Patrick Werr: Bridge to Saudi Arabia promises to place Egypt at epicentre of a trading hub

The bridge could position Egypt as one of the main crossroads of the world for both cargo and passengers, Patrick Werr writes.

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A quick glance at the map tells you the importance for the economies of the region of the proposed bridge between Saudi Arabia and Egypt. A connection of the African and Eurasian continents, in conjunction with the current rapid development of the Suez Canal zone, could posi­tion Egypt as one of the main crossroads of the world for both cargo and passengers.

Once upon a time, one could hop aboard a train in downtown Cairo and within hours be in Jaffa, Beirut or even Damascus. Journeys by car or lorry were similarly commonplace. Unfortunately, normal land travel between the African and Asian land masses was all but put to a halt by the creation in 1948 of Israel, which stretches from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea.

This blocked Egyptian industry off from cheap cargo routes to crucial regional markets, including those of the wealthy Arabian Gulf. Egyptian products from then on had to be expensively unloaded from cars and lorries at port and placed on ships.

Details of the new bridge to Saudi Arabia have yet to be released, but earlier plans included a railway line as well as lanes for cars and lorries.

Let us assume for the sake of an economic argument that politicians can resolve the poli­tically-charged issue of sovereignty over the islands of Tiran and Sanafir without ruffling too many feathers. On Saturday, the Egyptian cabinet agreed to a new maritime border with Saudi Arabia that would cede control of Tiran and Sanafir, the former of which is to be part of the bridge.

Even before Israel’s creation, Egypt never properly exploited its position as a land bridge between Asia and Africa. In the past few years, however, it and other countries in the region have been rapidly expanding their transport networks.

Egypt has completed a coastal road linking Port Said with Alex­andria and the Libyan border, and has constructed a desert motorway from Cairo to Aswan.

Three new tarmacked roads, one along the Red Sea coast and others on either side of the Nile, for the first time link Egypt with its southern neighbour Sudan, the Sudanese transport minister Makawi Mohamed Awad told me last week in an interview in Nyala, in Sudan’s Darfur region.

Sudan is also planning to upgrade its railways to enable it to carry Egyptian trains. When Lord Kitchener built a railway in Sudan ahead of his 1898 conquest of Khartoum, he chose a 1,067-millimetre wide track instead of the normal gauge 1,435-millimetre track used in Egypt, perhaps to save time and money.

Sudan is now preparing to widen and rehabilitate the line from Wadi Halfa near the Egyptian border to Khartoum by replacing the sleepers and adding a third rail, which will mean that trains of both gauges will be able to make the 800-kilometres journey. Replacing the entire line with wide gauge would have cost about $1 billion, but now with the new plan will only cost $500 million, Mr Awad says. Sudan hopes for finance from the Islamic Development Bank.

That would extend the railway as far south as Waw in South Sudan, although Sudan would need to reach agreement with its southern neighbour to resume service. After that, only a few remaining gaps would need to be plugged to complete the famed Cairo to Cape Town Railway, in the planning since the late 19th century.

Other lines shooting off east to Port Sudan on the Red Sea and west to Nyala in Darfur are being rehabilitated. Much further in the future, a line from Djibouti to Senegal that would pass through Sudan is on the drawing board. When a final stretch of highway is completed in northern Kenya in the coming months, it should be possible to drive a lorry all the way to South Africa.

The other big development has been the creation of an economic zone along Egypt’s Suez Canal last year. Until recently, Egypt has all but ignored the huge commercial potential of the land around the canal, through which about 8 per cent of all global seaborne shipping passes.

At the northern end of the canal zone is a 35 square km port named East Port Said, which was designed partly as a transit hub for containers to be unloaded from giant cargo ships passing through the canal for distribution on smaller ships around the Mediterranean.

Another port, Sokhna at the canal’s southern end, has become the main cargo port of Cairo, which lies 120km away via a purpose-built motorway. A 12 sq km industrial zone where factories already operate, including ammonia and fertilizer plants, lies nearby. The government says it may spend up to $15bn on infrastructure.

The new bridge would put the canal’s southern outlet a mere 300km away from the border of Saudi Arabia, one of the region’s biggest markets and also a major source of industrial inputs.

Patrick Werr has worked as a financial writer in Egypt for 25 years

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