Haifa-Saudi railway project, a perpetual Israeli dream
Saudi Arabia that has no diplomatic relations with the Israeli regime is sticking to energy and economy as excuses to join the normalization process. Days after unveiling a plan to transfer gas from the occupied territories to Saudi Arabia, a railway project appears to be on Riyadh-Tel Aviv agenda, too. During his visit to Jordan, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed with King Abdullah II the opening of a railway from the port of Haifa in the Mediterranean Sea to transport goods to Saudi Arabia. Although the Saudi authorities have not commented on the construction of this rail corridor, it seems that Amman is advancing this project on behalf of Riyadh.
The project is part of the Haifa-Persian Gulf railway project, which was raised with the Persian Gulf Arab states in 2009, so that the Israelis could transfer their goods from the region to Europe. Khaleej Online news website wrote in a report in May last year that this railway will be completed soon and the authorities of six Arab countries have said that it will start operation by 2025. The railway is 2,177 kilometers-long and it seems that the preparations for it have started years ago. Israeli media had previously reported that a large part of this route currently exists in the countries in question, and only 300 kilometers remain to be built in Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
According to former Israeli officials, the UAE and Israel have invested heavily in constructing and upgrading the infrastructure and are trying to connect the Persian Gulf to the port of Haifa through a railway. To achieve this, the first destination of the Israeli project is Saudi Arabia, which embraces other monarchies in the Persian Gulf.
The Haifa-Persian Gulf corridor is planned to start from the occupied territories and pass through Jordan and Saudi Arabia, north of Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE, and end in Oman. It would make it possible to transfer goods from the occupied territories to the UAE in one or two days, while now it takes 12 days through Suez Canal, and this project is an important advantage for the Israelis. On the other hand, due to the control of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait by Yemeni Ansarullah Movement and the resulting threats to the Israeli maritime trade, Tel Aviv is trying hard to reduce the dependence on strait, and that is why it has its eyes on advancing the project with the Arab countries.
Arab infrastructure is ready
If implemented, this rail corridor can facilitate the trade exchanges between the Israeli regime and the Arab states and result in expansion of their ties.
In December 2021, Persian Gulf Arab leaders discussed this railway project, and Saudi Arabia, which has the largest railway network in the Persian Gulf due to the size of its territory, plays an important role in establishing it. In recent years, the Arab kingdom developed its rail infrastructure and opened a train station near the Jordanian border in March 2022, signaling that the Saudis have taken many steps to conclude this project, and only a small piece remains to complete the Israeli puzzle.
According to reports, other Arab monarchies have advanced their rail networks in recent years to conclude this project as soon as possible. The UAE, which has become a linking ring between Israel and other Arab states, is busy completing the second phase of its national railway network that started in 2016 and is planned to connect 11 cities and the country’s gas fields to each other.
In Qatar, the establishment of transportation infrastructure has accelerated and hosting the 2022 World Cup became a stimulus for faster work on country’s rail projects. Oman also plans to build its national railway network, a proposed 2,100-kilometer route that would start from the UAE border, pass through Sohar and Muscat in the north, and then connect to the major port cities of Duqm and Salalah on the east coast. The Omani government has so far made great progress in this project. However, given that Oman recently banned any trade ties with Israel, it can be excluded from this railway plan.
Given the moves by the compromising states to implement this rail corridor in the past years, a hypothesis can be that one of the reasons why the Saudi-headed bloc reconciled with Qatar after four years of tensions was this rail project. A few months after resumption of ties between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Arab media reported plans to connect Saudi-Qatari rail networks. This reveals that secret cooperation was underway for years between the Israelis and Arabs to realize this rail corridor but the news about it are just being publicized.
In addition to the Arab states, India, reportedly, will also cooperate in this project so that by using this railway, it can transfer its goods to the occupied territories and from there to Europe in the shortest possible time. India used to focus on the Chabahar port in Iran to export its goods to Central Asia and from there to Russia and Europe, but with the closure of the Russian borders after the Ukraine war, the Haifa-Persian Gulf railway attracted the Indian attention and New Delhi is trying to push this project forward.
A prelude to normalization
Using economic and energy projects, Persian Gulf Arab monarchies are working to advance the normalization with Tel Aviv, and they know that the wider relations on various areas, the easier justification of normalization to public.
With this railway project and the imports of gas from the occupied territories, Saudi Arabia is trying to pretend that the relations with Israel will lead to economic and commercial prosperity. Actually, such projects help them prepare public opinion for the thaw. Economic and security relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel are already established and only diplomatic ties remain pending. These days, in their official statements, the Saudis portray the normalization as beneficial to the Arabs. In other words, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman cannot wait to publicize his relations with Tel Aviv.
The compromising Arab leaders pretend that such projects are the comparative advantage of relations with Tel Aviv in order for them to send their goods to Europe in the shortest possible time and at a lower cost. But obviously any Arab-Israeli deal only benefits the Israelis because it helps Tel Aviv break its historical isolation, end its reliance on sea routes, and build pressure levers from gas pipelines and railway projects for use against the Arab countries.