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Hijaz rail line for T. E. Lawrence fame may be rebuilt

By C. L. CranfordSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 2, 1981



Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia made his name and united the Arabs against a common Turkish enemy during World War I in part by systematically destroying the Hijaz railway.

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Now, 60 years later, discussions and studies are under way that may bring Arabs closer together by rebuilding the same rail line.

The Hijaz railway, a 1,330-kilometer rail link between Damascus and the sacred Muslim city of Medina, was repeatedly attacked by British military adviser T. E. Lawrence and a band of poorly armed nomad warriors during 1917 and 1918 in an effort to frustrate the Turks of the disintegrating Ottoman Empire and to resupply the Arab forces with looted cargo. Through the mining and subsequent storming of the "iron Camels," as the trains were called by the Bedouin, Arab nationalists gained a foothold in northern Arabia that eventually allowed them to push the occupying Turks from Arab lands.

Today only rusted and twisted sections of the line remain along the route which carves through the rocky Hijaz Mountains of western Saudi Arabia to Jordan and Syria.

Estimates are that it will cost more than $1.9 billion to rebuild the line, more than half of which would be constructed in Saudi Arabia through the route's most rugged terrain.

The benefits of rebuilding the line, obvious for Jordan and Syria, appear somewhat less lucrative for Saudi Arabia.

The rebuilt Hijaz railway would bisect Jordan, thus becoming a rail backbone for that country. It would also open a new avenue of trade between Jordan, Syria, and oil-rich Saudi Arabia, which is heavily dependent on imports to supply its rapid growth.

In addition, the line would make it easier for Muslim faithful from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and surrounding areas to make the "haj," or pilgrimage, to Mecca and Medina. Indeed, that was the primary function of the rail line when it was first constructed between 1900 and 1908.

At that time, prior to the discovery of oil, pilgrimage and trade related to it constituted the major source of income in western Arabia.

But times have changed, and though the Saudi government has invested billions of riyals in projects aimed at accommodating the annual 1.5 to 2 million hajis (most of whom arrive by air), the Hijaz railway appears to fall behind in priority compared with other proposed rail lines in the kingdom, which offer to link Saudi Arabia's growing commercial and industrial centers.

As a consequence the exact status of the Hijaz railway project is unknown.

The Saudi transport minister, Sheikh Hussein Mansouri, has recently denied press reports that the project was dead, noting that studies were continuing. The Saudi minister has also been quoted as saying the Hijaz line is an excellent proposition -- in the long run.

Earlier this year a West German consulting firm submitted what was believed to be the final feasibility study recommending the entire line be constructed with regular gauge rail rather than the smaller gauge of existing lines in Jordan and Syria.

Despite this and other studies, transportation ministers from the three countries met here earlier this year and agreed only to "complete various stages of project studies."

Some observers here believe the Saudis may only be giving lip service to the Hijaz rail project and using the seeming perpetual compiling of studies and reports as a diplomatic means of forestalling Jordanian and Syrian pressure to build.

Meanwhile, Syria is said to be moving ahead on construction of the northern 114 kilometers of the Hijaz line linking Deraa with Damascus. The link, expected to be completed by 1985, will tie into a national rail system and thus be useful and important to Syria even if the rest of the Hijaz railway is not rebuilt.

According to the Saudi Government Railroad Organization's Five-Year Development Plan, priorities until 1985 will be to reconstruct and double the only existing rail line in the kingdom which extends 470 kilometers from Damman Port on the Persian Gulf to the central Saudi capital city, Riyadh, and to construct a new line between Damman Port and Jubail Industrial City 100 kilometers north on the Gulf coast. Total expenditures for the plan are listed at 4.7 billion Saudi riyals ($1.4 billion).

The Hijaz line is mentioned in the development plan with three other proposed major rai lines, all scheduled for "feasibility and engineering studies" during the current plan with implementation expected in the fourth plan between 1985-90 .

The proposals include a 1,300-kilometer rail link between the Red Sea port city of Jeddah and Riyadh with a branch to the planned industrial city on the Red Sea at Yanbu This would link all major population and industrial centers via a rail corridor extending across the Arabian peninsula.