Israel-Gulf train awaits Saudi normalization

The project would link Haifa to the Saudi Gulf port of Damman, the UAE and Bahrain.

Haifa Port, July 31, 2022. Photo by Shir Torem/Flash90.
Haifa Port, July 31, 2022. Photo by Shir Torem/Flash90.

A proposal for a rail link connecting Israel and the Gulf states has undergone a preliminary feasibility study and could gather steam alongside a major international train infrastructure project as part of a push for normalization with Saudi Arabia.

The “Tracks for Regional Peace” plan and a newer U.S.-backed proposal to connect Gulf and Arab countries with India come as talks intensify between Israel and Saudi Arabia to reach a normalization agreement by the end of the year.

The watershed proposals, which would boost economic growth and stability in the region, stem from the 2020 Abraham Accords that saw Israel reach peace with four Arab countries under the Trump administration.

The “Tracks for Regional Peace” plan, which was first proposed six years ago by then-Transportation (and current Energy) Minister Israel Katz and then gathered force in the wake of the peace accords, would link the Arabian Peninsula to Haifa Port with a railway running through Jordan.

As talks with Riyadh gathered pace, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brought up the proposed rail link in an address to American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem earlier this year, as part of his vision for a regional peace which he said would be a “quantum leap” in ending the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Under the proposal, goods could travel by rail from Haifa through Jordan to Saudi Arabia’s Gulf port of Dammam and then onwards to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, connecting the Mediterranean with the Persian Gulf.

The Prime Minister’s Office declined comment on the details and status of the plan, as did the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem.

The Transportation Ministry said that a preliminary feasibility study of the project has been carried out with Israel Railways and Deutsche Bahn, the national railway company of Germany, to determine the project’s potential.

“The regional track project, which got off the ground in the wake of the Abraham Accords, is intended to transport freight and create an alternative option to transportation by sea,” the ministry said. “In addition to the economic and transportation benefits, the project has the potential to create regional normalization and spur additional peace accords.”

The ministry noted that parts of the needed track , such as between Haifa and the eastern town of Beit She’an near the border with Jordan, were already in place, while other stretches need to be developed.  

“Due to the fact that the costs of such a project are high, one should continue to examine its feasibility, complete or in parts, the potential demand, the engineering needs, the total costs and methods of budget before starting the planning operational stage,” the Transportation Ministry said in a written response.

Saudi buy-in vital

“This is an exciting project which could significantly help Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel and others,” Jason Greenblatt, senior director of Arab-Israel diplomacy at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and former White House envoy to the Middle East, told JNS.

“The challenge is to get buy-in from Saudi Arabia and Jordan and also the funds needed to realize the project. I hope the countries involved take another look at this project because it has great potential for all these counties and of course Europe, which would benefit from another supply chain route,” Greenblatt said.

Rail link to India

At the same time, U.S., Saudi, Emirati and Indian security officials have been discussing a possible joint project to link Gulf and Arab countries with a network of railways that would also be connected to India via shipping from ports in the region, according to a recent report in Axios. 

The initiative, which came up in discussions by the I2U2 Group forum of India, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and the United States, comes at a time when China has been making inroads in the region.

Abraham Accords the future

“The story of the Abraham Accords is the story of the future,” Tel Aviv University Professor Uzi Rabi told JNS.  “Everyone who has any sense knows that this is the direction of the future,” he said of the proposed rail links.

Rabi, who serves as director of the university’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, said that Saudi Arabia wants to reach normalization with Israel and that such a move was both “the reality” and “inevitable.”

“Israel is no longer the enemy even if it is not everybody’s cup of tea.  That is the point of departure in the region,” he said.

“Countries have to get used to this and sell it to their own people, Rabi said. “This is a dream that can be realized.”

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