Company in Saudi rail project linked to Israel

By Abbas Al Lawati, Staff Reporter

Published: May 30, 2009, 23:30

Dubai: A plan to link Makkah and Madinah by train has become the subject of controversy, as Palestinian officials try to persuade Saudi authorities to withdraw the rail contract from a company alleged to be complicit in Israel’s expansion in occupied East Jerusalem.

Palestinian foreign ministry officials have expressed reservation at a recent Saudi announcement awarding the contract for the Haramain Express railway to a consortium consisting of French company Alstom Transport.

Alstom is part of a group of companies that is building a light rail network in Jerusalem, which is expected to extend to East Jerusalem and Jewish colonies in the occupied West Bank.

“Backchannel talks with the Saudis are ongoing,” a Palestinian foreign ministry official said on condition of anonymity. He did not divulge details of the talks but said they would be based on an Arab League decision barring states from dealing with companies building the light rail.

The Saudi Railway Organisation, which is handling the Makkah-Madinah project, did not respond to Gulf News’ request for comments.

Alstom and Veolia, the other French company involved in the project in occupied Jerusalem, have become target of boycotts in Europe in recent years and are facing a lawsuit in France brought by the advocacy group Association France-Palestine Solidarité with the support of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation’s (PLO) representative office in Paris.

The PLO’s representative in Paris, Hind Khoury, told Gulf News that Alstom’s involvement was a concern for the Palestinian Authority, adding that she has been given a new mandate by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to pursue the case more aggressively.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) has since 2005 been trying to persuade France to intervene in the case. Abbas personally asked then French president Jacques Chirac to get involved.

In March 2006, the Arab League issued a ministerial decision in Khartoum calling on states to “stop the [occupied] Jerusalem tram project and refrain from assisting in its execution”.

Since then, the PA has been focusing its efforts on Arab governments that could refrain from extending invitations to the companies to bid for contracts, or pressure the French government to intervene.

It is understood the PA is reluctant to go public with the issue, fearing the disclosure would make the Saudis uncomfortable. The Arab public opinion would not agree with giving a contract to link their most holy cities to a company seen assisting Israel, one observer said.

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