Given the vast distances, inhospitable terrain and searing temperatures to be negotiated when travelling across the Arabian Peninsula, it is hardly surprising that air took precedence over rail when transport links were being established. Land links have largely been neglected and the region’s major cities remain relatively unconnected.

Within the cities themselves, rail also lost out as the car dominated urban transport. With the population boom over the past 20 years, accompanied by a surge in the real estate and construction markets over the past decade, city-wide planning has become increasingly difficult as new projects have sprung up and roads have become choked by congestion.

This is beginning to change. Despite the global recession, which has placed all major infrastructure projects in the balance, rail is now top of the agenda.

On 9 September, Dubai opened the first phase of the city’s metro project. Running the length of the city, the Red Line offers a swift, affordable alternative in a city that has been desperately short of public transport.

Heavy rail

Next year, the GCC’s first new heavy rail line will open. The first phases of the Saudi Arabia’s North-South minerals railway are scheduled for completion in 2010, opening swift freight routes to the Gulf coast from the kingdom’s northern mines.

Across the region, flagship rail projects have been pushed forward as governments recognise that the rapid economic development of recent years must be sustained with a new transport infrastructure. The region’s burgeoning capacity in industry and tourism requires alternatives to the limited and overstretched roads network.

Billions of dollars are being poured into rail projects across the Middle East and North Africa. Almost every country is pushing ahead with urban rail schemes or heavy rail networks to boost their industrial infrastructure. “Rail is critical now to developing the economy,” says Ala Ghanem, regional director for business development at UK rail group Invensys. “Right across the region countries are turning to rail to develop their industrial, commercial or tourist infrastructure

“Everyone is approaching it differently, working out what their priorities are for their market, and what they want to offer. In the GCC, you are seeing a lot of greenfield projects because there is no rail at the moment.

“In North Africa, there are a lot of extensions for a new tourist link or a new port. In Egypt, there is a lot of renovation work on existing railway lines. It is a massive market right now, and very diverse.”

In the GCC particularly, where the only existing service until this year was an isolated passenger line between Riyadh and Dammam, rail has now gained major importance.

Having led the region in so many other areas, Dubai is a fine example of the region’s changing attitude to rail.

The government has not been oblivious to the merits of a rail network – a metro was proposed for Dubai in 2001. But the pace of change was so intoxicating as the economy, driven by the real estate market, surged forward over the past decade that other projects were allowed to take precedence over the more mundane requirement for an integrated transport network to serve these developments.

By the time a full feasibility study into the metro was complete and work could begin in 2004, Dubai had expanded around the intended route. Officials at Dubai International airport have long bemoaned the fact that the facilities within the terminal are not matched by a rail link for passengers outside. Waiting for a taxi in stifling heat is not the image the region’s pre-eminent aviation hub wishes to project.

With the arrival of the Red Line, this has changed. The project has had to be squeezed into Dubai’s much-changed landscape but now offers a cheap, hi-tech alternative for those seeking to escape their cars.

“Certainly there have been mistakes, and I think the government, like others in the region, has been slow to recognise the importance of transport and of rail,” says one Dubai-based transport analyst.

“But how many other countries could build this so quickly? A new metro line the length of the city built in five years and another to follow next year. If this was the UK, we would still be stuck in public enquiries.”

Metro plans

Not all have followed Dubai’s somewhat haphazard approach to urban planning. Abu Dhabi’s 2030 Surface Transport Masterplan is painstakingly methodical. But whatever their approach and whatever their resources, across the region from Casablanca to Tehran, the major cities of the Middle East are launching or overhauling plans for inner-city metro schemes to address years of neglect or underinvestment in the transport sector.

Even the long-dormant plan for a $3bn Baghdad Metro has been dusted off, to some incredulity. Nonetheless, selected inter-national groups have received documents from the Baghdad Mayoralty requesting expressions of interest in revising the master-plan for future development.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has taken the lead in developing its heavy rail network, with $30bn worth of projects under construction or at bidding stage, and many more under development. The scale and ambition of the kingdom’s projects is now being replicated elsewhere. After a substantial redesign, construction is expected to begin soon on the rail link across the Qatar-Bahrain Causeway (MEED 13:3:09).

In North Africa, many of the legacy networks left by the former European imperial powers have fallen into disrepair. Here too, new projects are up and running as the region rebuilds its industrial network and looks to enhance its capacity as a tourist destination. Notions of a railway the entire length of the Mediterranean coast from Morocco to Egypt have been revived.

In the GCC, the prospect of a project linking all six member states has taken shape. GCC transport ministers approved the feasibility study for the 1,500-kilometre-long railway from Kuwait to Oman in October last year. However, several political issues, particularly the question of whether to have a single regulator for the project as recommended by the study or six national bodies, remain unresolved. Only the UAE’s Union Railway Company has made serious steps towards building its section of the line and, with resources stretched in the current market, the prospect of a single railway down the entire eastern seaboard of the -Arabian Peninsula remains a distant one.

The global economic downturn has had a brutal impact on the projects market in every sector since last year. Early in 2008, the value of projects under way across the region topped $2 trillion. For several weeks the Middle East, and the Gulf in particular, imagined it could escape relatively unscathed from the crisis, but the collapse in international credit markets has disabused governments around the region of that brief fantasy.

The contraction in credit markets has forced governments to reappraise their spending across the board. Countries with high oil and gas revenues, and bulging sovereign wealth funds, can undertake to spend through the downturn, setting aside the short-term cost and focusing on the long-term benefit. Saudi -Arabia, Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Kuwait, Algeria and Libya have continued to pump government funds into priority infrastructure projects and, after being neglected for so long, rail projects are still being prioritised in most countries.

Others have found the going tougher. The unknown quantity of rail in the Middle East is too risky for financial institutions in the current climate. The potential returns remain uncertain. Jordan is funding the relatively small Amman-Zarqa rail project itself after contractors were unable to find the money.

Everywhere, plans are being reprioritised. Dubai has placed the next stage of the metro, the Purple Line, on hold while US group Parsons Brinckerhoff carries out a complete study of the emirate’s projected future rail needs. 

Having picked up the tab itself for the Red and Green lines of the Dubai Metro, the emirate’s Roads & Transport Authority (RTA) has indicated it plans to issue the forthcoming Purple Line as a public-private partnership. With Dubai’s real estate boom brought to a shuddering halt and many of the projects on the outskirts of the city now shelved or cancelled, RTA officials say they will consider re-routing the Purple Line away from these areas.

An integrated rail network will provide a solution to many of the region’s logistics problems. Several engineering groups are pushing for a unified signalling system to synchronise track gauge, signalling and operating systems across the region to make cross-border rail systems a viable prospect in the future.

“The last thing you need is trains stopping at borders and having to transfer goods to a new system,” says Ghanem.

Delivering this ambitious goal will not be without its challenges. An effective integrated rail and transport network must overcome the political divisions that have hindered co-operative development in so many areas across the region. Funding is also a major hurdle. With the sharp fall in oil prices squeezing public spending, and the world’s credit markets still seized, project finance is a problem.

However, the projects currently under way represent a sea change in the region’s attitude to rail transport and have the potential to revolutionise trade networks from the GCC to the Levant to North Africa.

The region is benefiting from a huge influx of experts in the sector, which will assist in the development of homegrown talent. When more of these new railways are working at full capacity and the full benefits are realised, the region can begin to explore longer-term solutions and closer ties.