How will Middle East corridor impact trade?

What is the blueprint of the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor? Will it also influence the politics of the region? Is it going to pose a challenge to China’s Belt and Road Initiative? Is it looked upon as an endeavour which can normalise ties between Israel and the Arab region?

The story so far:

At a special event on the sidelines of the recently concluded G-20 summit in New Delhi, a memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed to establish the ‘India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor’ (IMEC). Other than the two co-chairs of the event, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and U.S. President Joe Biden, the signatories included leaders of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the European Union (EU), Italy, France and Germany. The project forms part of the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII).

What is the corridor?

The proposed IMEC will consist of railroad, ship-to-rail networks (road and sea) and road transport routes (and networks) extending across two corridors. While the east corridor will connect India to the Gulf, the northern corridor will connect the Gulf to Europe. As per the MoU, the railway, upon completion, would provide a “reliable and cost-effective cross-border ship-to-rail transit network to supplement existing maritime and road transports routes”.

It would enable the transportation of goods and services from India to the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel and Europe, and back. The corridor is expected to increase efficiency (relating to transit), reduce costs, generate jobs, and lower greenhouse gas emissions. This in turn will translate into a “transformative integration of Asia, Europe and the Middle East.” The MoU states that participants intend to enable the laying of cables for electricity and digital connectivity, as well as pipes for clean hydrogen export along the railway route.

The MoU points out that participants will “work collectively and expeditiously” to arrange and implement all elements of the transit route. These relate to technical design, financing, legal and relevant regulatory standards. A meeting is planned in the next 60 days to carve out an “action plan” with “relevant timetables”.

How has it been received?

While Mr. Modi suggested the corridor “promises to be a beacon of cooperation, innovation, and shared progress,” Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, said the corridor was “more than ‘just’ a railway or a cable, it is a green and digital bridge across continents and civilisations.” She called it the “most direct connection” between India, the Gulf and Europe: with a rail link that would make trade between India and Europe 40% faster. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose country will be a part of the corridor, also welcomed the move.

On the other hand, with the corridor being suggested as a competitor for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the announcement did not draw enthusiasm from the Chinese media. An editorial in the Global Times highlighted doubts from Chinese experts about the project’s credibility and feasibility. “It is not the first time for Washington to make empty pledges to various countries and regions,” it read.

What geopolitics is at play here?

It has often been believed that China is utilising the BRI from the Indo-Pacific to West Asia to further their economic and political influence, particularly on sovereigns with relatively unstable economies. The Financial Times points out that, for the U.S., the project could also serve to counter Beijing’s influence “at a time when Washington’s traditional Arab partners, including the UAE and Saudi Arabia, are deepening ties with China, India and other Asian powers.” Professor Michaël Tanchum, Senior Fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy, said in August 2021 that a corridor connecting India to Europe via West Asia and the Mediterranean region could serve as an “alternative trans-regional commercial transportation route” to the troubled Chabahar-based International North-South Transit Corridor. He said that from Mumbai, Indian goods shipped by this route could arrive on the European mainland in as less as 10 days — 40% faster than through the Suez Canal maritime route.

Professor Tanchum also observed that India’s “careful cultivation” of a multilateral economic cooperation with such a corridor “was of paramount importance.” According to him, “despite India’s favourable demographics, geography and commercial transportation infrastructure are not alone sufficient to ensure that India will realise its potential as a Eurasian economic power.” He further elaborated that, “commercial corridors only emerge where requisite large investments in port and rail infrastructure are coupled with an industrial base anchored in manufacturing value chains”— precisely the purpose of the present corridor.

How does this affect Israel and Gulf ties?

Saudi Arabia and Israel do not have diplomatic ties — primarily because of differences of opinion about the Israel-Palestine conflict. In fact, Israel has official ties only with Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco in the Arab region. In this light, the transit network which seeks integration on multiple fronts assumes particular significance.

The Financial Times learnt from a person briefed about the discussions, that the corridor’s passage through Jordan and Israel could also support the Biden administration’s effort to build on the recent normalisation of ties between Israel and several Arab states, including the UAE. This may push Saudi Arabia to follow suit and formalise ties. “China is one factor. The U.S. is also trying to refocus attention on the region, to reassure traditional partners and to maintain influence,” the publication learnt.

With Saudi Arabia being the world’s top exporter of oil and the UAE being West Asia’s dominant finance centre, FT says that both are “seeking to project themselves as key logistics and trade hubs between east and west.”

‘Indian goods shipped by this route could arrive in Europe in 10 days, 40% faster than through the Suez Canal’