US, Saudi Arabia, UAE and India said aiming to ink joint railway deal at G20

Agreement, which could include Israel if it normalizes ties with Saudi Arabia, is one of several initiatives Biden is deploying to coax countries away from dealings with China

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

Leaders of the United States, India, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were working to finalize a joint infrastructure deal that could be announced this weekend at the Group of 20 summit in New Delhi, according to an official familiar with the matter.

If it comes together, the arrangement would involve ship transit between India and Saudi Arabia, then trains through Saudi Arabia and the UAE, likely to Jordan, then ship transit to Turkey and onward from there by train, according to a diplomat familiar with the negotiations.

Biden is aiming to use the G20 to show participating countries that the US and its like-minded allies are better economic and security partners than China.

The infrastructure project is one of several initiatives that Washington is advancing in order to sway countries away from China’s influence.

Another is a massive agreement that it is negotiating with Saudi Arabia, which would see the US sign a defense pact with Riyadh and help it establish a civilian nuclear program in exchange for the Gulf Kingdom detaching from China and Russia while normalizing ties with Israel.

Sources familiar with the matter told the Axios news site that if such a normalization deal is reached, Israel could be included in the joint railway project, which was first envisioned during a meeting of the I2U2 forum of the US, Israel, the UAE and India.

Traffic moves past an illuminated G20 logo near New Delhi airport ahead of this week’s summit of the Group of 20 nations, India, Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023. (AP/Manish Swarup)

Trains from Jordan could cross into Israel at Beit She’an and arrive at the Haifa port.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has previously discussed the possibility of a train linking Israel to Saudi Arabia.

But an Israel-Saudi normalization deal will likely hinge on major Israeli concessions to the Palestinians, which Netanyahu’s hardline government is unlikely to offer.

White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Thursday that he could not confirm the infrastructure deal would be announced at the G20. Still, he said the initiative is something “that we’ve invested effort into with our partners.”

“We believe that connectivity from India across the Middle East to Europe is incredibly important and would bring a significant number of economic benefits, as well as strategic benefits, to all of the countries involved,” he told reporters accompanying Biden aboard Air Force One.

President Joe Biden returns a salute as he arrives to board Air Force One for a trip to attend the G20 summit in New Delhi, Thursday, Sept. 7, 2023, in Andrews Air Force Base, Md. (AP/Evan Vucci)

China has been developing major infrastructure projects across the region as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. The I2U2 forum and the potential joint rail project are part of a US response.

Economic ties between the UAE and India are already robust. India is the largest importer of Emirati goods, and the UAE is India’s third-largest trade partner. Emirati companies invested billions of dollars to create the India-UAE Food Corridor last year in order to bolster the Gulf country’s food security.

India aims to become the breadbasket of the Middle East, and Israel is at the center of that ambitious goal. The Foreign Ministry has created 29 Indo-Israel Centers of Excellence to improve yields, water use and crop diversity.

Lazar Berman contributed to this report.

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