Rail projects are big business in the Middle East and North Africa. Key railway developments worth $352bn, ranging from city-centric metro systems to national rail infrastructures, are currently planned and underway across the region.
The $15.4bn GCC Railway Network, most recently slated for completion in 2018, represents the collective realisation for many of these projects. Spanning 2,117km, this mammoth system has been designed to link the domestic rail infrastructures of all six GCC countries.
But the pan-GCC rail initiative has faced challenges of late. The low oil price, which continues to hamper progress across the majority of the region’s construction segments, has led local governments to reconsider their short-term budgetary priorities.
It was within this context that Etihad Rail, the government-backed firm overseeing the development of the UAE’s national railway infrastructure, suspended Stage 2 tenders in January 2015. The organisation stated that it would use this hiatus to review its investment, and examine the timing and delivery of the development’s second phase.
Three weeks later, reports emerged that Oman was reconsidering its efforts in relation to the GCC Railway Network. The Sultanate said that in light of regional uncertainty, it would concentrate on national rail activities rather than the slated connection to its neighbouring UAE.
The exact pace at which the GCC Railway Network will progress remains unclear. What appears altogether more certain is that it will miss its 2018 completion deadline.
In comments made to Construction Week at a pre-event press conference for Middle East Rail 2016, HE Dr Abdullah Belhaif Al Nuaimi, the UAE’s Minister of Public Works and chairman of the Federal Transport Authority (FTA), questioned the feasibility of the GCC Railway Network’s current target for completion.
“We know that 2018 is not realistic,” he commented. “The ministerial counterparts of all the Gulf countries met in Doha in late 2015 to rethink the timetable. We’ve asked all of them to come up with a realistic programme,” he revealed.
HE Dr Al Nuaimi went on to point out that an updated schedule had not yet been finalised. He did not proffer a more realistic completion date, and declined to state his opinion as to whether the GCC Railway Network would be seen through to completion.
Yet despite challenges on the pan-GCC stage, plenty of rail-related activity is taking place at the domestic level.
Speaking to Construction Week at Middle East Rail 2016, John Lesniewski, chief commercial officer of Oman Rail, admitted that the Sultanate was still awaiting an update with regards the probable delay period of the GCC Railway Network. Nevertheless, he emphasised that Oman would continue to push ahead with the development of its national railway infrastructure.