RIYADH: The European Union (EU), where cross-border railway system is the key component of the transport network, has announced plans to sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to lend full support in terms of experience and regulatory provisions to build and operate the Gulf railway. The cost of linking the six GCC member states by railway is estimated at $250 billion.
“The 28-member EU has really good experience in managing cross-border railway connectivity, which we will share with GCC besides our technical knowhow,” said Violeta Bulc, European transport commissioner, in an exclusive interview with Arab News here, on Tuesday. Bulc gave an overview of the EU-Saudi relations as well as EU-GCC ties with special reference to the growing cooperation including projects and plans in transport sector.
The proposed MoU between the EU and the GCC, once endorsed by the two sides, will be an important step to cater to the transportation needs of the GCC, which has one of the highest rates of population growth today. The construction of the 2,117 km-long GCC railway network is expected to be completed by 2021. According to Middle East Eye (MME), an online news portal, the total cost of the GCC railway project including linking the six countries by rail will be $250 billion.
Referring to her meeting with GCC Secretary-General Abdullatif Al-Zayani, Bulc said that she had discussions about possibilities of cooperation in different areas with special reference to the potentials in the railway sector. She said that “the EU would like to support GCC with its experiences, especially in terms of standards and regulatory framework in the railway sector.”
“We can also share technical solutions to the problems,” said the EU official.
She said that that the GCC chief made it categorically clear the “EU should also move to ensure progress on GCC-EU free trade agreement.”
Asked about the proposed free trade agreement (FTA), which has been on the back burner for the last several years, Bulc said that “to be honest with you, GCC-EU FTA is the only long-term tool with investment to ensure growth, job creation and development.”
In fact, the GCC and the EU launched negotiations for free trade agreement back in 1990. But the negotiations met a dead end in 2008 when they were suspended indefinitely. The two blocs, which do realize the importance of FTA, are willing to initiate the negotiations again. The FTA is foreseen to provide for a progressive and reciprocal liberalization of trade in goods and services.
Referring to her wide-ranging talks with Sulaiman Al-Hamdan, minister of transport, she said that a similar MoU to boost cooperation in railway sector will be separately inked with Saudi Arabia. She, however, did not point out the dates of endorsing the two MoUs. She said that the proposed MoU will help Saudi side to acquire “standards, regulatory framework and also create better environment for businesses to engage in the deployment of addition railway tracks in the Kingdom.”
She said that Saudi Arabia is one of the key countries with deployment of European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS), which is the modern management system to operate railways. Moreover, the EU transport commissioner said that EU companies have already been partners in the deployment of railway systems in the Kingdom.
Asked about the outcome of her meeting with Mohammed Al-Tuwaijri, deputy minister of economy and planning, the official said that “we primarily discussed different financial models used and deployed by the EU.” “The two sides agreed to hold regular consultations as far as investment environment is concerned,” said Bulc.
She pointed out that the EU and Saudi Arabia have also agreed to work together in the areas of road safety, urban mobility and emerging technologies as well as emissions control. On the investment front and in the context of the EU, she said that “the investment plan for Europe aims to encourage investment in order to create jobs, boost growth and competitiveness, meet long-term economic needs and strengthen EU’s productive capacity and infrastructure.”
The key element is the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI), which encourages investments in infrastructure projects and SMEs, she added. By providing a total guarantee of 21 billion euros for business and infrastructure projects, of which 16 billion euros is from the EU budget and 5 billion euros from the European Investment Bank, the EFSI aims to unlock additional investment of at least 315 billion euros over three years, according to a booklet entitled ‘Investment Plan for Europe’, which was released by the EU transport commission during the EU-GCC business forum here.
Referring to her meetings in the Saudi capital, Bulc said that she had met a group of Saudi women leaders and held very “constructive dialogue.” She said the two sides have agreed to identify some projects of “cultural nature”, which will eventually provide an effective platform to talk and share experiences. She also counted several new projects and plans being implemented in Europe for peace and progress.
To this end, she noted that the European Commission (EC) has adopted regulations from the new European Rail Traffic Management System European Deployment Plan (ERTMS EDP). With the new ERTMS in place, trains across Europe are set to run seamlessly by replacing differing national technical systems. The EU is also working to unify the rules and legislations for operating cross-border railway easily and effectively.