Last Updated: Fri Apr 15, 2011 18:29 pm (KSA) 15:29 pm (GMT)

There’s more to the Gulf than modern cities: There are the railways

The Hijaz railway in operation. Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum. (File photo)
The Hijaz railway in operation. Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum. (File photo)

While man-made islands and record-breaking skyscrapers tend to capture the attention of city builders in the Gulf region, governments here are also investing in a decidedly less glamorous project: rail.

Governments of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council are building networks that could one day link Omani ports on the Indian Ocean through the Gulf, into the Levant and Turkey and on the doorstep to Europe’s capitals.

“Rail is the buzzword in the region,” said Nabeel Kazerooni, senior executive officer at Injazat Capital in Dubai.

Gulf governments are using sovereign wealth funds bursting with oil revenues to build large infrastructure projects such as railways. The networks of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar are at the most advanced stage. The total value of rail projects in the region over the next 10 years is estimated at $109 billion, according to the research firm Business Monitor International.

The UAE’s railway is being constructed in tandem with similar rail projects in other Gulf countries. Saudi Arabia will soon open a north-south line covering 2,500 kilometers, while Oman, Qatar and Bahrain are starting rail projects of their own.

Thomas E. Lawrence. Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

The UAE is building a $10 billion, 1,200-kilometer rail system that will break ground later this year. The first trains will carry granulated sulfur from new plants in Abu Dhabi—locations of major oil and gas field developments—some 260 kilometers to Ruwais in 2013.

Ruwais is the site of the UAE’s major oil refineries, and other plants.
In total, the planned rail network, which is scheduled to be complete in 2018, would stretch from oil and gas fields in the country’s western region through Dubai and up through the northern emirates to the Omani border. The railway expects to ship at least 50 tons of a variety of goods in the first few years.

Railways have long been a part of many nations’ transportation systems, but only just recently have they become viable in countries such as the UAE, analysts said. Increasing freight traffic to intermodal hubs in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Fujairah has made rail necessary to both reduce costs and increase efficiency of moving the goods.

For a region that has relatively few railways compared to, say, Asia or Europe or the United States, there is a great deal of deal of legend associated with trains in Arabia.

The legend largely revolves around the life of Thomas Edward Lawrence—Lawrence of Arabia—an archeologist who became an intelligence agent for the British, and an explosives expert.

According to an essay by Louise Dean of Westmoreland Mechanical Testing and Research, his work took him to Carchemish in the Arab part of the Ottoman Empire, which was soon to be a dangerous place due to the imminent onset of World War I.

Ms. Dean’s essay says:

Prior to World War I, German engineers using 5,000 multi-racial workers had built the Hijaz railroad in this region for the Turks. The chief engineer was Heinrich August Meissner, a civil engineer born in Germany. The railroad was funded entirely by subscriptions starting in 1901 from Muslims throughout the world. The advertised intention was to link Damascus to Mecca to facilitate the sacred trip to Mecca. However, the rail was only laid as far as Medina (1,320 kilometers of track) as Bedouin tribes would not provide access to the remaining region.

Still, prior to the railroad, the trip from Damascus to Medina would take two months by camel caravan and with the train took only 55 hours. Beginning its regular service in 1913, the line transported as many as 500 passengers daily. No one knew that World War I would erupt the next year, ousting the Ottoman Empire from Arab lands after 400 years of rule. The rail lines were also used to facilitate the movement of the Turkish military and to provide greater centralization to the ailing Ottoman Empire.

The track of the Hijaz railway became the theater of a critical military engagement led by Lawrence of Arabia. The subject of an epic film by the same name in the mid-1960s, Lawrence of Arabia became a British intelligence officer in 1914 and spent much of his energies in 1917 and 1918 blowing up sections of this rail.

As an archeologist in the region, he had learned the customs of the Arabs and there was mutual respect between them. Lawrence led attacks with the Arab guerillas against the Turks of the Ottoman Empire, sabotaging the railway that provided them with food, water, and military supplies. He avoided completely severing the line so as to draw Turkish concentration away from the main battlefronts.

As a rule, Lawrence was so accurate at dynamiting train engines that the seats were sold accordingly—the safer seats in the back of the trains were said to have sold for five times more than the more risky ones in the front, near the engine. The eventual mutilation of the railway allowed the British Navy to have access to every important Red Sea port and helped to end World War I.

In the contemporary Gulf, Saudi Arabia—where Lawrence operated—has the most advanced rail system. In total, the oil-rich kingdom has almost $20 billion in rail investments, including four major projects: the Haramain High Speed Railway, the North-South Railway, the Saudi Landbridge Railway and the Jeddah Monorail.

(Angela Shah of Al Arabiya can be reached at: angela.shah@mbc.net)

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