Monday, May 21, 2007

There's an interesting article in The Times today by Michael Binyon on the restoration of the Hijaz Railway, the old narrow gauge track that used to connect Damascus in Syria to Medina - 800 miles to the south - in modern Saudi Arabia. Connect them, that is, until the First World War enveloped the region and TE Lawrence arrived on the scene with copious quantities of dynamite.

Attempts since then to reconstruct the railway have always foundered. The line was surveyed in the 1960s but the Saudis' desire for isolation, and then, apparently, pressure from Saudia, the national airline which feared the cheaper competition, ensured that all efforts came to naught. Ambitions to resurrect travel down the railway voiced by successive directors of the forlorn Hijaz Railway office in Damascus have since been met with laughter.

Which is why this effort is all the more remarkable. Again, as was the case 100 years ago, the offer of foreign help has been the catalyst. In 1900 it was the Germans; today it is the Chinese. In 1900 German involvement in the project excited British suspicions. Although the single-track railway gave the Ottomans an artery that bypassed the British-controlled Suez canal, the line looked rather more sinister than it was in practice, for it never reached the coast because of violent tribal opposition. The Chinese have similar motives to the Germans. These are the desire to make money and win favour in the Arab world. It is good news that the first stretch that will be completed will connect Amman with Zarqa, the down-at-heel satellite suburb that infamously spawned the terrorist Abu Musab al Zarqawi. Anything that improves the economic prospects of this increasingly troubled region is to be welcomed.

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