Iraq showcases $17-billion Development Road project that will link Asia to Europe

Baghdad hosted the transport ministers of GCC states, Iran, Turkey, Syria and Jordan to discuss the initiative

Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani attends a multinational conference on the country's proposed Development Road project in Baghdad on May 27, 2023. Iraq PMO / AFP
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Iraq unveiled on Saturday an ambitious transport project that will connect Asia to Europe, and enhance regional co-operation and economic opportunities.

The one-day conference in Baghdad brought together transport ministers and officials from the GCC, Iran, Turkey, Syria and Jordan to discuss the establishment of the Development Road initiative.

The huge infrastructure project will link southern Iraq to the border with Turkey, from where it will connect to rail and road networks in Europe.

Addressing the conference, Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani said the project would provide an "economic artery and a promising opportunity to bring interests, history and cultures together to make our region a destination for anyone seeking successful investment".

"Your presence today in stable and secure Baghdad, loaded with opportunities and aspirations, is part of the process of finding solutions," Mr Al Sudani said.

"The Development Road is an ambitious and well-studied plan towards a strong and successful economy. We see it as a cornerstone for a sustainable non-oil economy, serving Iraq's neighbours and the region and contributing to efforts for economic integration," he said.

"It will take all the peoples of the region to an unprecedented stage of communication and integration and that means more stability and capability to face challenges."

The project involves the construction of about 1,200km of two-way rail networks and a new motorway for passengers and goods originating from Al Faw port, which is being built along the Arabian Gulf in Basra province.

The Iraqi government envisions high-speed trains moving goods and passengers at up to 300 kilometres per hour. Logistic centres and industrial cities are also planned along the network and it could include oil and gas pipelines.

It estimates that the project will cost up to $17 billion, generate $4 billion annually and create at least 100,000 jobs.

“As Iraq [has] recovered and retrieved its pivotal political role in the region, becoming a political convergence point, the time has come for [it] to retrieve its economic role,” Transport Minister Razzaq Al Saadawi told a local TV station on Thursday.

He said the project would transform the economy.

Saturday’s conference “will be a consultative meeting to explain the Development Road project and Al Faw Port, and to listen to the points of view of the participating delegations”, Mr Al Saadawi said.

The participants will discuss a number of proposals with regards to finance – from government funds to investment to the creation of a sovereign fund, with the money coming from the government, investors and loans, he said.

The co-operation between the countries involved in the project is expected to boost the “security and stability of the region and preserve its economy, therefore we are determined to carry out this project”, Mr Al Saadawi said.

At the end of the meeting, Mr Al Saadawi said joint legal, technical, financial and management committees would be formed to discuss financing and implementation.

The project offers an alternative to traditional sea routes, with reduced transport costs and shorter transit times. It will benefit not only the participating countries but also the broader global trade network.

Iraq is keen to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative – a global development strategy involving infrastructure development and investments in about 70 countries in Asia, Africa and Europe – through the Development Road and Al Faw port.

Despite its oil wealth, with about 145 billion barrels of proven reserves, Iraq lags behind neighbouring economies due to decades of war since the 1980s, UN economic sanctions imposed in the ’90s and political and security instability that followed the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

The World Bank's country representative, Richard Abdulnour, said building infrastructure was a must for "unleashing the geographical potential of Iraq" and expressed the bank's readiness to support the Development Road project.

Iraq needs to invest more than $21 billion in the coming five years on transportation alone, Mr Abdulnour told the conference.

He said the transportation sector contributed 9 per cent to Iraq's gross domestic product, and that its annual growth has been 7.4 per cent over the past 10 years.

Iraq has a chequered history of rail transport, reflecting the country's ups and downs.

A modest form of railway was introduced during the reign of the Ottoman governor to Baghdad Midhat Pasha between 1869 and 1872.

With financial support from wealthy Baghdadi merchants, Midhat Pasha established a horse-drawn tram linking central Baghdad to its northern district of Kadhimiyah.

Decades later, Britain and Germany raced to build railway lines in Iraq to not only transport troops and military equipment but also to establish a connection point linking their colonies.

A railway line linking Iraq to Berlin through Turkey was proposed in 1903 but opened only in 1940. Known as the BBB or the “Three Bs" — for Baghdad, Byzantium (now Istanbul) and Berlin — the line served travellers and was also used to transport commodities, mainly cereals and oil products.

Local rail networks also flourished thanks to oil revenue, with the number of daily train services rising to more than 50.

The BBB line was closed in the late 1970s, shortly before Iraq's gruelling war with Iran that lasted from 1980 to 1988 and also affected rail operations inside Iraq.

In late 1990s, amid the UN-imposed economic sanctions on Iraq following the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq reactivated the BBB line after restoring relations with Syria and Turkey. Demand was high from both travellers, mainly pilgrims from and to Syria, and also from merchants transporting goods.

But the revival was short-lived — Turkey asked Iraq to stop services only days before the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

The poor security situation in much of northern Iraq after the invasion hindered plans to reactivate the line. Then came the 2014 ISIS onslaught in large areas in the north and west, and the military operations to drive the militants out. The war left railway stations and other infrastructure heavily damaged, with plans for repairs hindered by a lack of funds.

Now, only a few passengers trickle through the once bustling Baghdad Railway Central Station, which was built by the British and inaugurated in 1952 to expand the old station from which the BBB line started. Only two passenger services operate each day, taking commuters between Baghdad and the southern city of Basra, with stops in the cities of Hillah, Diwaniyah, Samawah and Nasiriyah.

Updated: May 28, 2023, 9:10 AM