Campaigners turn their focus on Gulf states

Dubai: Campaigners opposing Israel’s Jerusalem Light Rail (JLR) project say they are turning their attention to the Gulf states to ensure that billion dollar contracts in the region do not go to the French companies building the controversial tramway.

French transport firms Veolia and Alstom are both involved in the Jerusalem Light Rail (JLR) project in Occupied Jerusalem. The project links the western sector of the city to the occupied eastern sector and Jewish colonies in the West Bank.

Once it starts in spring, it is expected to consolidate Israel’s hold on the entirety of the holy city, the eastern sector of which the Palestinians want as their future capital.

“Arab states that allow companies implicated in Israel’s war crimes and other grave violations of international law to be awarded public bids are complicit in violating international law, pure and simple,” said Omar Barghouthi, founding member of the Boycott National Committee, a coalition of 170 Palestinian civil society organisations that aim to apply an apartheid-era South Africa-style boycott model on Israel.

So far, however, neither the campaigners nor Palestinian National Authority officials have succeeded in persuading Gulf governments to make Veolia and Alstom’s withdrawal from the JLR project a condition for such contracts to be awarded.

Campaigners say that considering the size of the projects in the Gulf, any such condition would immediately bring into question the feasibility of companies’ commitment to the JLR project.

While the JLR project is worth $245 million, planned Gulf rail projects in the six member states are expected to have a collective price tag of $109 billion, according to Nabeela Al Mulla, the Kuwaiti ambassador in Brussels.

The recently launched EU-GCC Joint Action Plan 2010-2013, to implement the EU-GCC co-operation agreement of 1998, mentions “co-operation in the field of development, construction operation and maintenance of railway projects in GCC states”.

European companies are expected to be keen to bid for contracts in the Gulf. Alstom’s country president for the Gulf told Gulf News in late 2009 that the company was “certainly going to be participating in all tenders in the GCC for transport and power”.

Barghouthi said: “The Gulf region remains one of the largest growth markets for both companies. The planned Gulf rail line that will connect all Gulf states at a staggering cost of tens of billions of dollars is the one most eyed by both companies”.

“Allowing Veolia and Alstom to operate in the Gulf states is in direct violation of the decisions adopted unanimously at the March 2006 Arab Summit in Khartoum that specifically called for boycotting all companies involved in this dangerous colonial project,” Barghouthi said.

Administrators from the French companies have said that Gulf transport officials have not brought up their involvement in the JLR project in meetings, but campaigners have said that Veolia has moved to control the damage to its reputation, primarily due to costly divestment moves in Europe. Barghouthi said the company had had an opportunity cost of more than $7 billion as a consequence of the BDS campaign.

A high-ranking Palestinian diplomat in the region told Gulf News that the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) had twice written to Saudi authorities to protest the awarding of contracts to the French companies since 2007. It had received acknowledgement for the letters but no action had followed, the diplomat said.

“We will raise the issue with the Abdul Rahman Al Attiyah, the secretary general of the GCC before the next GCC summit in December,” he said.

The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

“The PNA is committed to [Occupied] Jerusalem, but we have strategic relations with Saudi Arabia and these kinds of issues are dealt with diplomatically, not through the media,” he said.

GCC rulers are expected to decide the fate of the planned pan-GCC railway in the bloc’s annual summit in Abu Dhabi in December.

Both Alstom and Veolia have strong ties with GCC states and have won lucrative, decades-long contracts in all member countries, notably the $1.8 billion (Dh6.6 billion) Makkah-Madinah link, the Haramain Express, and the Dh1.1 billion Sufouh tramway in Dubai. Contracts for both were awarded to consortia led by Alstom. The French company has also expressed interest in bidding for the second phase of the $11 billion Union Railway that will connect all UAE emirates.

In April, Qatar’s state-owned investment fund Qatari Diar bought a five per cent stake in Veolia Environment, a move decried by Palestinian activists.

While both companies have reportedly planned to sell their shares in the project before launch, campaigners say they will remain on their boycott list. Alstom is expected to only sell its share from the project but remain as contractor. Veolia will continue to operate bus routes to Jewish colonies in the West Bank.

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