UAE starts to expand its rail freight

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The first steps have been taken towards the expansion of the rail system in both the United Arab Emirates and the wider Arabian peninsular.

The Chairman of Etihad Rail, Sheikh Theyab bin Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, laid the first track in a ceremony this week on a new link that traverses the Emirates north-to-south. The line starts at Fujairah, the port complex on the northern coast of the UAE and ends at Ghuweifat at the border with Saudi Arabia. The new line is 605 km long and will connect Abu Dhabi, KIZAD, Khalifa Port, Jebel Ali Port, Dubai, Sharjah, Ras al-Khaimah with both the Saudi border and the existing line to the chemical facilities at Ruwais. Both lines predominantly handle cargo.

This represents a significant change for the UAE which up until now, has been heavily orientated towards road freight for domestic freight transport.

However, the Etihad Rail project has a wider, regional dimension. The states of the Gulf Co-operation Council agreed in 2009 to create railway infrastructure that linked them all, from Oman to Kuwait. Projected to be over 2,000 km long, this holds the prospect of an important logistics resource both for the container shipping sector but also for the chemical industry in the region. For example, creating a direct link between the container terminals in the UAE to the cities and industry along the Gulf coast of Saudi Arabia but also Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait would notable development. In theory, this ought to create a rail freight link from UAE and the Gulf states to the Red Sea via Saudi Arabia, although the rail link across Saudi is not presently of enormous capacity.

A number of states have started to build parts of the network, notably Bahrain and Kuwait as well as the UAE, however others, such as Oman, have delayed their projects because they perceive that not all of the elements are in place to complete the network.  

Saudi Arabia is the key. It has already had a rolling programme of major infrastructure projects, especially along the industrialised Gulf coast. Yet the priority of the GCC railway is lower for a nation with a rapidly growing industrial base. In an environment of limited budgets, Saudi is obliged to prioritise those projects that serve its own economy and society. 

Nonetheless, the commencement of rail expansion in the UAE is likely to provide momentum for the development of rail freight along the Gulf. This ought to have substantial implications for logistics solutions in the region and beyond. 

Source: Transport Intelligence, July 1, 2021

Author: Thomas Cullen