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The £13 billion railway vision that could transform Iraq. ByJames Rothwell

The 750-mile Development Road project is primarily devised for trade but could soon take passengers, claims the country’s new prime minister



Passengers in Baghdad prepare to board a train to Basra, the only passenger rail service currently operational in Iraq CREDIT: NYTNS

It sounds like a scene plucked from the pages of an old romance novel: hop on a train in frosty Berlin, glide through Turkey, and then disembark in broiling Baghdad. But far from being a pipe dream, this is the bold ambition of Iraq’s new prime minister, who hopes to rekindle the enchantment of global railway travel with a line connecting Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

Inspired by the great Berlin-Baghdad railway of the 1940s, Mohammed Shia al-Sudani says his Development Road will breathe new life into the country’s war-ravaged economy.

“The Development Road embodies our new national spirit of enterprise… [it] will create sustainable economic growth and prosperity across the country, benefiting all Iraqis,” he says of the 750-mile project.

Passing through Basra, Baghdad and Mosul, it is largely designed to enhance trade routes, particularly for oil and gas. But Iraqi officials have said that it will also carry passengers – and perhaps, in the future, daring foreign tourists.

“In time, we want to attract a new breed of adventurous tourist, keen to travel from the heart of Europe to the Gulf by train rather than plane. It will be one of the longest eco-friendly scenic routes in the world,” says Nasser al-Asadi, an adviser to the prime minister on transport affairs.

The £13 billion project will link the Iraqi Grand Faw Port, on the northern tip of the Persian Gulf, with neighbouring Turkey via the border city of Rabia, serving as a rail bridge for goods and passengers in Asia and Europe.

It could even become an alternative to the Suez Canal, which handles 12 per cent of global trade but was notoriously blocked for six days in March 2021 when the Ever Given container ship got stuck there, holding up billions of pounds worth of global trade – from toilet rolls to iPhones. Iraqi officials have also chosen a name that deliberately echoes Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, a huge infrastructure project, launched in 2013, to develop two new trade routes connecting China with the rest of the world.

Mohammed Shia al-Sudani says Development Road will create sustainable economic growth and prosperity across the country CREDIT: AFP

Curiously enough, there has been growing talk of the West launching its own rival to Belt and Road, with US president Joe Biden calling last year for “a similar” scheme to compete with Beijing’s trade influence.

Whether the Development Road could become that rival, or form part of its structure, remains to be seen: while al-Sudani is supportive of the US he is also trying to delicately balance relations with Iran.

Due to be completed by 2030, the Iraqi Development Road has already been backed by James Watt, the former UK ambassador to Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt. Watt believes the project could become a triumphant symbol of a new Iraq that can turn its back on the dark past of the 2003 Western invasion and the rise of the Islamic State terror group.

“Few countries in the Middle East have suffered more from conflict and worked harder for its end than Iraq,” he says. “Iraq has long planned the renewal of national infrastructure [to] reinvigorate its economy. This ambition for Iraq to take its proper place in the economic networks of the region has been given fresh impetus by a new government.”

Baghdad Central Railway Station CREDIT: Robert Harding

Iraq is seeking global investment for the project. However, Watt acknowledges that security concerns may cause anxieties for potential supporters. While al-Sudani, who became prime minister last October, has vowed to restore stability to Iraq, there are still regular violent clashes between militia groups. Turkey is also waging an ongoing military campaign against Kurdish separatists in the north of the country. The UK currently advises against all travel to all provinces of Iraq except the Kurdistan region, where all but essential travel is advised.

“But the long game has to be played and the prize is immeasurable for a country that has suffered so much,” Watt says. Development Road will mainly restore or revive existing railways and roads in Iraq, a country that has long grappled with decrepit or destroyed infrastructure. Only a handful of railway lines operate in Iraq and they mainly carry overnight passengers or slow oil freight loads; the 310-mile trip from Basra to Baghdad currently lasts about 12 hours.

But al-Asadi remains optimistic. “The project will dramatically transform Iraq’s economy and society – we will have a new Silk Road, connecting East and West,” he says.


Source: The Telegraph, 20 July 2023 • 3:58pm



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