The Americans, the Germans and the French will all be keen observers of King Feisal’s visit to London this month. They are expecting that one of the subjects to be discussed between the two Governments is the projected railway across the desert from Haifa to Bagdad.
British policy in the Middle East demands a strong Iraq. The development of air-transport has brought Bagdad back to its old positionâ€”that of dominating the routes between East and Westâ€”and the future must see a relative decline in the importance of the Suez Canal if only because the new oil supplies from the Northern Iraq oilfields will be made available for Europe without the burden of Canal dues.
PIPE LINES BY 1935
The new pipe-line from Kirkuk (where Iraq’s new oilfields are) to Haifa (where the refineries will be and where the tankers for Europe will load) must be completed, according to contract, in 1935. The work is now being hurried on, and in addition a trunk telephone line from Bagdad to Palestine is also being carried across the desert.
Haifa is destined to become a great British naval base, and the Haifa-Bagdad line will become one of Britain’s most important imperial arteries. At present there are only the motor tracks across the desertâ€”a five hundred miles’ journey which takes about 23 hours.
RAILS FOLLOW OIL LINE
The Palestine pipe-line and telephone run from Kirkuk to near Rutbah and thence in a southwesterly direction to the southern end of the Sea of Galilee, where it turns northwest to Haifa. The proposed railway would follow this line, but instead of running from Haditha to Kirkuk it would turn southeast at the Euphrates for Bagdad.
Such a railway would shorten the British route to India. At present the sea-journey, London to Bombay, takes approximately twenty days (although Italian enterprise plus shipping subsidy has shortened the mail-time via Naples by nearly two days).
An express British steamship line to Haifa, and a quick rail journey across the desert and down the Euphrates would bring Basrah within nine days of London. From Basrah to Bombay is at present a journey of six days and a half, but this could be shortened. By air a passenger leaving London on Satur day morning is in Basrah on Wednesday evening.
WHO WILL PAY FOR IT?
The importance of such a railway to Britain is thus self-evident, But who will finance it?
The route to Bagdad runs through British mandated territory until it reaches the Iraq frontier. Assuming that Britain backs the construction of the Palestine end, can Iraq finance the other end?
The Iraq Railways management have been working out the costs and returns of such a line and are far from convinced that it would pay them. The British ideal would in the first place demand the scrapping of the existing metro-gauge line from Bagdad to Basrah (353 miles) and its replacement by standard-gauge.
TRADES BY SEA MAINLY
Iraq’s trade with the west is largely sea-borne, via Basrah and the Persian Gulf. Her trans-desert trade is in practice confined to goods that are neither too bulky nor too heavy (except gold, which is usually exported by air); and to livestock that is walked up the Euphrates to Aleppo and then down into Syria. The Iraq Railways management do not think that the returns from this trade would be enough, on the basis of two freight trains and one passenger train a week.
There remains the Persian transit trade, which used to be extremely profitable to the merchants of Bagdad, and to the Exchequer by virtue of the small ad valorem tax levied upon it. Riza Shad’s policy for the past three years has been to balance Persia’s imports and exports, and as a backward country must always import more than it exports, the practical result of his policy has been to kill the import trade into Persia. Unless Persia’s state monopoly of trade is modified, the Iraq Railways do not foresee much traffic in that quarter.
IRAQ WANTS RAILROAD
There are, moreover, two further factors. The Shah is also anxious to develop Persia’s own port at the head of the Persian Gulf and to that extent will be unwilling to encourage trans-desert traffic via Bagdad. The French Government, also clearly fearing that the rise of Haifa will hit Syria have offered in Beirut free-port facilities for goods destined for Persia. Unless Haifa counters this, goods for and from Persia will be consigned via Syria and miss the railway altogether.
Irag would like to see a Haifa-Bagdad railway, if only because it would encourage the tourist traffic. But as a commercial proposition Iraq at present cannot afford this luxury.
The Americans, the Germans and the French are all interestedâ€”the Americans because of their growing interest in the oil-development of the Middle East; the Germans because they are trying to recover their pre-war influence in Mesopotamia; the French because of their interest in Syria. All three recognize that Britain is gradually building up for herself a very strong position in the Arab countries.