Iraq’s grandiose vision to connect with the world

Salah Nasrawi , Tuesday 6 Jun 2023

Iraq’s return to the regional stage is being challenged by its political and economic vulnerability and the competing interests of rival powers, writes Salah Nasrawi

Iraqi worker
An Iraqi worker in the first robot-run factory for the construction of adhesive materials in Basra (photo: AP)


Iraq has announced an ambitious plan for the construction of a 1,200-km railway line and parallel motorway that will link its ports on the Arabian Gulf with Europe through neighbouring Turkey. 

Prime Minister Mohamed Shia Al-Sudani announced the $17 billion project dubbed “Development Road” during a gathering of Transport Ministry representatives from several neighbouring countries on 27 May. 

“The implementation of this strategic project will consolidate regional economic cooperation in the interest of its countries and peoples,” Al-Sudani wrote in an article published in a Saudi newspaper a few days before the launch. 

There are few details about the massive infrastructure project or its foreign and economic feasibility, but it may be related to Iraq’s intentions to strengthen its partnerships throughout the Middle East. 

Motivated by the country’s pressing domestic and foreign challenges, successive governments in post US-invasion Iraq have battled to reintegrate the country fully into the region and shield it from outside interference. 

But as has so often been the case over the last two decades, Iraq’s repeated efforts to reconnect with the region have been met by its neighbours’ pressing geopolitical concerns and economic interests. 

Iraq’s initiative to build the railway line and road that will link the country with Turkey will likely focus on neighbouring and foreign powers that have stakes in emerging multi-modal corridors that could eventually link East Asia with Europe. 

The project, which will start from the southern Al-Faw Peninsula in Iraq, also includes the construction of around 15 train stations along the route, including in the major cities of Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul, and end up at the Turkish border. 

Once it is completed, Iraq hopes the duel route will turn the country into a regional commercial transit hub. It will give it access to the Turkish port of Mersin and then Istanbul and Europe. 

Iraq also hopes the new route will improve international trade by shortening the time taken to cover the distance between East Asia and Europe by half. 

Iraqi officials have said the project will be awarded to France’s transport giant Alstom, which is also expected to build Baghdad’s first elevated metro line. The Italian company Progetti Europa & Global has worked as a consultant on different stages of the project and is supervising its timetable. 

The Al-Faw Port on the northern tip of the Arabian Gulf is the logistical linchpin of the project. South Korea’s Daewoo is constructing Phase 1 of the port under a $2.65 billion contract awarded in 2020. Work is to be completed in 2025, when the port will begin operations at a capacity of 20 to 45 million tons of goods per year.

The construction of the port has raised tensions with Kuwait, which had started building its own Mubarak Al-Kabeer Port on the other side of the Gulf. The multi-billion megaproject is an essential part of Kuwait’s Vision 2035 Strategy, and the emirate hopes to link it with China’s Belt and Road Initiative projects. 

With its container docks, deep-water harbour, free-trade zone, rail network, and resort, the port will make Kuwait into a leading financial and trade centre in the region. 

Iraq fears that the Kuwaiti project will turn into a pivotal financial and trading hub at the expense of its own Development Road, which it also hopes will be part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. 

There has been no word from Turkey on the plans, even though the country has its own strategy regarding east-west connectivity. Turkey is also seeking to be an energy hub and a transit distribution centre serving Europe. 

Turkish Ambassador to Iraq Ali Riza Guney, who attended the Baghdad meeting where the Iraqi project was announced along with officials from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Jordan, Iran and Syria, said that the Iraqi “Development Road will boost interdependence between the countries of the region.” 

Iran, meanwhile, is devising its own regional strategic corridor linking East Asia and Europe through a railway line connecting the Arabian Gulf to the Mediterranean. The Islamic Republic has announced ambitious plans to build a railway line that would run from its southern port city of Khorramshahr across Iraq to Syria. 

With a strategic coastline on the Mediterranean and having just re-emerged out of the diplomatic cold, Syria also wants to be part of the new Middle East connectivity. Its Transport Minister Zuhair Khuzaim, who also attended the Baghdad meeting, has suggested that the Iraqi Al-Faw Port should be linked with Syrian ports on the Mediterranean.

He said this would shorten the overall distance to the Mediterranean Sea by some 900 km.

Saudi Arabia has also unveiled an infrastructure programme that includes building a vast road network and a railway line that will connect the Saudi coastline on the Gulf with its ports on the Red Sea. 

Saudi Minister of Transport Saleh bin Nasser Al-Jasser, who represented the Kingdom at the Baghdad meeting, said an international consortium led by Chinese companies was taking part in the projects. 

Saudi Arabia has also signed a number of agreements to boost economic cooperation and develop a special economic zone with Iraq. Among them are plans to expand and effectively utilise the newly opened Arar crossing point with Iraq and to open a new one in Jumaimah further south. 

Jordan has always been a key partner of Iraq, whether through bilateral business deals or as a gateway for international trade via its Aqaba Port on the Red Sea, which connects with the Mediterranean. It has struggled to offer a more appealing vision of cooperation, including through a strategic tripartite partnership with Egypt. 

Driven by fears that it will be marginalised by Beijing’s drive to establish a new Eurasian corridor through its Belt and Road Initiative, India has been contemplating its own corridor to the Mediterranean that would radically reconfigure trade patterns between the Indian Ocean, the Middle East, and Europe.  

Plans for the new Arab-Mediterranean connectivity are also the result of the diplomatic normalisation between some Arab Gulf nations and Israel, which is giving rise to the creation of a UAE-Israel railway network via Saudi Arabia and Jordan to Israel’s Haifa port on the Mediterranean. 

Israel has already showed great interest in all the connectivity projects, and it has proposed a new train route linking Haifa to the Saudi Gulf port of Dammam, the UAE, and Bahrain. 

The Israeli media says that the proposals, dubbed “Tracks for Regional Peace,” have undergone a preliminary feasibility study and could gather steam alongside a major infrastructure project. 

Egypt has also recently showcased a gigantic high-speed rail link from Al-Sokhna at the northern tip of the Red Sea to Al-Alamein on the Mediterranean. Thanks to the Suez Canal waterway that can handle container ships carrying over 20,000 containers, Egypt will be able to provide a duel corridor with the fastest outreach to Europe. 

However, all these ambitious initiatives hinge on the progress made by China to establish a foothold in the Mediterranean through its Belt and Road Initiative. The mammoth $1 trillion Chinese Initiative, slated for completion in 2049, is intended to link Asia to Europe via the Middle East. 

Whether Iraq becomes a regional leader in forging its new commercial architecture will therefore depend on several geopolitical and economic considerations, including competition over influence and Iraq’s ability to manage its foreign and regional partnerships to participate in the “Development Road” corridor. 

Even before becoming an independent state in 1922, Iraq had anchored itself in the Middle East as crucially important for regional and world geopolitics. 

Before World War I, Germany contemplated building a railway line to connect Berlin to Baghdad and Basra on the Gulf through the Ottoman Empire. The Germans were hoping the line would give them access to the Gulf and circumvent the Suez Canal, then controlled by Britain. 

Even with a post-independence history checkered with political upheavals, military coups, and wars, Iraq has remained strategically important, whether as a result of its having the world’s fifth-largest proven crude oil reserves or because of its position at the heart of the Levant with connections to Iran and the Gulf. 

Yet, with a region crowded with so many ambitious projects and sometimes conflicting interests, the Iraqi plans for a regional commercial corridor are coming under scrutiny. Al-Sudani has proudly launched the plans, but he has not presented the initiative for analysis at expert level or even for public discussion. 

While many critics point to Iraq’s present financial crunch due to government dysfunction, economic inefficiency, and rampant corruption, others have voiced concerns about the project’s feasibility. Still others say its successful implementation is unlikely due to political reasons. 

For all the talk about the vast scope of the “Development Road” project and its being a connectivity node for Iraq to be a vital part of any future Middle East, the centrality of the initiative to Iraq’s sense of its regional destiny remains an open question. 

* A version of this article appears in print in the 8 June, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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