Mohammed Soliman is the Director of the Strategic Technologies and Cyber Security Program at the Washington-based Middle East Institute. He is the visionary architect of I2u2 and has dedicated the past many years to passionately championing the cause of geo-economic and geopolitical integration among the littoral states of the Eurasian rim land.
Amid chaos and disorder in the Middle East, Mohammed has built a framework that redefines the region as a middle space between Europe and the Indo-Pacific, organized based on these strategic grounds. Stretching from the Mediterranean Sea through West Asia and to the Indo-Pacific, his extensive intellectual work and tireless advocacy for cooperation and synergy in this expansive region have earned him global recognition. In this interview with Aditi Bhaduri he discusses the complexity of the ambitious India Middle East Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC), the reshaping of the future of geopolitical relations and economic connectivity between India, the Middle East, and Europe:
What is your opinion on the announcement made by Modi-Biden-MBS on the IMEC during the G20 summit? Currently, there are existing routes. What would IMEC's advantage be?
It is perhaps more useful to look at IMEC as an augmentation tool for trade in the region. It will complement existing maritime and road transport routes, facilitating the movement of goods and services between India, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, and Europe. However, if one were to examine IMEC through a lens of advantages, it would be worth noting that the corridor stands to be the most direct connection between India, the Gulf, and Europe. As the economic interests of these three players continue to converge, IMEC presents an opportunity to deepen trade relations by expediting the flow of key products. More generally, it also creates additional supply chain redundancy in the region, reducing the risk posed to the global economy by incidents like the 2021 Suez Canal obstruction.
There are many nay-sayers, picking holes in the feasibility of the IMEC. For instance, many rail tracks are yet missing along the proposed route. What about these challenges?
IMEC is certainly a highly ambitious project. But it wouldn’t be starting from scratch. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are already connected to some degree by rail, and the former currently has a track laid that extends up to its border with Jordan. Israeli officials have also gauged that they only need “200 extra kilometers of track to bring a train leaving Saudi Arabia to its last terminal in Israel via Jordan.” The challenge, therefore lies less in there being an insurmountable quantity of physical work to do, and more in the ability of governments to overcome the political implications of IMEC and the bureaucratic barriers that so often stall major infrastructure projects.
It would require Saudi-Israel normalization. Do you see any hopes for this shortly? Without it project would remain a pipe dream.
While it is too early to declare one way or another likely outcome of current negotiations, the US appears to be making very solid progress toward securing this major foreign policy victory. Biden Administration officials are shuttling between the key players of the normalization talks, hoping to settle on a collection of agreements, concessions, and compromises that are acceptable to both parties. Even if this does occur, normalization will still face the daunting hurdle of a US Senate vote to accept or reject a defense agreement for Saudi Arabia. Amid an approaching presidential election season and given the high degree of polarization in Washington, this will not be an easy feat.
What would IMEC have for Palestinians? How would they benefit from this?
The corridor has the potential to open the door to new foreign investments in the West Bank, especially if transportation infrastructure in the region becomes part of the trade network. However, it's worth noting that goods from Jordan could also enter Israel directly without passing through the West Bank, making this scenario less likely. Ultimately, the outcome may hinge on political willingness, and it's conceivable that Saudi Arabia might advocate for it, offering some economic benefits to support the struggling Palestinian economy in the West Bank.
There is the inevitable comparison with China's BRI. What are the similarities and differences between the two?
The first major difference is that IMEC, as proposed, is a multinational cooperative venture, whereas China’s BRI is a centrally-planned effort with full guiding authority vested in Beijing’s political leadership. If you ask American officials, they will tell you that IMEC is intended to be integrative, transparent, and non-predatory, qualities that are the polar opposite of US descriptions of the BRI. There certainly seems to be some accuracy in this characterization: Whereas the BRI seeks to spread Chinese influence through physical presence and incurring a massive amount of political and economic leverage from participating countries, IMEC aims to align Western interests with India, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE through political and trade integration, boosting local economies, and empowering partners. However, both the BRI and IMEC share the significant challenge that is cross-regional coordination.
There is a perception that the IMEC has been mooted more as a way to wean India away from the INSTC connectivity through Iran and Russia, as also to prevent Saudi and UAE partnership with Iran
It is certainly possible that Western motivations for creating IMEC included a desire to draw India’s attention away from the INSTC. However, India, as an emerging pole on the global stage, is unlikely to completely snub trade partnerships with Iran and Russia. Delhi does not seek to choose sides in the competition between the West and its adversaries, instead, India focuses on its growth and enters into agreements with nations, adversarial to the West or otherwise, that can advance this goal. As for Saudi Arabia and the UAE, it is not very likely that preventing a multilateral partnership with Iran was a driving factor for Western negotiators of IMEC. The US sees regional stability as one of its key interests in the Middle East, with American officials seeking to de-escalate tensions that threaten security.
Finally, is the IMEC more geopolitical than geoeconomic?
The strategic value of IMEC differs depending on which side of the corridor a country sits on. It ultimately reflects the convergence of two distinct yet symbiotic geopolitical strategies and aims. For the US and the EU, IMEC is primarily a geopolitical venture, as both actors seek to stave off the influence of China and Russia in the Eurasian rim land by favorably shaping the region’s geo-economic structure. For key states such as India, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and, to some extent, the EU, the value of IMEC is geo-economic. Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, and Delhi see no use in picking sides during great power competition and thus view the benefits of IMEC with an eye to the strategic importance of deepening ties and promoting regional integration amongst each other.
Aditi Bhaduri is a journalist and political analyst specialising on West and Central Asia