Railway that could bridge Middle East divide

A new track from Israel to Saudi Arabia offers economic growth and stability in the region

By Roger Boyes, THE TIMES JAN 26, 2018

Lawrence of Arabia blew up 79 bridges along the Hejaz railway that linked the hub of the Ottoman Empire with its distant Arab territories. The aim of his guerrilla campaign, said TE Lawrence, was to “scientifically shatter” the track and divert Turkish troops during the First World War with endless repair work.

Now, the railway may be rebuilt in an ambitious and perhaps quixotic attempt to bring about a regional peace. It is too early to say who has “won” the Syrian war — it is not so much in its end phase as in its late-middle — but Iran already believes itself to be one of the victors. Tehran has created a land corridor of Shia influence running through Iraq and Syria into Lebanon.

That rattles Israel as well as Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies. The Hezbollah militias in Lebanon are, for example, being helped by their Iranian patrons to set up their own missile production facilities rather than have them delivered. Israel reacts by sneaking into Syrian air space and hitting other Hezbollah weapons depots and convoys. It also exchanges intelligence with certain Arab services, despite having no formal diplomatic ties.

But although Iran is mounting a systemic threat to the region, neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia has come up with what might be termed as a systemic response. I put this the other day to a recently retired Mossad officer, expecting to hear about exotic measures such as targeted assassinations. Instead he suggested a railway line. Specifically, a link between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. It would start in Haifa, where Israel is already constructing a new port, run along a revived section of the Hejaz line to Beit Shean, cross eastwards into Jordan and on into Saudi Arabia and the port of Jedda.

The idea has been kicking around for a while but has been revived because Iran’s perceived threat has made frenemies out of Israel and Saudi Arabia. Syria has lost its historical role as a trading crossroads; it is too violent, too crowded with big powers puffing out their chests. Why not then rediscover geographic proximity? Shipping goods via the Suez canal takes time, is costly and vulnerable. Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen can block the narrow strait of Bab al-Mandeb, the gateway to the Red Sea. Iran can interfere with traffic through the Strait of Hormuz. A rail network, large parts of which already exist, would make commercial partners out of Israel and Saudi Arabia, strengthen the flagging Jordanian economy. The security of Jordan, strained by 1.3 million sheltering Syrians, 28 per cent youth unemployment and the fear of terror infection, has become a nagging source of concern across the Arab world.

The train revolution would be bottom-up peace-making and there is now momentum behind it. In Israel it is being pushed by Yisrael Katz, the intelligence and transport minister (difficult to see how this job-share would work in Britain), who as a leading member of the ruling Likud party has his eyes on the prime minister’s job. In Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has big infrastructure plans at home, including a new city, and says he wants to project a modern, forward-looking Sunni faith. This is his soft power answer to the challenge for regional leadership mounted by Tehran. And the US envoy, Jason Greenblatt, who works closely with President Trump’s influential son-in-law Jared Kushner, seems open to the plan.

The original Hejaz railway, opened in 1908, was supposed to transport Muslim pilgrims from Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman caliphate, to Mecca by replacing a hazardous 40-day trek through the wilderness with a 120-hour ride. The construction wasn’t easy going. Tunnels had to be blasted, bedouins stole wooden sleepers for their campfires and before vital connections were finished — the link between Constantinople and Damascus, between Medina and Mecca — the First World War broke out. Turkey’s ally, Germany, was defeated, the Ottomans collapsed and most of the line was lost in the sand.

But the train had another function. It allowed the Ottomans to send troops, ammunition and supplies quickly to barracks and fortresses in the Arab south. It was an instrument of military control, which is why Lawrence was able to count on Arab support for the insurgency.

This sense that cross-border rail links are a way of projecting power is one of the objections to the modern rail scheme. Public opinion in Jordan is, despite formal diplomatic relations, still hostile to Israel. Easy for opponents of King Abdullah to stoke up unrest and suggest that the rail plan is a Zionist plot. Sensible co-operation between neighbouring powers on gas, solar power and water all too often hits the buffers because of the fear of a domestic backlash against high-profile business deals with Israel.

The train plan has to be sold to the Jordanians as an essential part of an overdue economic revival. Their doubts about the intentions of the key players have to be overcome. Is Katz playing a double game? Is Kushner about to be embroiled in the US investigation into Russian collusion and drop out as Middle East emissary? Does the Saudi crown prince still have the ready cash? The fact is that since the 19th century railways have been built by risk-takers and, once built, they have always brought modernity and wealth to people on the line. If the stars are correctly aligned, this attempt to end the Middle East logjam might just come off.

October 16, 2018 | 3 Comments »

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  1. Lyndon LaRouche has been screaming for globe spanning rail, canal and highway infrastructure projects for 20 years. His “Silk Road” initiative is being seriously discussed and moving into the implementation phase among BRICS nations. His policies need to be studied.