Until now, that is. For in a business
climate where kilometre-high towers sound like a perfectly reasonable proposition, it is not surprising that some of the more
fantastic designs are being brushed off and given some serious consideration again. The 40-kilometre-long Friendship Bridge between Bahrain and Qatar is back on
the books, after the two governments decided in June to set up a project company. Questions have been raised about its economic feasibility, even if the overall project does incorporate a gas pipeline and power transmission cable. But the political will is there, and with oil prices pushing well beyond $70 a barrel, the Gulf states can indulge themselves in a little architectural symbolism.

Even this is surpassed, on the other side of the Arabian Peninsula, by the Egypt-Saudi Arabia road bridge across the Straits of Tiran. A grandly optimistic project, covering 23 kilometres and crossing a sea that is up to half a kilometre deep in parts, it
too was born as a political statement in
1988, as Riyadh and Cairo began to restore the ties cut nearly a decade before when Egyptian President Sadat signed a peace agreement with Israel. Again, following its revival new elements have been added, designed to make it economically
feasible: in this case, two oil pipelines carrying Saudi crude for export across the Mediterranean. But even so, neither government is likely to make a profit on the venture. The bridge is primarily a political symbol, and even a religious one, as it will guarantee safe passage for some 4 million pilgrims a year to the Hijaz.
Of course, these projects may have many intangible, long-term benefits to the regional economy, but they are rarely apparent when viewed in isolation. To date, there has been little regional planning at all. Perhaps the most wide-focus look at regional
transport was carried out in the late 1990s by the Beirut-based UN Economic &
Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), which drew up an extensive network of land transport corridors across the Arabian Peninsula, linking air and sea ports and major centres of industry. Its main component, the Agreement on International Railways in the Arab Mashreq, was adopted by 13 Arab signatories in 2003 and calls for the construction of some 12,000 kilometres of new railway lines and the rehabilitation of almost all extant track and rolling
stock. Estimated at $600,000 million and this figure can only be a wild guess at best there are few chances of a co-ordinated rail building programme taking place any time soon.

Off their own back, however, several
governments are pushing ahead with rail schemes that tie in neatly with the ESCWA masterplan. Iraq’s Transport Ministry
has a wish list of some 2,300 kilometres worth of projects to add to its existing 2,600-kilometre rail network, and two spur
routes one to the Syrian border and the other to southern Iran are already approaching tendering stage. Talking to MEED in May, deputy transport
minister Atta Nabeil put Iraq’s efforts in the context of the regional economy. ‘What we’d like to do is activate by rail the Iran-Iraq-Syria and Iraq-Turkey-Europe links and also we want to link the Gulf area with the Mediterranean,’ he said. But even on a national level, finding serious financial backers for any of these projects is proving difficult.

Perhaps the greatest chance for cross-border co-operation at the moment is in the GCC, where a railway is p