The $100BN Railway in the Desert ?

ONE of the world’s most ambitious construction projects is built in the middle of a desert. The Gulf Cooperation Council, made up of six of the Middle East’s wealthiest countries, was constructed a more than 2,000 kilometre railway to better connect the region.

Why have this particular railway?

GCC member states approve the GCC network railway project in 2009.

Before we get into how the railway is being built, it’s important to understand why it’s being built in the first place. Let’s start here – February 1981 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Leaders from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman met to form a political and economic alliance called The Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC. As a group, they’ve made a lot of money off oil and gas. That means their economies are largely tied to the oil market. Around 2008-2009, oil prices plummeted amid the Great Recession, and the GCC economies took a hit.
That’s where the railway comes in.

Map of the proposed Etihad Rail Network across the UAE.

In 2009, the GCC approved a massive railway project that would link all six member states. The cost would be divided among the countries, with the entire project estimated to be between $100-250 billion.
“Diversifying the economies of the Gulf states away from oil and gas will help them develop stronger economies,” Colorado School of Mines professor Hussein A. Amery said.
A key element of the network is Etihad Railway – an $11 billion, 1,200 kilometre freight and passenger railway stretching across the Emirates from the Gulf of Oman to the Persian Gulf.
The UAE’s first national rail network is being constructed in two stages. The first stage was completed in 2016 and spans 264 kilometres from the Habshan and Shah areas in Abu Dhabi to the port of Ruwais.

Stage 1

Stage 1 of the Etihad Rail Network opened for freight services in 2016.

In Stage 1, Etihad Rail constructed 20 over-bridges, two under-bridges, 10 road underpasses, and 18 smaller underpasses for future use.
But this first route isn’t transporting passengers just yet. Rather, it’s carrying up to 22,000 tonnes of granulated sulphur across 110 wagons each day. The element is extracted from the oil fields in Abu Dhabi and processed for export at the port of Ruwais, where it goes on to be used to manufacture everything from batteries to fertilisers and fireworks.
That’s significant for an economy with one of the highest carbon footprints in the world. That efficiency has also helped make the Emirates the world’s top exporter of sulphur, bringing in $679 million in 2019. Much of that sulphur likely went to China, the world’s largest importer of the element, who also happens to be involved in Stage Two of the project.

Stage 2

Stage 2 will extend the Etihad Rail network 605 kilometres.

Stage Two construction began in 2020 and extend the network 605 kilometres from Ghuweifat on the border with Saudi Arabia to Fujairah on the east coast.
Still, the railway is a big part of Gulf nations’ plans to become more sustainable and diversify their economies. It’s given rise to a new industry, which means new jobs. Both Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have developed rail studies training programmes.

The network can transport up to 22,000 tonnes of granulated sulphur each day.

The Emirates may be known for its oil wealth and glitzy futuristic developments, but Etihad Railway is a glimpse into leaders’ long-term strategy to build a more connected, unified Gulf.
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