The diplomacy of economic corridors

Hussein Haridy
Tuesday 12 Sep 2023

The signature of an agreement to establish an India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor at the recent G20 Summit is further proof that globalisation and geopolitics do not mix


On the sidelines of the G20 Summit meeting that took place on 9-10 September in New Delhi, a group of countries within the group signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on the establishment of an India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor. The EU, represented by President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, also signed the MoU.

The countries that put their signatures to the said document include the US, India, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, France, Germany, and Italy. According to an article in the UK Financial Times on 9 September, the role of the EU in the implementation of this MoU was negotiated during a visit by Von der Leyen to the UAE on 7 September.

US President Joe Biden called the agreement an “historic” one. When implemented, he said, it would contribute to a “more stable, more prosperous, and more integrated” Middle East. He also mentioned in his remarks that the US would host a new investor forum, seemingly related to investment in infrastructure, in a couple of weeks. He spoke of the need to maximise the impact of infrastructure investment in order to deal with the gaps in infrastructure in the low and middle income countries.

He added that the objective of the US administration was to help build sustainable and resilient infrastructure and to create a “better future” that would provide greater opportunities and prosperity for all.

The MoU signed at the G20 Summit states that two separate corridors will be built connecting India to Europe across the Middle East. The east corridor will connect India to the Arabian Gulf, while the north one will connect the Gulf to Europe by rail. The MoU says that the signatories intend to lay cables for electricity and digital connectivity, as well as pipes to export clean hydrogen, along the railway route to Europe.

What was not mentioned in the MoU is that the railway route will serve ports in Jordan and Israel from the two Gulf countries that have signed it, namely Saudi Arabia and the UAE. However, it also says that the corridor in question will achieve objectives including the enhancement of “economic unity.” It goes without saying that this “unity” relates to those countries that will be served by this “economic corridor.”

Considering that the participating countries include some that do not (yet) have diplomatic relations, any talk of “enhancing economic unity” between them – I am referring to Saudi Arabia and Israel – is likely to raise eyebrows. However, such talk goes to show that the diplomatic efforts of the Biden administration that for some time now have been led by US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan are advancing behind the scenes.

It is interesting to note that the signatories to the MoU have committed themselves to establishing “coordinating entities” to address a full range of technical, design, financing, legal and regulatory standards. They will meet within the next 60 days to develop and commit to an action plan with relevant timetables.

Aside from its hypothetical and declared economic, energy, and digital-connectivity benefits, the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor is a revival of past economic projects that date back to the multilateral negotiations that took place within the framework of the Madrid Peace Conference on the Middle East in October 1991 and the US and Israeli-inspired idea of integrating Israel into the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

The region has had to wait more than three decades to see concrete projects come to light to integrate Israel into the MENA region. Needless to say, the multilateral negotiating tracks on this were linked to progress being achieved in the parallel bilateral tracks that were aimed at negotiating a just and permanent solution to the Palestinian question.

On the other hand, it is also clear that the infrastructure investment that the US and the EU are so eager to commit to and implement is an attempt to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Perhaps this is the reason why Chinese President Xi Jinping did not attend the G20 Summit in New Delhi. 

It will now not be a surprise if questions arise in various parts of the world concerning the ability of the G20 to work in unison to deal with the many serious challenges facing the world today. The MoU signed at the G20 Summit in New Delhi epitomises the conflict between the US and its European allies, on the one hand, and China and Russia, on the other, and is a major obstacle to unity within the group. 

It is further proof that the age of globalisation is undergoing changes that run counter to the original aims of globalisation. In today’s world, geopolitics and globalisation apparently do not mix.

* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 14 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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