The revival of the ‘new Hejaz railway’ project, between the United Arab Emirates and Israel, has been largely ignored by the Western media, despite having a significant impact on the direction of US President, Joe Biden’s, Middle East foreign policy.
Proposed in 2018 Israel’s then Minister of Transportation, Israel Katz, had first brought up the proposal of a new Hejaz railway and said with confidence in a statement to Saudi media that if there’s the will for it, it will occur. At that time however, the UAE had not yet normalized ties and so the statements had gone largely ignored.
In October of last year, following the normalisation deal struck between the UAE and Israel, the two signed a preliminary pipeline deal which would allow for Emirati oil to reach Europe through Israel. The deal, if finalized, would essentially allow for the UAE to circumvent its use of the Suez Canal, sending its resources through the Red Sea city of Eilat and through to the port city of Ashkelon on the Mediterranean. The pipeline was originally built for joint Israeli-Iranian trade, however, this was no longer an option after Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979. A Swiss court ruled in 2016 that Israel was liable for its seizure of the pipeline and was required to pay Iran at least 1 billion dollars in compensation, which Israel refuses to pay.
These projects would have huge repercussions for the economy of Egypt. The Egyptian Suez Canal is currently the quickest route through which Asia meets Europe, bringing with it massive revenue for Egypt. Despite having hit a 3% decline in 2020 (largely pinned on the economic crisis that’s being blamed on COVID-19) the revenue delivered to Egypt through the Suez Canal last year sat at 5.61 Billion USD. If the Hejaz railway is to go ahead, the alternative trade route would take 10-12 days off of the journey and reduce costs by approximately 20% according to some analysts. On top of this, if oil and crude is going to be transported via the Red Sea-Mediterranean pipeline, this again undercuts Egypt. Right now, the majority of Gulf oil transported to Europe is achieved by shipping it through the Suez Canal or utilizing the Egyptian Sumed pipeline.
Ali Bakir, Lebanese writer and researcher, commented on the issue, stating that “this [project] will undermine Egypt’s political role in the Arab world to the benefit of the UAE and Israel, and will cause severe damage to the Egyptian economy”. Bakir also said that he believed the trade projects were designed as part of the ‘Deal of the Century’ and would build Emirati economic dependence on Israel, as well as create regional security problems due to Israel’s common aggressivity when it comes to defending assets.
Saudi Arabia And The Push For Normalisation
The one key element standing in the way of the Emirati-Israeli plans for a new trade corridor in the Middle East, is that of Saudi Arabia not having normalized ties with Israel.
It appeared as if Saudi Arabia was developing closer ties with Israel, and this was revealed because Israeli media had leaked that the first known Saudi-Israeli meeting which took place in Neom, Saudi Arabia. Although Netanyahu had not publicly admitted to the incident having taken place, the leak was widely comprehended to have been a publicity stunt with the intention of making Netanyahu look good.
Saudi Arabia, as a result of the leak, denied that any such meeting took place and began to publicly sever ties and distance themselves from the notion of normalisation with Israel. This is due to Saudi Arabia having to pay perhaps the biggest price of all in its bid to normalize ties with Israel, having under its rule the two holiest cities in Islam and attempting to be the hub of the Sunni Muslim world.
Now, with the Biden administration in power, it seems that the US’s usual unconditional support of Saudi Arabia is deteriorating. Antony Blinken, Biden’s Secretary of State, struck a different tone than expected, beginning in the Senate Confirmation Hearing a day prior to Biden’s inauguration, seemingly looking to go on the offensive against Saudi if it doesn’t play ball. The most important factor in all of this, being the Biden administration’s threat to end its support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.
The reason why the war in Yemen is such a crucial part in this overarching project for a new Hejaz railway, is that Saudi Arabia’s war efforts have largely been around its access to trade routes.
In the advent of the overthrow of Yemeni President, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, by the Anarallah (Houthis) in 2015 and their takeover of the country’s Capital Sanaa, Saudi Arabia had formed a coalition in order to purge the group and install a Saudi-friendly regime. Since former President Hadi had sought refuge in Saudi Arabia and his political survival depended solely upon Riyadh, Saudi sought to launch a war in order to reinstall him as their puppet.
Saudi Arabia had widely misinterpreted the outcome of their military campaign, but still continued to pursue its objective. The objective being, that with a pro-Saudi puppet in control of Yemen, the leader would permit Saudi Arabia to use the Al-Mahra province, in Eastern Yemen, as an alternative trade route from having to use the Iranian controlled Strait of Hormuz.
The Strait of Hormuz, through which Saudi Arabia currently transports its oil, has long been seen as too high of a risk for Riyadh, motivating the Kingdom’s leadership to seek an alternative. Saudi has heavily invested in ports and facilities inside of the Al-Mahra province, but with the ongoing instability in the country, as well as a lack of legitimacy for the Saudis’ project, it cannot fully commence.
This now brings us to the US’s new stance on the war in Yemen. If Saudi Arabia is being pressured, economically, militarily and diplomatically, as a result of a US withdrawal of support for its ongoing war effort inside of Yemen, Saudi may be forced to cede and withdraw. Although on the face of things, this may seem like a positive move, the United Arab Emirates could easily put on additional pressure inside of Yemen to make the situation more difficult and the US could become openly hostile towards Saudi Arabia, if the KSA does not bow to US commands.
The alternative to Yemen, as a new trade route for the Saudis, circumventing the usage of the Strait of Hormuz, could be to turn to and reap the economic benefits of the new Israeli projects for the region. However, despite this, Saudi Arabia will likely still favor its Yemen option and stay clear of normalization for now, rather than build a dependency on Israel and lose its potential in the Sunni Muslim world.
The remaining question now is whether Saudi Arabia can handle US pressure or not, if that pressure is applied by the Biden administration. It is also important to note that if they do attempt to resist the US, Israeli and Emirati demands, we may see a new Saudi Arabia emerge as a result, which could be for better or worse.