Rail and Shipping Diplomacy


After the recent G20 Leaders’ Summit in New Delhi, President Joe Biden joined Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in announcing plans to build a rail and shipping corridor linking India with the Middle East and Europe. The plan includes a rail line connecting Israel to Saudi Arabia.

The plan is part of the Partnership for Global Infrastructure Investment, designed to promote economic growth and political cooperation between and among the participating countries. It is also widely seen as an American-backed alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which has attracted interest from 155 countries around the globe.

The regional corridor – which will include a rail link as well as an electricity cable, a hydrogen pipeline and a high-speed data cable – will help boost trade, transport energy resources and improve digital connectivity for India, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Israel and the European Union.

The project has the potential of providing what Biden characterized as a “game-changing regional investment.” But it has challenges. Plans call for working groups to meet over the next two months to chart the next steps and set target timetables. The first areas of activity will involve identifying areas that need investment and where existing infrastructures can be connected between countries. Once a plan is developed, the specifics of financing and construction will have to be addressed.

All through the process, participating countries will have to consult and coordinate with one another. And in that regard, all eyes will be on Saudi Arabia and Israel to see how they navigate involvement in the joint project since they don’t have diplomatic relations. While they could “cooperate” through an intermediary, such an arrangement is cumbersome. And yet, U.S. spokespeople were careful to note that the project should not be seen as a “precursor” to a potential normalization deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel, even though the U.S. has been pushing for that result.

Nonetheless, there is good reason for hope. Infrastructure projects have been at the heart of developing relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Issues regarding water supply were central to Israel’s 1994 treaty with Jordan and again in 2021 when the UAE brokered a green energy deal by which Israel would desalinate water for Jordan in exchange for Jordan supplying solar field renewable energy for Israel.

Similarly, relations between Egypt and Israel warmed over cooperation in the natural gas sector – including a joint agreement with the EU last year under which Israeli gas would be liquified in Egypt and sent to Europe. And then Israel and Egypt initiated the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, whose other members include Cyprus, Greece, France, Italy, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.

While the rail and shipping plan may not be the “precursor” to a normalization agreement, increased cooperation and coordination between Israel and Saudi Arabia on the mega-project could help lay the tracks for an enduring natural alliance borne of mutual self-interest and regional interdependence.

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