,” says Safwat. “But they’re all incorporated and based on the agreement.”
Although he’s unable to give a completion date, Safwat is optimistic: “In 2003, people said that this was merely a nice dream. Now that we are seeing things happen, estimates are better. I’d say it would take another 15 years to complete the whole project.”
Industry experts think the global downturn should help lift whatever reluctance remains. Years before the credit crunch, ESCWA estimated that “railways are of international importance in the Arab Mashreq and should therefore be accorded priority in the formulation of national plans.” Today that economic pressure applies even more. At a follow-up conference organized in Beirut in early April by the ESCWA, Lebanese Transport Minister Ghazi Aridi explained, “adding [railways] has a positive effect on the economy in the Arab world, especially during the current worldwide crisis,” adding that “Lebanon has a great advantage in the field because of its special location on the Mediterranean and the increased activity of Beirut Port.”
“There’s no doubt the crisis is contributing positively, as there’s a need to expand the infrastructure,” says Safwat, adding that the port of Beirut would benefit from improved connections to neighboring countries.
Arab authorities are so enthusiastic that last January, the Arab Railway Project (ARP) – an extension of the Mashreq railway – was adopted in Kuwait at the Arab Economic, Social and Development Summit. The ARP plans to extend three of the Mashreq network’s 26 routes, as well as adding two new lines in North Africa. Iran has also expressed its readiness to help develop these rail systems.
In the end, this expansive network would connect Europe, Asia and Africa.
Arab countries are now thinking big – far beyond their own borders.
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