The current global frenzy for interconnectedness is characterised by a quest to dominate corridors. While China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) aspires to make the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) its centrepiece, the India-Middle East-Europe Corridor (IMEC) emerges as a counterbalancing effort. Other nations vigorously pursue the construction of efficient and secure trade routes to maximise their interests and assert their economic prowess on the global stage. Against this backdrop, Turkish decision-makers propose the Development Road project, which would have a significant economic impact on the region. Unlike IMEC and similar initiatives, whose commercial viability is questionable, the Development Road offers many ingredients for success.
Connectivity and Trade
With its 745-mile railway and road network, the Development Road project is expected to connect the planned Grand Faw Port in the Gulf to Türkiye. The estimated cost of this project is $17 billion, with the completion of the first phase scheduled by 2028. This initiative places Türkiye at the centre stage of regional interconnectivity, particularly as Europe has been seeking new energy partners since the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine War. The project facilitates the diversification of energy markets, providing European countries with more alternatives. Türkiye is pivotal in this connectivity, serving as a distribution hub for raw materials and goods coming through Iraq.
President Erdogan emphasised the significance of the Development Road during his bilateral meetings with Iraqi Prime Minister al-Sudani and at the recent UN General Assembly. By proposing this project, the Turkish leader conveys a message to the world that Türkiye is pivotal when it comes to global interconnectedness. Historically, Türkiye has always been the most practical route between East and West. The fact that Türkiye is ready to inject $5 billion investment in the Development Road project, demonstrates that the country nurtures ambitions to be more than a passive pathway. In other words, this project converges the importance of Türkiye’s strategic location, its financial muscles, and its new-century vision that places the country at the centre of global interconnectedness.
However, commercial viability represents only one part of the equation. Security challenges arising from conflicts fuelled by terrorist groups and various proxies pose a risk to the feasibility and sustainability of the project. There are already joint efforts between Iraqi security forces and Turkish forces to counter various terrorist groups, including PKK and Daesh. Baghdad needs to do more and expand its cooperation with Ankara to eliminate PKK terror elements operating in northern Iraq along the Türkiye-Iraq border.
Another important factor for the Development Road is Iran’s stance. Tehran was invited to the conference held in Baghdad but the project may not align with Iran’s regional ambitions. For if the Grand Faw Port becomes the largest port in the Middle East, it would compete with Iran’s ports in the Persian Gulf. Moreover, if Iraq establishes direct connections to European markets through Türkiye, this could undermine Iran’s tutelage over the Iraqi polity.
On the other hand, Iran is currently subjected to large-scale Western sanctions. Thus, concerns about Iran’s ports suffering from competition may not hold much significance. However, things could change with the resumption of the JCPOA, a scenario that is increasingly possible. Even so, the Development Road could still position Iran as an energy supplier to European markets.
One of the pivotal considerations for the future of the Development Road pertains to the impact of IMEC whose Memorandum of Understanding was signed by the US, India, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the EU, Italy, Germany and France G-20 Summit in New Delhi. While geopolitically more feasible, Türkiye was excluded from the route. Yet, President Erdoğan emphasised Türkiye’s indispensability in this project. “We say that there is no corridor without Türkiye. Türkiye is an important production and trade base. The most convenient line for traffic from the east to west has to pass through Türkiye,” he stated. While IMEC currently remains predominantly a theoretical route, it faces numerous challenges of geopolitical risks and feasibility that must be overcome. In contrast, the Development Road, if it manages to facilitate the expected trade flow, could become a viable route for European markets, especially considering the extensive hinterland of the Grand Al Faw Port. One route is progressively advancing by the day, while the other, a recently proposed option, has a long road ahead of it. Additionally, the fact that the Development Road also has garnered substantial interest from Gulf nations underscores its comparatively advanced progress. In this context, Türkiye seems to be charting its own course by contributing to the Development Road rather than seeking a role in this lengthy and intricate IMEC path where it is omitted.
For now, two possible scenarios could emerge: Iran may obstruct the project by utilising Shiite factions to play a spoiling role, or it may go with the flow and seek dividends for its own economy as well as the Iraqi economy. While Iran may not be enthusiastic about Türkiye’s increasing influence in the region, diplomatic efforts, such as when Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan met with senior Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) officials during his visit to Iraq in August 2023, demonstrate Ankara’s proactive approach in pre-emptively addressing potential obstacles to the Development Road. The positive signs from Baghdad and Erbil that they will engage more in the fight against the PKK signify progress.
Meanwhile, Turkish leaders are aware of the diversity characterising Iran’s political landscape, with significant divergences between the so-called securocrat hawks and civilian doves. Tehran faces two choices: Either it can integrate into the global economy, thereby resuscitating its almost-dying economy, or it can continue to play the villain, straining relations with its neighbourhood and pursuing Pyrrhic victories in areas it controls.
If the obstacles are removed, the Development Road has the potential to become a success story for all the involved parties. Meanwhile, it would add another layer to Türkiye’s increasing weight as a global transportation and transit hub. This initiative, expected to stimulate the economy on both national and regional scales, could connect Western markets with energy resources and various products while providing a supply alternative for Gulf countries with the flow of goods from Europe, given a secure investment climate. In this context, it appears that Turkish foreign policy will focus on bringing this project to fruition.