Following delays, the long-awaited GCC Railway looks likely to be revitalised – a move that could transform trade and connectivity across the Gulf. The project was given a significant boost in December 2021, when leaders of the six GCC countries approved the establishment of the GCC Railways Authority, the body that is expected to oversee the ongoing coordination of the project. The decision marks a potentially significant development for rail infrastructure throughout the Gulf.

After being debated for decades, the GCC Railway project was initially approved by all six member countries in 2009. However, fiscal pressures delayed plans. These were associated with the oil price drop of 2014 and, more recently, the Covid-19 pandemic and diplomatic tensions, which resulted in an economic blockade of Qatar by some of its regional counterparts from 2017 to 2021.

The proposed project aims to connect all six GCC countries via a 2177-km railway. Starting in Kuwait City in the north, the rail line will pass through the coastal cities of Jubail and Dammam in Saudi Arabia before heading through Manama, Bahrain’s capital, and Doha, the capital of Qatar. The line would then cut back into Saudi Arabia before moving to the UAE, where it would pass through Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Fujairah before reaching its terminal station in Muscat, the capital of Oman.

Hopes of a resumption of the project were given a further boost in February 2022, when Qatari media reported that construction of the section connecting Qatar and Saudi Arabia would soon commence, with foundational groundwork such as engineering designs and a work plan already completed. This development followed regional media reports in December 2021 that officials anticipated the railway would be operational by 2025.

Connectivity & Trade

The development of the railway would significantly improve regional connectivity by reducing transport times and costs between major GCC cities and ports. Ultimately, a rail network will be vital to improving overall trade flows across the bloc and attracting greater levels of regional and international investment.

Business figures in the Gulf have noted that shorter travel times could help bolster the tourism and entertainment sector, an area that a number of Gulf countries are looking to grow in line with wider efforts to diversify their economies (see Tourism & Culture chapter). For example, as part of Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia hopes to increase tourism’s GDP contribution to more than 10% and aims to attract 100m visitors by the end of the decade, up from approximately 20.3m in 2019.

The construction of a GCC-wide railway also holds promise for regional collaboration, and would support plans for greater economic alignment within the bloc. Indeed, the GCC has sought to accelerate the establishment of a joint Customs union and common market ahead of the ultimate goal of achieving economic unity within the region.

UAE Builds Its Network

The development of a GCC Railway ties in with individual countries’ efforts to expand their local transport infrastructure. Amid plans to reduce emissions and improve connectivity, rail is seen as key to the future of transport in Gulf countries. The UAE has continued to invest heavily in its national rail infrastructure. In addition to emirate-specific developments like the Dubai Metro and Dubai Tram systems – which were launched in 2013 and 2014, respectively – there have been a number of UAE-wide projects in recent years.

In 2016 the country launched the first phase of its extensive national rail network, a freight service linking gas fields in Shah in the south with Ruwais on the west coast. The second phase of the ambitious project, which includes a passenger service linking 11 cities, was completed in early 2023. The network stretches from Ghuwaifat on the border with Saudi Arabia to Fujairah and consists of approximately 1200 km of rail linking four ports and seven logistics centres across the country.

Under the UAE’s expansive plans, trains travelling at speeds of up to 200 km per hour are expected to transport approximately 36.5m people and millions of tonnes of freight every year. By taking a large number of cars and trucks off the country’s roads, it is also expected to reduce overall transport carbon emissions by between 70% and 80%. Once completed, train travel between Abu Dhabi and Dubai is expected to take around 50 minutes, while the trip from Abu Dhabi to Fujairah should last about one hour and 40 minutes – half the time it takes to travel the same route by car (see overview).

In terms of the economic impact, Emirati officials say the Dh50bn ($13.6bn) spent on the project will generate around Dh200bn ($54.4bn) for the economy. Furthermore, connecting regional and rural areas to larger cities should create significant economic opportunities in underdeveloped regions.

Saudi Arabia Pushes Ahead

Despite already having the region’s most extensive network, comprising an expansive 5500 km of track, Saudi Arabia has maintained its commitment to ongoing updates to its national rail infrastructure.

In March 2022 the fifth and final passenger stop on the Northern Train Network – Al Qurayyat Passenger Railway Station, located near the Jordanian border – was opened to the public. The upgrade gives passengers the chance to travel the 1215-km stretch from the northernmost regions of the Kingdom to the capital Riyadh in 12 hours. This development came after the Haramain High-Speed Rail – a 450-km electric line that connects the two holy sites of Makkah and Medina via Jeddah, with stops at King Abdulaziz International Airport and King Abdullah Economic City – was inaugurated in 2018. Estimates prior to the onset of the pandemic predicted that the line would transport approximately 60m passengers per year, including 3m to 4m passengers to the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages.

Elsewhere, the Saudi government is pursuing ambitious plans to extend the country’s railway network. Khalid Al Falih, Saudi Arabia’s minister of investment and former minister of energy, industry and mineral resources, told a business forum in January 2022 that the country was planning to add an additional 8000 km of track to the network, tripling its size. This included the GCC Railway, as well as the Saudi Landbridge Project, which will run between Jeddah and Riyadh. The Saudi Landbridge Project is designed to connect Jeddah to Riyadh and Dammam, home to King Abdulaziz Port, via a 1000-km rail line. Initial plans outline a daily cargo capacity of 400 twenty-foot equivalent units over 35-40 freight trains, and a reduction in freight transport time from between five and nine days – depending on the given route and the trans-shipment requirements – to some 18 hours.

Development Drive

Elsewhere in the region, there is hope that the revitalisation of the GCC Railway will reignite other dormant domestic rail plans. For example, the government of Oman has long planned the construction of its own ambitious national railway network. This proposed 2100-km link would start at the UAE border and pass through Sohar and Muscat in the north before eventually linking up with the key port towns of Duqm and Salalah on the country’s east coast.

The UAE’s national rail network stretches from Ghuwaifat on the border with Saudi Arabia to Fujairah and consists of approximately 1200 km of rail linking four ports and seven logistics centres across the country.

While tenders were issued in 2013, the project was suspended in 2016 as the country faced fiscal challenges associated with a drop in oil prices. However, in recent years some progress has been made in terms of railway infrastructure, leading to hopes that the national project will be revived.

Meanwhile, in July 2021 the Omani government unveiled its plans to construct a Muscat metro system that will be designed to connect the districts of Ruwi and Muttrah with Muscat International Airport and the coastal town of Al Seeb to the north. Similarly, rail developments have faced ongoing delays in Kuwait, which in 2009 announced its intention to build an approximately 160-km network that would be linked to the broader GCC Railway.

Although the project was put on hold in 2015, in January 2020 the country released ambitious plans for a 68-station rail system that would connect Kuwait City with Muscat International Airport, the main university and residential and industrial areas.