Hu Jintao arrived in Riyadh yesterday for a three-day trip to Saudi Arabia. As with most such official visits, the idea is to promote economic and cultural ties, with a heavy emphasis on the economics. A lot of handshakes and deal signing going around.
One deal in particular caught my eye: Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Municipal and Rural Affairs got together with China Railway Co. and signed an agreement to build a monorail to link Mecca with three other holy sites: Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifah.
The need for a rail project linking the sites is easy to understand, given the huge crowds that make the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, every year. That said, I’d be interested in hearing the exact reasoning behind the choice of a monorail.
The deal is worth US$1.77 billion and is expected to be built over a two-year period – however, it seems that the project will be working at 35% of capacity in time for next year’s hajj, in late November 2009.
No doubt the project will go a long way toward improving China’s image among Middle Eastern oil producers. It also raises a few questions, one of which is a very practical matter: Who is going to build the monorail?
Mecca remains closed to non-Muslims. Is China planning to hire exclusively from Muslim ethnic minorities? The domestic politics of this deal could be interesting to watch.