Last week’s groundbreaking pact signed by the Sultanate of Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to establish a railway line connecting Sohar Port with the UAE rail system, will unlock opportunities of transformational significance for the Omani economy. In particular, it has the potential to bolster the growth ambitions of Sohar Port, positioning it as a vital hub for both rail-based containerised and general cargo flows from Oman’s Batinah coast into the commercial and industrial heartland of the UAE.
The Observer spoke to a number of transportation experts, including some who were part of the original planning of the Oman National Railway Network which stalled in the wake of the global economic downturn starting in 2014. They are unanimous in their view that the project will spark a sea-change in freight and passenger logistics, while also unleashing a plethora of investment and development opportunities across the entire ecosystem encompassing the rail network.
Longer term, and as the original Oman National Railway Network is gradually revived in some form, this initial project will rekindle hopes for the implementation of long-envisioned growth engines in the form of intermodal yards, freight depots, and industrial and mining hubs planned in the proximity of the rail line.
The construction phase alone will open up project opportunities worth hundreds of millions of dollars for civil and specialist contractors, who will be tapped to implement everything from tunnels, over-bridges and underpasses, railway embankments, camel bridges and culverts, crossings for pipelines and utilities, access roads and sand mitigation zones, among other complex structures. Further opportunities will be unlocked when the double track is laid, along with the construction of railway stations, maintenance yards, operations centres and ancillary facilities.
But with the network originating from Suhar, at the Oman end, it bodes strongly for the growth of Sohar Port as an important node in rail-based cross-border trade, initially between the Sultanate of Oman and the UAE, and potentially later with other Gulf states as well.
Rail connectivity between Suhar and Abu Dhabi, via Al Ain, will enable the speedy movement of containers from the Sea of Oman coast into Abu Dhabi and beyond, thereby providing a faster and cost-competitive alternative to maritime transportation that requires ships to transit the Strait of Hormuz to access ports in the Arabian Gulf.
Additionally, the rail network will enable major producers of bulk commodities operating within Sohar Port to move their raw materials cost-competitively into the Arabian heartland. Commodities likely to benefit from rail-based freight transportation are iron ore pellets from Vale Oman, steel products and rebars from Jindal Shadeed, polymers and petrochemicals from OQ, bulk petroleum liquids and clean chemicals from Advario, and so on. Additionally, ro-ro traffic, primarily cars currently stockpiled at Suhar for re-export, can be safely and affordably shipped by rail into markets in the UAE and beyond as well, according to experts.
In anticipation of the advent of rail-based freight transportation, Sohar Port has master-planned the industrial port to be rail-enabled. To this end, it has factored in the need for on-dock rail facilities connecting its cargo terminals to the future rail networks, thereby enabling the transportation of containers, cars, dry bulk cargo, and other such freight, by rail. Planning for rail connectivity has also included the adjacent Free Zone, where related support infrastructure such as maintenance yards and service centres is envisioned as well.
Rail corridors planned at all the key cargo terminals are proposed to link up with a Rail Service Centre proposed to be established along the boundary between the port and free zone. Shunting yards, marshalling yards, and a modern maintenance facility will be part of this comprehensive infrastructure. Logistics centres planned on either side of the rail tracks will also allow for cargoes to be organised, warehoused, block freighted, and so on.
Implementation of the Oman-Etihad Rail project is anticipated to focus initially on freight transportation, given the commercial and economic viability of rail-based cargo movement. Passenger transportation will follow suit, potentially when Sohar Airport is suitably upgraded to attract more regional and international flights or when demand is strong enough to warrant investments in high-speed passenger trains.