Scoop: U.S., Saudi Arabia, others to discuss railway project connecting Middle East
U.S., Saudi, Emirati and Indian national security advisers are expected on Sunday to discuss a possible major joint infrastructure project to connect Gulf and Arab countries via a network of railways that would also be connected to India via shipping lanes from ports in the region, two sources with direct knowledge of the plan told Axios.
Why it matters: The project is one of the key initiatives the White House wants to push in the Middle East as China's influence in the region grows. The Middle East is a key part of China's Belt and Road vision.
Driving the news: White House National Security adviser Jake Sullivan, who is expected to arrive in Saudi Arabia on Saturday, will meet with his Saudi, Emirati and Indian counterparts on Sunday to discuss the project and other regional issues, the two sources said.
- A U.S. official said the project will be one of many topics discussed during the visit.
- A second U.S. official said Sullivan will discuss with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other Saudi officials the state of the bilateral relationship between Saudi Arabia and the U.S., regional issues, and the possibility of further normalization steps between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Behind the scenes: The idea for the new initiative came up during talks that were held over the last 18 months in another forum called I2U2, which includes the U.S., Israel, the UAE and India, according to the two sources.
- The forum was established in late 2021 to discuss strategic infrastructure projects in the Middle East.
- “Nobody said it out loud but it was about China from day one," a former senior Israeli official who was directly involved in early discussions on the issue told Axios.
- Israel raised the idea of connecting the region through railways during the I2U2 meetings over the last year. Part of the idea was to use India’s expertise on such big infrastructure projects, the former Israeli official said.
The Biden administration in recent months expanded on the idea to include Saudi Arabia's participation.
- The initiative would include connecting Arab countries in the Levant and the Gulf via a network of railways that will also connect to India through seaports in the Gulf, the sources said.
- The Indian, Emirati and Saudi embassies in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.
What they're saying: Sullivan hinted at this initiative during his speech on Thursday at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “If you remember nothing else from my speech, remember I2U2, because you will be hearing more about it as we go forward," he said.
- Sullivan added the fundamental notion is to connect South Asia to the Middle East to the U.S. “in ways that advance our economic technology and diplomacy."
- He also said a number of projects are already underway “and some new exciting steps that we’re looking forward to undertaking in the months ahead."
The big picture: Sullivan said in his speech that one of the pillars of the Biden administration's strategy in the Middle East is regional integration.
- "A more integrated, interconnected Middle East empowers our allies and partners, advances regional peace and prosperity, and reduces the resource demands on the U.S. in this region over the long term without sacrificing our fundamental interests or our involvement in the region," he said.
What’s next: Israel is not part of this initiative at the moment, but could be added to it in the future if efforts to further normalize relations in the region make progress, the sources said.