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Scoop: U.S., Saudi, India, UAE Hope to Ink Railway Deal to Connect Middle East at G20

President Biden and the leaders of India, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates hope to announce a major joint infrastructure deal on Saturday that will connect Gulf and Arab countries via a network of railways, two sources with direct knowledge of the plan told Axios. It will also connect to India through shipping lanes from ports in the region,

Why it matters: The project is one of the key initiatives the White House is pushing in the Middle East as China’s influence in the region grows. The Middle East is a key part of China’s Belt and Road vision.

  • The joint railway project is expected to be one of the key deliverables Biden wants to present during the G20 Summit in New Dehli this weekend.
  • It comes as the Biden administration seeks to complete its diplomatic push for a mega-deal with Saudi Arabia that could include a normalization agreement between the kingdom and Israel before the 2024 campaign consumes Biden’s agenda.

What they are saying: The White House declined to comment. It said in an earlier statement previewing Biden’s trip that the president will participate on Saturday in a “Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment event.”

  • A U.S. official involved in the talks said the work on the announcement is still ongoing and it is not final yet.
  • The Indian and Saudi embassies in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Emirati officials declined to comment.
  • If the four countries finalize the negotiations in the next two days, their leaders will sign a memorandum of understanding outlining the parameters of the project.

How it works: The project is expected to connect Arab countries in the Levant and the Gulf via a network of railways that will also connect to India through seaports in the Gulf, the sources said.

  • If Saudi Arabia and Israel normalize relations in the future, Israel could also be part of the railway project and broaden its reach to Europe via Israeli seaports, according to the sources.

Between the lines: An announcement of the project will likely increase the chances of a possible brief bilateral meeting between Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on the sidelines of the G20.

Flashback: Axios first reported talks for the project were underway in May, when White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan traveled to Saudi Arabia for a meeting with his Saudi, Emirati and Indian counterparts.

  • The project was one of the main issues discussed at that meeting, which launched a series of follow-up negotiations led from the U.S. side by Biden’s senior adviser for energy and infrastructure Amos Hochstein, the two sources said.

The big picture: The idea for the new initiative came up during talks that were held over the last 18 months in another forum called I2U2, which includes the U.S., Israel, the UAE and India, according to the two sources.

  • The forum was established in late 2021 to discuss strategic infrastructure projects in the Middle East and to serve as a counterweight to Beijing’s growing influence in the region.
  • Israel raised the idea of connecting the region through railways during the I2U2 meetings over the last year. Part of the idea was to use India’s expertise on such big infrastructure projects, one source said.
  • The Biden administration then expanded on the idea to include Saudi Arabia’s participation.

Source : Axios