The Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region is one of the world’s fastest-growing markets for rail and metro projects. At present, there are about 29,000 kilometres of mainline rail, metro, monorail and tram lines in existence, with more than 39,000km planned.

Although some overly ambitious schemes will never come to fruition, 2013 was the best year yet for railway investments, with more than $35bn-worth of contracts awarded, the bulk of which were let on the Doha and Riyadh metros projects.

Rail projects planned or under way are valued at just under $170bn. More than $25bn-worth of rail contracts are expected to be awarded in 2014, with a similar amount likely in 2015. These include packages on the Doha, Jeddah and Abu Dhabi metros, the second phase of the Etihad Rail project, the third phase of Line 3 of the Cairo metro and various tram projects in Algeria.

Increasing congestion

The main driver for rail and metro development in the region is the increasing congestion in urban areas and the growing realisation that building more roads is not the solution. At the same time, governments are recognising the economic benefits rail networks can bring, especially to more remote areas. Moreover, for the oil exporters high oil prices have meant they have the funds to finance their rail ambitions.

While many cash-rich governments are funding their own rail and metro projects, others, typically oil importers, are running into financing difficulties. The use of public-private partnerships (PPPs) was considered an option to finance projects such as the Kuwait Metro and Mecca mass rail transit. However, these plans have had to be abandoned due to the commercial, political and legal challenges posed by such financing structures.

Existing and planned tracks (kilometres)
  Existing Planned
Bahrain  0 245
Iraq  2,405 2,343
Kuwait  1 405
Oman  0 2,244
Qatar  0 750
Saudi Arabia  2,415 10,000
UAE  80 1,400
Yemen  0 2,155
Jordan  508 897
Lebanon  0 0
Syria  2,833 1,402
Gaza/West Bank  14 473
Algeria  3,854 7,105
Egypt  9,633 111
Libya  0 3,104
Mauritania  700 430
Morocco  2,159 1,526
Sudan  1,566 3,143
South Sudan  248 492
Tunisia  2,197 894
Western Sahara  5 0
Total  28,618 39,119
Source: MEED Insight 

The largest existing mainline networks are Egypt, with more than 9,600km and Algeria with 3,500km. Much of the existing network in the region dates back to colonial times, although many lines have either been torn up or abandoned in the intervening decades. The most famous line was the Hejaz Railway, which the Ottomans built to link Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, but other lines were also developed throughout North Africa, the Levant and the Gulf, by the French, Italians, British and others.

Libya is the only North African state to have no mainline or metro services, although historically it did have a mainline network.

Libya had been in the process of building a coastal rail line and a minerals rail line into the interior, but the civil war and the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in 2011 put all infrastructure plans on hold as contractors pulled their workers out of the country.

It is a similar situation in Syria where the conflict has destroyed rail infrastructure and where plans to upgrade the network and build a metro have been indefinitely delayed.

The GCC region is the least-served area in terms of rail capacity. Saudi Arabia is the only country to have a limited mainline network. However, governments are committed to improving transportation links. There are more than $50bn-worth of rail projects planned or under way in Saudi Arabia and $35bn in Qatar.

The success of Dubai’s metro, which became operational in 2009, is acting as a template for metro projects in other GCC countries. Indeed, following its successful bid to host the 2020 World Expo, the emirate is implementing plans to expand its existing network.

Saudi Arabia has the most comprehensive plans for mainline rail services in the region, with more than 10,000km of track planned, linking major industrial and urban hubs around the country. Plans for metro systems in Jeddah and Mecca are expected to move forward in 2014-15, as is the development of the much-anticipated Saudi Landbridge project linking Jeddah on the Red Sea to the ports of Dammam and Jubail on the Gulf.

High-speed plans

Several countries are planning high-speed rail services. Morocco is developing a high-speed line between Tangier and Casablanca via Rabat. Work is under way on Saudi Arabia’s first high-speed passenger rail line to link the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, with completion set for this year. Qatar also aims to develop a high-speed rail network, with first tenders also out this year.

Many of the planned railways will initially be used to transport freight. The need to find an alternative to transporting goods using trucks is growing more acute, not only due to increasing congestion on the roads but also due to the need to reduce the impact on the environment through cutting carbon emissions. The development of the railways will also help support intra-regional trade. Major freight lines include phase 1 of the Etihad Rail network, which involves a connection between Abu Dhabi’s gas fields in Shah and Habshan to the Port of Ruwais. The line is due to open this year. The 2,436km North-South Railway in Saudi Arabia includes freight lines linking the kingdom’s mines to key ports. The line became fully operational in 2013.

Algeria, Egypt, the UAE, Morocco and Tunisia are the only countries to have developed major metro or tram systems. Casablanca’s tram officially opened in late 2012, while networks in Oran and Constantine opened in 2013. However, many other countries are following suit with at least 10 countries looking to develop their own metro or tram systems. The most significant developments are the award of $22bn-worth of contracts in 2013 on the Riyadh Metro, and the ongoing procurement of the $15bn Doha Metro.

Political hurdles

Following the social unrest witnessed in some Mena countries the past couple of years, several rail projects have been put on hold, while others are now being revived. Political instability in Kuwait has further slowed decision-making over the country’s metro and national rail plans.

Following its initial revolution, Egypt’s metro expansion plans secured funding from the EU, but the outbreak of further unrest in the country towards the end of 2012 caused progress to stall again. The billions of dollars in aid pledged by GCC countries to Oman in the wake of protests is being used to help finance the sultanate’s national rail network. Meanwhile in Jordan, the government has instead opted to develop a bus network rather than the more expensive rail option.

In numbers

$35bn The value of contracts awarded in 2013 for rail projects

$25bn The value of contracts expected to be awarded in 2014 for rail projects

Source: MEED

This article is an extract from MEED Insight’s Middle East Rail and Metro Projects Report 2014. For more information about this report,  go to www.meed.com/research or email insight@meed.com