Gulf Of Aqaba: A Bridge Too Far?
A proposed bridge project to span the Gulf of Aqaba has the potential to change not only Egyptian and Saudi Arabian freight patterns but also those of the wider region and even the global liquid-bulk shipping sector. An official from the Saudi-Egyptian Business Council, Abdulah Dahlan, has been quoted as saying that fresh discussions are to be launched into the feasibility of this ambitious bridge project to link the two countries.
The bridge would be built between Ras Nasrani, located just outside the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh on the Sinai Peninsula, and Ras Hamid, a town in north-western Saudi Arabia. The bridge across the narrow Strait of Tiran in the Gulf of Aqaba would be 32km across. The Saudi-Egyptian Business Council will discuss the project at its next meeting on August 13, proposing that feasibility studies be undertaken to assess its cost and economic viability.
There have been reports that the massive crossing would cost US$5bn. This could be financed through Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) investment funds and the private sector, and costs could be recouped later from bridge tolls charged to both rail and road freighters, in addition to the lucrative pilgrim market during the Hajj.
Should the giant project ever be realised, the effects on the local freight sector would be equally colossal. Road and rail freight in Egypt would see massive increases as the bridge would enable North African Arab countries to trade directly with the other Arab states without goods having to pass through Israeli territory, as they have done since the latter nation’s formation in 1948.
With no current rail access, and road haulage seriously circumscribed, this would give regional trade a huge boost. From 2011 to 2015 BMI forecasts that Egyptian rail freight will grow at an average rate of just 1.4% per annum; the growth rate would increase hugely should the bridge be constructed. Saudi Arabia would be able to export oil directly to African markets and ports without having to load it onto tankers first, potentially changing the face of the global liquid-bulk sector.
But alas, we note that the bridge may never be built. The project has been discussed several times since it was first mooted in 1988. Most recently, in 2006, former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak shelved renewed talks over the bridge in response to Israeli security concerns. Israel and Jordan, both with important sea ports (Eilat and Aqaba) at the top of the Gulf of Aqaba over which the bridge will span, are both said to be disquieted by the renewed plans. Not only might access to these ports potentially be threatened, but road haulage routes to get from Africa to the Arabian Peninsula that currently pass through both their territories would become redundant.
The current transitional government in Egypt appears less willing to kowtow to Israeli anxieties – since coming into power it has reopened the Rafah crossing with the Gaza Strip and resumed diplomatic relations with Iran – but what will emerge once the dust settles in Egypt is still unclear.