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Middle East Rail begins with renewed focus on the private sector

The UAE government has introduced a law intended to reassure investors

Dubai: The Middle East Rail event kicks off on Monday morning in Dubai, with attention on the recently announced federal railway law, aimed at reassuring private investors eyeing the sector of its stability.

Last week, Abdullah Belhaif Al Nuaimi, UAE Minister of Infrastructure Development and chairman of the Federal Transport Agency — Land & Maritime (FTA-LM), said the law, approved by the UAE cabinet in February, would encourage the future development of railways.

In 2017, the governmental conversation around the event was dominated by discussions of financing methods for Gulf Railway, a proposed $200 billion (Dh734 billion) megaproject connecting all six of the Gulf Cooperation Countries.

No announcements were made about the project at the event, or in the time since, except a revised completion date of 2022. Al Nuaimi has conceded in the past that this completion date is dependent on the internal plans of the six individual countries.

There was speculation last year that the network would be financed using the private public partnership (PPP) model.

With current estimates for the cost of Gulf Railway running as high as $250 billion (Dh917.5 billion), there is some scepticism as to whether or not banks have sufficient appetite for the risks associated with such a greenfield rail project, according to sources quoted by the Middle East Economic Digest (Meed) in 2017.

Important partner

At the press briefing last week, Al Nuaimi re-emphasised the UAE government’s focus on the private sector for completing its rail goals, stating: “The future is for the private sector. Any successful development will definitely have the private sector as an important partner in the business.”

“The private sector will not get in unless there is a comfortable regulatory framework that makes business doable,” the minster added.

The new focus of the event will include passenger information systems, including Wi-Fi for passengers and real-time data and analytics for rail operators, and transport ticketing technology, including mobile phone payments.

Jamie Hosie, General Manager of Terrapinn Middle East, the events management firm organising Middle East Rail, said he expected visitor numbers to the two-day conference to be around 8,000 this year, up from last year’s 5,000.

He added: “The railway sector in the Middle East and Africa region is expected to grow by more than 3 per cent a year over the next four years as a result of the work on many projects with huge sums. The UAE has the second largest group of transport projects in the Middle East, where 15 railways projects worth $13.9 billion [Dh51 billion] are planned and worked out from November 2017.”