It is a sight to behold when a long-nosed javelin in white and gold zips through a desert at 300 km/h. The 450-kilometer electric railway, Haramain Express (which means two sanctuaries in Arabic), is designed to carry 60 million passengers a year, including millions of Hajj and Umrah pilgrims, through its 35 trains.
Built by China Railway 18th Bureau Group, Chinese firms are at the forefront of railway construction in the broader Middle East region as many countries boost their spending on creating new or upgrading existing rail infrastructure.
Using electric propulsion that will drive the trains to an operating speed of 300 kilometers per hour, the express train is expected to cut travel time between Mecca and Madinah to under two hours instead of six hours by bus.
The train is the largest transportation project in the Middle East and one of the world’s most significant public transportation projects.
Haramain Express is the first double-track electrified high-speed railway in Saudi Arabia and the world’s first desert high-speed railway to have Chinese companies involved in its construction. The high-speed railway has brought a new experience of traveling on land in Saudi Arabia.
The rail, the first railway built by a Chinese company in the Middle East, is aimed at easing traffic congestion on the road during the Hajj and providing a convenient transportation option for pilgrims as it links three main Hajj destinations.
The trains, among the world’s top 10 fastest, are just the beginning of a rail network expected to expand across the Middle Eastern Kingdom as it invests billions in infrastructure to boost tourism and diversify revenues beyond oil.
Besides the Haramain Express project, China is also involved in Saudi Arabia’s signature $500 billion mega-city project, NEOM. China and Saudi Arabia recently set up a $20 billion investment fund to link Saudi Vision 2030 with China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
There has also been speculation that China will buy the shares in Saudi Aramco in a private deal. Such a transaction would represent a political signal by Xi Jinping in support of Mohammed bin Salman. It could also signal a pivotal Saudi realignment away from the US and towards China.
As Wu Sike, former Chinese Special envoy to the Middle East, puts it, “The cooperation between China and Saudi Arabia is based on consultation, joint contribution, and shared benefits. The cooperation pattern we share is 1+2+3. One means energy cooperation will be the principal axis. Two means of infrastructure construction under the wings of trade and investment facilitation. Three stands for cooperation in high and new technology, new energy, and space.”
The deft diplomacy by Beijing comes against the backdrop of Washington retreating from the region as part of its foreign policy since the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
According to business intelligence firm MEED, rail contracts worth $16 billion are set to be awarded in the Middle East and North Africa this year. The longer-term pipeline projects could reach well above $200 billion. No wonder Chinese firms are hoping to cash in on the prospects.
Experts have described China’s foray into the construction of railways across the region as ‘Railway Diplomacy‘ and is at the heart of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to connect Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.
America’s Loss Is China’s Gain
According to reports, the Saudi government in the past indicated that US assistance in building nuclear power plants was a precondition for Riyadh concerning any US plans to normalize its relations with Israel.
However, such a thing now appears to be off the cards, as the Kingdom will get from China the necessary technical expertise and equipment required for the plants. The Saudis can now refuse to recognize Israel without facing any repercussions.
During the past decade, mainly motivated by the Belt and Road Initiative, new cooperation mechanisms have been established by China and Arab states. At the bilateral level, China established comprehensive strategic partnerships with Algeria and Egypt in 2014, Saudi Arabia in 2016, and UAE in 2016. China established strategic partnerships with Qatar in 2014, Iraq in 2015, Morocco in 2016, and Oman and Kuwait in 2018.
As of January 2022, 20 Arab states had signed cooperative agreements with China under the Belt and Road Initiative in various fields covering energy, investment, trade, finance, infrastructure, and high-tech.
At the multilateral level, China and Arab states established the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum in 2004 and the China-Arab States Expo in 2013. In 2018, the Declaration of Action on China-Arab States Cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative was signed by China and Arab states at the 8th Ministerial Meeting of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum, which directed the cooperation between China and Arab states. Recently, Saudi Arabia has been included in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as a “dialogue partner.”
Riyadh’s move to partner with the bloc also came less than three weeks after unveiling a landmark China-brokered reconciliation deal with Iran to restore full diplomatic relations that were severed seven years ago.
Long bitter rivals, Shia-majority Iran and mainly Sunni Saudi Arabia, have engaged in a series of proxy conflicts in the region, such as Yemen. Tehran has denied backing the Houthis rebels, who took control of vast swathes of the impoverished country in late 2014, pushing out the internationally recognized government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
The Saudi-led military alliance intervened in support of Hadi in March 2015, but the Houthis remain in control of the country, including the capital Sanaa.
Riyadh has said that while it had engaged in previous rounds of bilateral talks with Tehran, the reconciliation process was jump-started by President Xi Jinping’s offer last year to serve as a “bridge” between the two Middle East heavyweights.
Xi’s role in the rapprochement raised eyebrows given Saudi Arabia’s traditionally close partnership with Washington, though that relationship has been under strain recently because of disputes over human rights and oil production.
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