THE unexpected meeting between the leaders of India, the US, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Italy, France, Germany and the European Commission on the sidelines of the G20 summit to announce their shared ambition of creating an India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEEC) came as a surprise to many. US President Joe Biden described the signing of the MoU as a ‘big deal’, one that would include transport, data, renewable electricity grids and clean hydrogen pipelines.
Going by reports, the corridor would have an eastern leg that would take container traffic from India to the UAE on the well-established shipping routes from India’s west coast, after which the land route of the corridor would come into the picture. The goods would move by rail from the UAE to Israel’s Haifa port on the Mediterranean coast, where Adani Ports has acquired a container terminal for $1.2 billion. The freight train from the UAE would likely proceed to Al Ghweifat on the Saudi border, a 605-km stretch where an Etihad rail track is already operational. A 250-km section from the Saudi-UAE border to Haradh is under construction, while the 1,392-km-long railway line from Haradh to Al Haditha on the Saudi-Jordan border is already in place. That only leaves a 300-km stretch from Al Haditha to Haifa in Israel via Beit She’an on the Jordan-Israel border. A good chunk of the physical rail infrastructure is, therefore, already in place.
The western leg of the corridor would put the containers back on ships in Haifa and take them to Piraeus in Greece for onward transmission by European rail networks to their final destinations. The attraction of the two-way transport link lies in reducing dependence on the Suez Canal and creating a route that could be 40 per cent faster because high-speed freight trains would travel at 120 kmph — three to four times faster than the more leisurely pace of the ships.
The genesis of this corridor appears to lie in the Abraham Accords of 2020 and the subsequent emergence of the I2U2 grouping, which brought India into the equation with Israel, the US and UAE in October 2021 and indicated that the focus areas would include strategic transport links. This was reiterated during the virtual I2U2 summit in July 2021 and fleshed out when the NSAs of India, the US, the UAE and Saudi Arabia met in Riyadh in May 2023. Israel was an early and enthusiastic advocate of the project.
Some commentators have compared the corridor with the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, but there is a key difference. As an economic corridor, it is not limiting its scope to trade in goods. It takes into account the growing imperative of cybersecurity and proposes a secure, high-speed data pipeline that could potentially facilitate the export of India’s IT services to Europe and West Asia.
The inclusion of electricity grids in the framework of the corridor is particularly significant from the Indian perspective. As part of its leadership of the International Solar Alliance, India has already promoted the One Sun, One World, One Grid initiative, an ambitious attempt to connect the world’s key regional grids into a common green grid that could transfer renewable energy from one region to another. It would leverage different time zones to maximise the use of solar energy and reduce the need for expensive energy storage systems.
Equally forward-looking is the plan to incorporate clean hydrogen pipelines into the corridor. There is a strong belief that clean hydrogen could be the most effective long-term alternative to fossil fuels and in India, the government has already allocated $2.5 billion to promote the country’s emergence as a green hydrogen hub. Several of India’s biggest business groups, including Reliance, Adani, L&T and ReNew, have announced multi-billion-dollar investments to develop their own green hydrogen projects, as have corridor members such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Prices of electrolysers are expected to come down significantly as production is ramped up and green hydrogen using renewable energy may well follow the same price curve that we have seen for solar and wind energy.
These plans may appear futuristic right now, but the first steps to develop intercontinental green transit corridors linking Asia with Europe are already being taken. A sense of urgency is also reflected in the announcement in New Delhi that a high-level meeting of the participating countries would be convened within 60 days to “to develop and commit to an action plan with relevant timetables.”
The political will and resolve of the participating countries will be tested as they start coordinating to meet a formidable array of challenges. A starting point would be the need to address the issues of technology, finance and commercial viability for the physical infrastructure in terms of railway links, the clean hydrogen pipelines and the electricity and data cables. At the same time, problems of soft infrastructure related to harmonisation of standards for ports, railways and customs would also have to be addressed. Each of the four verticals that are integral to the corridor will pose a distinct and separate set of hurdles.
The challenges are real, and so are the opportunities that could emerge from a project that is based on trendlines and projections that take us to 2030 and beyond. It takes advantage of a geopolitical and geoeconomic paradigm that simply didn’t exist a decade ago. Without the Abraham Accords, the UAE and Israel (and Saudi Arabia) wouldn’t have been on the same page. And without the rapidly falling prices of renewable energy, the idea of green hydrogen and interconnected electricity grids would have been impossible. If technology, capital and political resolve can combine to make this green corridor a reality, the aspiration for a cleaner, more habitable planet may not remain pie in the sky.
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