Full steam ahead for rail diplomacy
Several states have started using unconventional means to maintain their relations with each other and improve their international image, such as sports diplomacy, climate diplomacy and virtual diplomacy.
One such tool is railroad diplomacy, a crucial tool in building relationships between states through the creation of a railroad network for collective economic gain. A significant example is the GCC railway project, which aims to connect the six member states of Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia.
Rail diplomacy is not a new phenomenon, nor is the GCC rail project. It was first announced in 2001 and approved in 2009, but after years of uncertainty and stalemate, it has gained momentum since 2021 with the possible inclusion of non-GCC countries. At their summit last December, the leaders of the Gulf States approved the creation of the GCC Railways Authority with the task of realizing the project.
The first phase of the 2,200km, $15 billion railway linking Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE is now scheduled to open in 2023. The second phase, linking Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain, is scheduled to be completed by 2025.
Despite the obvious benefits of this project, experts see several challenges and need to work together to ensure regional interests take precedence over national ones.
Elsewhere, in 2010, Iraq said it was planning $60 billion rail projects that would connect the Gulf to Europe via Syria and Turkey. Baghdad’s plans were dashed by Syria’s civil war in 2011, but the project has been revisited by the Gulf states and Turkey’s name is back on the table.
Thanks to the normalization of Turkey-Gulf relations, there are now more talks about sectoral improvements in relations, including tourism, economy and infrastructure.
Including Turkey in the GCC railway project would benefit the Gulf States and create regional economic benefits.
Basar Arioglu, president of the Turkey-Qatar Business Council, said last week that the GCC rail project could reach Turkey – which would link the Gulf states to Europe, the Middle East and China. Turkey and the GCC countries have also engaged intensively in the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s $1 trillion infrastructure and investment plan.
Rail diplomacy is not a new concept for Ankara, which is aware that it has become a crucial factor in foreign policy. In March, Turkey, Pakistan and Iran resumed the Islamabad-Tehran-Istanbul container train service. In 2017, the leaders of Azerbaijan, Turkey and Georgia launched an 826 km rail link linking the three countries and establishing a cargo and passenger route between Europe and China, bypassing Russia.
Turkey also plays a crucial role in the China-Europe Railway Express, a network of railway lines that launched in 2011 and reflects the ancient Silk Road that transported Chinese goods in containers to European consumers. A new route, which began operating in December 2020, runs through Turkey and underpasses the Bosphorus through Istanbul’s Marmaray Tunnel. The route has benefited from the construction and improvement of railways and other infrastructure in Turkey.
Including Turkey in the GCC railway project would benefit the Gulf States and create regional economic benefits. The railroad could be transformative for the region, especially in a world of interdependence. It could play a significant role in enhancing regional connectivity and promoting commercial and economic activity in the Gulf region and even beyond. It is clear that rail diplomacy can continue to thrive in the future, guiding the train from the Gulf to Europe.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political scientist specializing in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz
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