Technical committees still meeting to ensure links between projects remain valid
A plan to develop a rail network linking all six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) could face delays in meeting its 2021 deadline, according to a leading official from the council’s executive arm, the Secretariat General.
Speaking to Zawya on the sidelines of the Middle East Rail conference and exhibition in Dubai on Monday, Khalifa bin Saeed Al-Abri, the assistant secretary general of economic and development affairs of the GCC ‘s Secretariat General, said: “There is a lot of discussion between the GCC...countries to see how we can implement the project.”
When asked if the project is likely to meet its current 2021 completion deadline, Al-Abri added: “Maybe there will be some delay - I'm not sure. But in this stage there is no clear cut (indication) for when exactly the date is,” he added.
The 2,100km GCC rail project had an initial completion date of 2018, but this was later postponed until 2021 as Gulf states faced a severe decline in oil prices that began in 2014, causing several countries to delay or alter plans to develop national rail networks linking to a regional system.
In 2016, the Minister for Infrastructure Development in the United Arab Emirates, Dr Abdullah Al Nuaimi, told journalists that this date had been pushed back to 2021, but added that this was “a ceiling” rather than a fixed target and that this depended on the internal plans of each country.
Since then, three Gulf Cooperation Council members - Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, alongside North African ally Egypt – cut diplomatic ties in June last year with another GCC state, Qatar, whose own heavy rail network is meant to be part of the wider GCC framework. The quartet of Arab states have accused Qatar of supporting terrorism - a charge which Qatar denies.
Since the dispute began, Al-Abri said that transport ministers “have not yet met to discuss the issue” of the deadline for the GCC rail project.
Connecting Saudi, UAE
During an interview which took place at the conference on Tuesday, Abdulla Salem Al Katheeri, the director-general of the UAE's Federal Transport Authority - Land and Marine, said that “I think by 2021 we will have the connection between us and Saudi Arabia”.
Earlier this month, Thomson Reuters Projects reported that Etihad Rail is looking to revive phase two of the project, which will include a link to the Saudi Arabian border.
Rail industry officials from other GCC countries also said that committees that had been set up to co-ordinate on the GCC network are still meeting.
Philip Marquis, director of rail development at Oman Rail, said during a panel debate that “the GCC team continues to work together”.
“Although two years ago, the project went on hold, the expert working groups continued to operate behind the scenes to improve on interoperability,” Marquis said.
He said that there were three groups that held regular meetings - one institutional group, a technical committee, and one focused on operations, whose aim is "to ensure that we continue with the project as one team".
Khalid Al Sultan, vice president for infrastructure at Saudi Railway Company (SAR), told delegates it sends representatives to committees “to make sure that the outcome of those and all of the technical specification is as per the Saudi standards”.
Mohammad Saud Alhadbah, a board member of Kuwait's Public Authority for Roads and Transportation, said “there is a lot of co-operation” between the partners.
"There is, I think now, a seed committee to establish what is for the GCC Railway company or railway authority" to cover elements such as customs and border crossings.
He said that the three main challenges that it has had to overcome when designing its 270km-long system, 110km of which is for the GCC link between the Saudi border and Kuwait City, have been settling on the route alignment, sorting out the financing and choosing the right technology so that the project doesn't date too quickly.
"The finance is very important. That's one of the reasons why all the GCC countries postponed - the first ultimatum was 2018 and now it's almost between 2021-2023," he said.
He said that the alignment for its rail network had already been agreed with the Kuwait City municipal council.
"We are now in the process of tendering it to a consultant in order to shortlist a consortium that will bid for the project," Alhadabh said.