India-Middle East-EU corridor to have multiple routes, but hurdles remain

Several ports, including three in India and one in Israel, have been shortlisted; there are missing links in many of the proposed routes, though rail connectivity is being upgraded in West Asia; common standards should be maintained in construction and technology across the IMEC

Days after India, the U.S., Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other countries launched the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC), officials said many of the details are still being ironed out, and multiple route options are being considered that will include ports such as the one at Haifa in Israel and Piraeus in Greece, The Hindu has learnt.

Among the ports that could be connected on the west coast of India are those at Mundra and Kandla in Gujarat, and the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust in Navi Mumbai. In West Asia, at least five ports have been shortlisted to be connected to the Indian ports which include those at Fujairah, Jebel Ali, and Abu Dhabi in the UAE as well as Dammam and Ras Al Khair ports in Saudi Arabia.

Apart from government-owned ports, the Mundra port and the Haifa port are privately controlled by the Adani Group, and have been highlighted in proposal documents that The Hindu accessed. The onward rail route connectivity from five ports in the UAE and Saudi Arabia stretching up to the Haifa port in Israel will be a mix of already existing brownfield projects and fresh greenfield projects to connect missing links.

Official sources said that a study was conducted to establish the extent of already existing and under-construction railway lines in West Asia cutting across the UAE and Saudi Arabia, while missing links have been identified, which will need fresh construction. For instance, a 605-km network extending from the UAE’s Fujairah to Ghuweifat on the Saudi Arabian border is under construction as part of Phase 2 of the Etihad Rail project, which aims at transporting freight and passengers.

There is a missing link between Ghweifat and Haradh, which will need to be constructed. Further, Haradh and the Riyadh Dry Port are connected via rail and there is also an existing 1,242-km lline from Riyadh to Qurayyat managed by the Saudi Arabia Railways.

“There is a missing stretch between Qurayyat in Saudi Arabia and Beit She’an in Israel which will have to constructed,” the official said. Of the total rail route length of 2,915 km stretching from the Fujairah port to Haifa, there are missing portions of 1,095 km, with work in progress on 536 km. Hence, 559 km still has to be constructed. Similarly, proposed rail routes from the Jebel Ali port to Haifa span 2,565 km, with 745 km lacking connectivity. Here, work is already in progress across 186 km.

Another route, the Abu Dhabi port to Haifa, runs across 2,449 km, with 629 km yet to be linked. On the fourth proposed route from the Dammam port to Haifa, via Haradh, which is 2,149 km long, 289 km is yet to be constructed, while for the rail route from the Ras Al Khair port to Haifa passing through Buraydh, 269 km of the 1,809 km is yet to be linked.

As per the preliminary alignment plans accessed by The Hindu, from Haifa in Israel, landing destinations for Europe include the Piraeus port in Greece, Messina in south Italy, and Marseille in France. Initial estimates suggest that developing each of these IMEC routes could cost anywhere between $3 billion to $8 billion, but officials say it is too early to peg costs.

West Asia, especially Saudi Arabia, has a huge role in IMEC where a railway corridor is being proposed to be built, Union Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw said. “This will open up a new dimension in trade and transportation for the region. It is a very complex programme and will require everything to be brought to common standards. For instance, trains should run on the same gauge, similar technologies for engines should be used, dimensions of containers should be similar. Such important technical points have been outlined and preliminary alignments are being finalised, to achieve seamless transportation. However, it will take a lot of work to achieve this,” he added.

While the IMEC has been proposed to counter the Belt and Road Initiative of China, Chinese presence cannot be wished away along the IMEC route, officials said. “This is because the Piraeus port is controlled by China Ocean Shipping (Group) Company which is a Chinese state-owned company. Also, Chinese companies such as PowerChina, China State Construction Engineering Corporation and so on have qualified for multiple packages for Phase 1 and 2 of Etihad Rail,” a senior official from a public sector undertaking said.

Currently, all trade between India and Europe happens via the sea route, that passes through Suez Canal, controlled by Egypt.

“The all-sea route is convenient as we are assured that our cargo will land from point to point. It moves seamlessly without any obstructions. However, in the alternatively proposed IMEC, the number of times the cargo will get offloaded as it changes hands from ship to rail will increase the handling costs which include terminal-handling charges, container yard charges and so on. That seems like a bit of a challenge,” said Anil Devli, CEO of Indian Ship Owners Association .

The diplomatic sources said that Egypt, which could lose revenue if the Suez Canal is bypassed, could also raise objections to the plan. The IMEC MoU was signed by India, the U.S., Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the European Union, Italy, France and Germany, in the presence of all their leaders.