Critics have made a pastime of belittling Dubai’s penchant for claiming number one in whatever it does: the biggest manmade island, the tallest tower, the biggest shopping mall and the largest fountain, not to speak of a series of new world-beaters already unveiled or are in the pipeline. But little do they realise how this indomitable spirit for accomplishing the extraordinary has taken this resource-scarce emirate to the heights of glory in terms of progress and development.

Irrespective of attitudes, Dubai has had such influence on the region’s development thinking that what it does today becomes tomorrow’s trend for the entire region. It is a different matter that the results do not quite tally most of the time. This is as much true of the free zones, the development of the transshipment hub, the pursuit of knowledge economy, pioneering of freehold property or the launch of the region’s first metro, as it is in the case of modern concepts or even the adoption of names.

It might sound to be of little consequence, but it was Dubai which first changed the name of Economic Department to Department of Economic Development because that described the role of the department more appropriately and today that is standard throughout the region. It is as if innovation must begin with Dubai as a matter of rule.

Mass transport

When Dubai launched the Metro, that kind of mass transport was unheard of in the region. In less than five years, rail networks have become an integral part of mass transportation planning across the GCC and according to various estimates over $200 billion worth of railway projects are under implementation or in planning in member countries. This has turned the attention of major railway construction and manufacturing players of the world towards the region, which has emerged as a huge new market for them.

The projects include the Riyadh Light Rail, Saudi Landbridge Rail, Jubail Railway, Jeddah Monorail and Mecca Metro in Saudi Arabia, Etihad Rail and Abu Dhabi Metro in the UAE, the Rapid Transport Network in Bahrain, Metro and National Rail of Kuwait, Oman Railway as well as Doha Metro and the Qatar Railway.

The network traversing all six Gulf states from Kuwait to Muscat is estimated to include 10,000-kilometres of national rail networks planned by individual member states. Along with metros, land bridges and planned corridors, the total investment in the GCC railway sector is estimated to exceed $250 billion.

With the type of stakes involved in such a massive build-up, the GCC countries are now working on a common set of guidelines governing the engineering design, institutional framework and operation of the GCC rail network.

It has been suggested that member states establish a GCC Railway Authority with the mandate to ensure that they deliver on their commitment to build a regional, integrated and interoperable network for its smooth operation. Such an entity can also coordinate the regulation of immigration, tax and customs issues within the union.

The UAE is already drawing up a law to deal with the safety and operational rules for its fledgling rail industry as the country plans to spend $25 billion to build a network. These rules are expected to deal with border checking and security issues, immigration and customs procedures.

Etihad Rail’s 1,200-kilometre network will extend across the UAE, from the borders of Saudi Arabia to that of Oman, and will run from Ghweifat to Abu Dhabi, Dubai and the northern emirates. Etihad Rail will have an extensive national network connecting freight terminals, distribution centres and depots located close to major transport hubs, warehouses, and storage facilities across the UAE. The UAE’s first train journey is expected to happen when the Habshan-Ruwais route is completed.

While the GCC rail network will surely promote social integration and economic development, common market and the customs union, there are major challenges to be addressed by the member states, particularly in terms of sharing costs and revenues. This might be as big a challenge as building of the network itself is.

— The writer is a journalist based in Dubai