Analysis'There was a wake up call in the White House'

Israel hypes India-Saudi-EU trade corridor, but it’s a bit player in US-China bout

Netanyahu sees Haifa as a hub of the infrastructure network announced by Biden, Modi, and others, but that doesn’t mean a Saudi deal, or anything else, is in the offing

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (center), US President Joe Biden (roght) and Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman hold hands before the start of a session at the G20 summit in New Delhi on September 9, 2023. (EVELYN HOCKSTEIN / POOL / AFP)
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (center), US President Joe Biden (roght) and Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman hold hands before the start of a session at the G20 summit in New Delhi on September 9, 2023. (EVELYN HOCKSTEIN / POOL / AFP)

There was much excitement among Israel’s leadership after Saturday’s announcement at the G20 summit that India, Saudi Arabia, the United States, the European Union and others would create an ambitious rail and shipping corridor that will link the subcontinent with the Middle East and Europe.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed it as nothing less than “a cooperation project that is the greatest in our history.”

Not surprisingly, he portrayed Israel as the hub of the ambitious system: “Our country Israel will be a central junction in this economic corridor, our railways and our ports will open a new gateway from India through the Middle East to Europe, and back.”

Netanyahu’s National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi called the plan “the most meaningful evidence” that Saudi-Israel normalization was advancing from “a shot in the dark” to a realistic opportunity with tangible goals.

But the initiative, which would rival China’s Belt and Road scheme, if it happens at all, is much less about normalization — or about Israel — than Jerusalem is letting on.

“It’s significant, but not for the reasons Israelis might think,” said Yoel Guzansky, senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

Switching tracks

Regional experts emphasized that the project is a direct result of the growing US-China rivalry.

“It’s part of  President Biden’s efforts to bring the Indians into the US camp,” said Efraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

Guzansky said that the project should be understood as a sign of Washington’s ambitions in the region, after it appeared to cede some influence in the Middle East to China.

Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, at right, shakes hands with Saudi national security adviser Musaad bin Mohammed al-Aiban, at left, as Wang Yi, China’s most senior diplomat, looks on, at center, for a photo during a closed meeting held in Beijing, March 11, 2023. (Luo Xiaoguang/Xinhua via AP)

“The bigger picture is the US signaling that it’s coming back to the Indian Ocean and to the Middle East, or that it never left,” Guzansky explained. “This is vis-a-vis China. This is the game. I think something happened in March when the Chinese sponsored the Saudi-Iranian agreement.”

That month, Riyadh and Tehran surprised Washington by announcing the reestablishment of diplomatic ties in China’s capital, a major diplomatic win for Beijing.

“There was a wake-up call in the White House,” Guzansky argued. “Since then, you see attempts to dust off all kinds of initiatives and programs around normalization with Israel and all kinds of things with Iran, with Saudi Arabia.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping raises his glass and proposes a toast during the welcome banquet for visiting leaders attending the Belt and Road Forum at the Great Hall of the People, April 26, 2019. (Nicolas Asfouri/Pool Photo via AP)

But the proposed network doesn’t serve only US interests. It also answers pressing Indian concerns.

One of India’s biggest challenges comes from its neighbor China, which has been investing heavily in a series of roads, rails and seaports across the globe as part of its Belt and Road Initiative, which is designed to give Beijing more control over trade flowing through Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and Europe.

New Delhi, which sees China’s modern Silk Road scheme as a curb on its own growth and international trade, initially sought to avoid being hemmed in, creating its own corridor linking Mumbai to Moscow via Central Asia and Iran.

US President Joe Biden passes a note to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, during a virtual meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, from the State Dining Room of the White House, March 12, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

But the project — known as the International North-South Transit Corridor — has largely failed to get off the ground.

With the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020, India was presented with a new opportunity to challenge Chinese designs on regional and global trade.

Proposed rail networks between Israel and the UAE would allow India to ship goods to the Emirates, which would then be spirited by train across Saudi Arabia and Jordan before crossing into Israel at Beit Shean and chugging into seaside Haifa.

An illustrative view from Mount Carmel of the Haifa port and the Mediterranean Sea, January 2021. (Svarshik via iStock by Getty Images)

From there, goods would be shipped to Greece’s Piraeus port, one of the largest in Europe, giving India access to the entire continent.

Oshrit Birvadker, senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, said that the economic corridor is an integral part of the national rebranding that the Narendra Modi administration is pursuing, part of which is showing that India can compete with the Chinese in manufacturing.

“The western route of the corridor will shorten the time the goods arrive in Europe and even lower their prices,” Birdavker explained. The route will make use of the massive port complex in Mundra, on the Arabian Sea, which she described as among the most advanced in the world.

“This new connectivity constitutes a strategic paradigm shift of enormous geopolitical consequence that could reshape [India’s] role in the Eurasian economic order,” according to Michael Tanchum of the University of Navarra in Spain, who researches strategic connectivity networks between Asia, Europe and Africa.

Goods could reach Europe from Mumbai within 10 days, according to Tanchum — 40 percent quicker than the Suez Canal route.

Missing links

In 2021, the Transportation Ministry announced that it had given the green light for a rail line connecting Haifa to Beit She’an to be extended east by several kilometers to the Jordanian border, where a new goods depot would also be built.

However, that link has yet to move forward, and 300 kilometers (186 miles) of rail remain to be built in Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Plans for the regional rail link, an idea dating back to the Ottoman era, have been bandied about for years, and were highlighted again by Netanyahu in July, but there is no guarantee that the political will and the funding will materialize. Despite a recent thaw, Jordan is still extremely wary of cooperating too closely with Israel on public projects, and the Saudis still do not officially recognize Israel.

Illustrative: Etihad Rail trains chug across the United Arab Emirates. (Etihad Rail/Abu Dhabi Media Office)

Jordan’s existing Ottoman-era rail network is woefully underdeveloped, and is of a different gauge than tracks in Saudi Arabia and Israel.

“The railroads that are being built between the Gulf states have so many problems, and it’s still not there yet after so many years,” Guzansky explained. “And there’s political and personal and tribal and all kinds of obstacles in its way. And you have so many countries, Israel, Arab countries. It won’t be easy. ”

Inbar pointed at Indian bureaucracy as the biggest obstacle.

“It’s good for everyone,” said Inbar. “The question is the implementation.”

In May, the US-based Moody’s Investors Service released a report contending that India’s “higher bureaucracy in decision-making” would reduce its attractiveness to investors.

People eat street food as shoppers crowd a market in New Delhi, India, Nov. 12, 2022. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

“I think it will be a long time until we’ll see something,” said Guzansky. “I’m not sure who will finance it, who will give the money to build this infrastructure.”

China, the world leader in funding and carrying out infrastructure mega-projects, would be a natural choice, but Beijing is unlikely to cooperate with a US-backed initiative meant to undermine its own priorities.

“It’s hard for me to see it materialize,” said Guzansky. “I think it’s more of a statement or intention that the US is investing in India.”


Jerusalem might wish that the project was a firm signal that normalization with Saudi Arabia was in the offing, but it doesn’t hinge on that deal. Saudi rail lines will connect with Jordan, not Israel, and Riyadh has implemented other transportation agreements affecting Israel while making it clear they have nothing to do with recognition.

Last summer, Saudi Arabia opened its airspace to Israeli aircraft, saying in a statement that it was announcing “the decision to open the Kingdom’s airspace for all air carriers that meet the requirements of the authority for overflying.”

Still, there would likely be benefits for Israel.

“It could mean better trade, perhaps, with the Arabian Peninsula if there’s a railroad,” said Guzansky. “The connectivity with the Gulf is important for all kinds of products that will reach Haifa.”

The Foreign Ministry declined to offer comment on the regional initiative.

“Although we Israelis always think we are the center of the world,” said Guzansky, “we’re not.”

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