Riding the rails: How the GCC Railway could revolutionise trade and transport in the Gulf, and improve connectivity within the region

Following delays, the long-awaited GCC Railway looks likely to be revitalised – a move that could transform trade and connectivity across the Gulf. The initiative 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 will oversee the coordination of the project. The decision marks a potentially significant development for rail infrastructure in the region.

In 2009, after a decades-long debate, all member states approved the GCC Railway project. However, fiscal pressures delayed plans. These setbacks 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 mid-2017 to January 2021.

The proposed plan aims to connect the 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 Bahrain’s capital Manama 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 major cities 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 March 2022 when Qatari media reported that construction of the section connecting Qatar and Saudi Arabia would begin soon, with groundwork such as engineering designs and a work plan already completed. This followed regional media reporting in December 2021 that officials anticipated the railway would be operational by 2025.

Greater Connectivity & Trade

The development of the railway would significantly improve regional connectivity by reducing transport time and cost between major GCC cities and ports, improving trade flows across the bloc and attracting potential investors. Business figures in the Gulf have noted that the shorter travel times could help bolster the tourism and entertainment sector – an area that several countries are looking to grow in line with wider efforts to diversify their economies. 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 20.3m in 2019.

The construction of a GCC-wide railway bodes well 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 establishing regional economic unity.

Saudi Arabia Pushes Ahead

The development of the GCC Railway ties in with individual countries’ efforts to expand their local transport infrastructure. Amid plans to reduce carbon emissions and improve connectivity, the Gulf countries see rail as key to the future of their transport systems.

Despite having the region’s most extensive network, comprising ar5000 km of track, Saudi Arabia continues to update its rail infrastructure. In March 2022 the fifth and final passenger stop on the Northern Train Network – Al Qurayyat station, located near the border with Jordan – opened to the public. This upgrade allows passengers to travel the 1215-km stretch from the country’s north to the capital Riyadh in around 12 hours.

The expansion came after the 2018 inauguration of the Haramain High-Speed Railway which connects the country’s two holy sites of Makkah and Medina. Travelling at speeds of 300 km per hour, passengers can make this journey in 2 hours and 25 minutes. The 450-km electric line also makes stops in Jeddah, at King Abdulaziz International Airport and at King Abdullah Economic City. Pre-pandemic estimates predicted that the line would transport around 60m passengers per year, including 3m-4m to the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages. As an alternative to bus and car travel, rail would significantly alleviate traffic congestion on roads and motorways.

Elsewhere, the Saudi government is pursuing ambitious plans to further extend the country’s rail network. Khalid Al Falih, the minister of investment, told a business forum in January 2022 that the country planned to add another 8000 km of track, which would triple the current system.

Another significant development is the Saudi Landbridge Project, which will create an east-west corridor and aims to connect the Red Sea port city of Jeddah to the Gulf coast via Riyadh. Once complete, the system will provide a critical transport and logistics link for the country.

The UAE Build Its Network

The UAE has also invested heavily in rail infrastructure. In addition to emirate-specific developments like the Dubai Metro and Dubai Tram systems – which launched in 2013 and 2014, respectively – there have also been UAEwide projects in recent years.

In 2016 the country began the first phase of its national rail network, a freight service linking gas fields in Shah in the south to Ruwais on the coast. The second phase of the project, which includes a passenger service linking 11 cities, is now under construction, with a line between Dubai and Abu Dhabi completed in March 2022.

Through the UAE’s ambitious plans, trains travelling at speeds of up to 200 km per hour are expected to transport 36.5m people and millions of tonnes of freight every year. By taking cars and trucks off the country’s roads, it is also expected to reduce transport carbon emissions by 70-80%.

Once completed, train travel between Abu Dhabi and Dubai – the UAE’s two largest cities – is expected to take around 50 minutes, while the trip from Abu Dhabi to Fujairah is expected to be around one hour and 40 minutes – around half the time it takes by car.

In terms of the economic impact, Emirati officials say the Dh50bn ($13.6bn) spent on the project will generate around Dh200bn ($54.5bn) for the economy. Furthermore, connecting rural areas to larger cities will create significant economic opportunities in underdeveloped regions.

Qatar Looks Towards Major Events

Qatar has also improved its transport network, providing additional ways to make travelling around the country safer, cleaner and more cost-effective.

In 2019 the country launched the Doha Metro, a three-line, 37-station rapid transit system connecting the capital with its suburbs. The first line of the Lusail Tram, a light rail system in Lusail, just north of Doha, was launched in January 2022. Once fully operational, the system will consist of four lines and run through 25 stations. The Lusail Tram network will serve residents by offering an environmentally friendly mode of transportation that will connect destinations within Lusail, and link Lusail to Doha by way of the Doha Metro.

Much of Qatar’s public transport expansion has been designed for fans travelling to the 2022 FIFA World Cup matches and cultural events. The country had 26 transport projects in the pipeline as of early 2022 with 12 of these expected to be completed by the time the tournament begins in November.

Impetus for More Rail Development

In other parts of the region, there is hope that the revitalisation of the GCC Railway reignites other dormant domestic rail plans. For example, the government of Oman has long had plans to construct a national rail network; it proposed a 2100-km link starting at the UAE border and passing through Sohar and Muscat in the north before linking up with the port towns of Duqm and Salalah on the country’s coast. Although Oman Rail issued tenders in 2013, the Ministry of Transport suspended the project in 2016 as the country faced fiscal challenges associated with a drop in oil prices and decreased revenue.

However, in recent years the country has advanced its railway infrastructure, leading to hopes that the national project will soon revive. In July 2021 the government unveiled plans to construct the country’s first metro network. The project would connect the commercial districts of Ruwi, the administrative centre of Muttrah and the northern coastal town of Al Seeb via the Muscat International Airport.

Similarly, rail developments have faced delays in Kuwait, which had announced plans in 2009 to create a 160-km network that would eventually link to the broader GCC Railway. Although the project went on hold in 2015, in 2020 the country released plans for a four-line, 68-station rail system connecting the capital city with the country’s international airport, Kuwait University, and residential and industrial areas. The country’s planners consider this a vital step to increase productivity and connectivity.