Silk Road or Spice Route? The Gulf’s Rising Connectivity with Asia, Africa, and Europe
In summer 2023, China’s well-established Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI, colloquially knows as“Silk Road”), got a new sister: the India–Middle East–Europe Corridor (IMEC, aka “SpiceRoute”). Spanning over 4,800 kilometres, this new trade route shall connect India and Europe viathe Middle East through new and upgraded rail links, electricity grids, a hydrogen pipeline andhigh-speed data transmissions. It is meant to develop new cooperation oppor ...
In summer 2023, China’s well-established Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI, colloquially knows as“Silk Road”), got a new sister: the India–Middle East–Europe Corridor (IMEC, aka “SpiceRoute”). Spanning over 4,800 kilometres, this new trade route shall connect India and Europe viathe Middle East through new and upgraded rail links, electricity grids, a hydrogen pipeline andhigh-speed data transmissions. It is meant to develop new cooperation opportunities, but also tocounter China’s rising influence in Africa, Asia and Europe. This happens with the support of theUS which is trying to implement its new geo-strategic vision for the Middle East and North Africa(MENA) also through this new trade corridor, in addition to its very own I2U2 initiative (India,Israel, UAE, USA). At its core, the Spice Route shall bring Saudi Arabia and the UAE as leadingGulf economies closer to the West and foster their geopolitical ambitions. Eventually, Europeanrelations with India shall be strengthened, and, not least, cooperation between Israel and its Arabneighbours shall be furthered – an endeavour which however received serious setbacks since therenewed outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas in October 2023.
Description and Rationale
IMEC’s announcement during the G20 summit in New Delhi marked a significant step in the
cooperation between its participating countries. Intended cooperation between France, Germany,
India, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), the United States (US) and
not least, the European Union (EU), shall happen on multiple fronts such as economic integration,
trade, and investment. In short, IMEC aims to establish a more efficient and cost-effective trade
route connecting Asia and Europe via the Middle East to enhance global connectivity and
geopolitical stability. It also seeks to constitute a geopolitical counterweight to China’s and
Russia’s connectivity aspirations and strengthen US and EU global and regional leadership.
The Spice Route faces a number of hurdles, though. First, it aims to establish collaboration
between countries with very different systems, interests, and tensions. The current war between
Israel and Hamas has drastically shown once more how fragile peace and cooperation in the
MENA region are, and it is hard to imagine an efficient rail link between Dubai and Haifa across
the Arabian Peninsula under these conditions. Second, adjacent countries resist this plan. At
present, most trade between Asia and Europe passes through Egypt’s iconic Suez Canal. The
prospects of having parallel rail connections have raised major concerns in Cairo, since IMEC
would potentially not only reduce Egypt’s transit revenues, but might also lower its strategic
importance. For Egypt, as well as the other invited countries Argentina, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi
Arabia and UAE, it will thus be of greatest relevance if they will join the BRICS (Brazil, Russia,
India, China, South Africa) bloc on January 1, 2024, after the invitation was pledged in summer
2023. BRICS’s envisaged enlargement connects to a third concern about IMEC: the contingency
of intensified confrontation with China. A number of seaports along the Pacific and Atlantic coast
are under Chinese management, including seaports in Europe and Beijing, will most likely not
accept having its massive BRI investments endangered by unwanted competition.
Not least, critics question whether there would be enough trade volume to feed both, Spice Route
and Silk Road, with relevant freight volumes to have both networks running at sufficient
operational capacity in parallel, especially in times of economic crisis. Given the latest shortage
in freight capacities with its major interruptions of global trade chains, this criticism seems
nevertheless of less relevance under the current conditions.
Those concerns notwithstanding, IMEC’s sheer existence offers new opportunities for Gulf
countries to deepen and broaden their international connections, trade activities, and eventual
growth and importance. From their perspective, there is much to win and little to lose.