The corridor plan unveiled at G20 goes much beyond trade

The India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor is not short of ambition – from building secure communication networks to hydrogen pipelines

Few would argue with the success of the recently concluded New Delhi summit of the G20. Some of its salient achievements – such as the inclusion of the African Union as the 21st permanent member of the group – had perhaps been anticipated for quite a while.

There was also an expectation that India would demonstrate progress on issues such as reform of multilateral financial institutions and unsustainable debt burdens. The optimists among us also felt that a combination of skilled diplomacy and judicious use of political capital would enable India to bridge the gap in the widely divergent positions on Ukraine and hammer out a compromise text.

Not many, however, expected that the leaders of India, the US, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Italy, France, Germany and the European Commission would gather in a room to announce their shared ambition of creating an India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEEC). US President Joe Biden described it as a “big deal”, and it will be, if some of the more obvious challenges can be ironed out.

Going by initial reports, the corridor would have an eastern leg from India (Mumbai or Mundra) to Jebel Ali or Fujairah ports in UAE. Jebel Ali, of course, has the major advantage of being one of the world’s largest and most efficient ports and trans-shipment hubs. It is also the home of DP World, which operates container terminals in Mundra, Mumbai and Kochi on India’s west coast and already carries a quarter of India’s container traffic.

The land route of the corridor would see containers moving by rail from Fujairah to Israel’s Haifa port on the Mediterranean coast, where India’s Adani group has acquired a container terminal for $1.2 billion. The route from Fujairah, where a standard-gauge Etihad Rail track became operational in February, to Al Ghweifat on the UAE’s border with Saudi border is a 605-kilometre stretch. A 250km stretch from the Saudi-UAE border to Haradh is under construction and the remaining 1,392km long railway line from Haradh to Al Haditha border post with Jordan is already in place.

That leaves a 300km stretch from Al Haditha to Haifa in Israel via Beit Shean on the Jordan-Israel border. Of this, a 70km stretch from Beit Shean to Haifa is already in place. It runs, incidentally, along a small part of the 1,300km long narrow-gauge Hejaz Railway line built by the Ottomans in the early part of the 20th-century to link Damascus with Madinah. The line was intended to go all the way to Makkah but the project was interrupted by the First World War.

The western leg of the corridor would put the containers back on ships in Haifa and take them to Piraeus in Greece, Gioia Tauro in southern Italy or Marseilles in France to get on the European rail networks for their final destinations in Germany or beyond. And the same would happen the other way around from Europe to India via West Asia.

The genesis of this ambitious plan probably lies, in part, in the Abraham Accords, one of the few foreign policy achievements of the Trump administration that has been enthusiastically embraced by the Biden administration.

The Abraham Accords didn’t just lay the platform for ties between Israel and UAE but also spawned the I2U2 grouping that brought India into the fold along with Israel, the US and UAE. Statements issued after the first I2U2 foreign ministers’ meeting in October 2021 and the virtual summit in July 2022 clearly included joint investments in transport as one of the group’s priority areas. The meeting of the NSAs of India, the US, UAE and Saudi Arabia in Riyadh in May added some more substance to the nebulous concept.

Israel wasn’t present in Riyadh but has been an early and enthusiastic supporter of the proposal. Former Israeli transport minister Yisrael Katz, in fact, takes the credit for propagating the idea of a “regional railway to peace” or a “peace train” that would link Israel with West Asia and with India. He claims to have persuaded Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to push for its inclusion in the I2U2 framework and is confident that it could not only foster peace but also turn Haifa into a regional transport hub.

Western commentators have been quick to position the corridor as an alternative to the expanding footprint of China’s Belt and Road Initiative in West Asia. From a purely geopolitical standpoint, there would be nothing wrong in an expansion in the number of options for trade. The fact that the announcement of the corridor more or less coincided with Italy’s formal withdrawal from the BRI only strengthened such perceptions in the West. It also helps Washington make the case at home that it remains fully engaged with the region and isn’t about to concede the space to Beijing.

But while the BRI is largely focussed on trade, IMEEC, by its very definition, goes beyond the somewhat narrow scope of trade in physical products. It builds on conversations that have taken place in the Quad and elsewhere during the past few years about the imperative of cyber security and the need to build secure and trusted communication networks.

Equally forward-looking is the inclusion of electricity grids in the framework of the corridor. As part of its leadership of the International Solar Alliance, India has pushed for the “One Sun, One World, One Grid” initiative to connect major regional grids into a common green grid that can transfer renewable energy from one region to another. The other element that also has its eye fixed firmly on future energy trends is the plan to incorporate clean hydrogen pipelines into the corridor because there is a strong belief that clean hydrogen could be the most effective long-term alternative to fossil fuels.

These futuristic plans may appear as a pipe dream to sceptics, but a sense of purpose to the corridor project has also been imparted by the announcement in Delhi that a high-level meeting of the participating countries would be convened “within the next 60 days to develop and commit to an action plan with relevant timetables”.

That sense of purpose will come into play to surmount the many challenges that lie ahead. But if the lofty ambitions outlined in New Delhi can become a reality, they would make a singular contribution to a safer, more habitable planet. For now, let’s live with that hope.

Updated: September 20, 2023, 5:00 AM