Turkey's Transport Minister Abdulkadir Uraloglu, UAE's Energy Minister Suhail Mohamed al-Mazrouei, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Iraq's Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, Qatar's Minister of Transport Jassim bin Saif bin Ahmed al-Sulaiti, and Iraq's Transport Minister Razzaq Muhaibas al-Saadawi pose for a picture during their meeting for the signing of the "Development Road" framework agreement on security, economy, and development in Baghdad on April 22, 2024. (Photo by Ahmad Al-rubaye / POOL / AFP)

The Development Road Project – Council Views

Iraq, Türkiye, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates agreed to collaborate on the ambitious Development Road project. ME Council experts assess the drivers behind the agreement and feasibility of the initiative.    

May 9, 2024

Following a momentous visit to Iraq by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Türkiye, Iraq, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates signed an initial agreement to collaborate on the Development Road project. The $17 billion project envisages region-wide transportation routes and infrastructure that would transform Iraq into a transit hub connecting Asia and Europe over approximately 745 miles (1,200 kilometers). This could pave the way for economic growth in Iraq and the wider region and potentially rival the Suez Canal as a route that shortens the travel time between Asia and Europe. 

While significant hurdles to its implementation remain, the agreement could herald a new era of regional cooperation premised on mutual, economic interests. Its success could alleviate geopolitical tensions and conflicts in the region. However, it is unclear what role the project’s signatories will play, how it will be funded, and how excluded regional states will respond, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. In this Council Views, experts from the Middle East Council weigh in on the factors driving the recent agreement and assess the obstacles to its implementation. 


Roadblocks Ahead 

Ranj Alaaldin 

Iraq’s plan to implement the Development Road project is welcome and much needed for a country that has been plagued by decades of civil war, ethnic and religious conflict, and geopolitical tensions. The initiative could be a lynchpin for economic prosperity in the region at large and warrants support and investment. But it may still be several years until Iraq is able to bring such a project to fruition. This is not the first time the country has attempted a large-scale infrastructure project. It proposed a similar project in 2011 that envisioned major changes to transportation infrastructure, including rail and underground systems, but it failed to progress because of the volatile domestic political environment and violent instability. Iraq also suffers from widespread corruption and dysfunctional institutions, and may lack the technical capabilities to implement such projects. 

The ambitious scope and scale of the latest proposal stands out because it relies heavily on the co-operation and support of Iraq’s neighbors. As a result, there are several geopolitical and domestic dynamics that have to be addressed for the project to have any chance. Domestically, Iraq still faces conflict relapse and is one clash away from a civil war. As recently as August 2022, the country was pushed towards major civil unrest following violent skirmishes between supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr and the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Force (PMF). This is just one of a number of rivalries that could spark a civil war in the near future.  

Geopolitically, Iraq has widened its involvement in Iran’s war with Israel and the United States, which has become increasingly notable since the post-October 7 regional escalation. Iraq is not a neutral actor in the confrontation between Iran and Israel, nor between Tehran and Washington. Indeed, Iraq constitutes a key pillar of Iran’s so-called “Axis of Resistance,” enabling Iranian missile and drone attacks in the region. Moreover, the PMF, which is part of the government and state, has launched direct strikes on U.S. forces and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia. In northern Iraq, the PMF has targeted Turkish bases and personnel and has allied with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Given Türkiye’s role as a leading partner, it will be difficult for the Development Road project to progress while Baghdad remains under the influence of the PMF, which in turn shelters the PKK. Although Iraq has officially banned the PKK, it continues to receive a salary from the Iraqi budget through its affiliates in northern Iraq.  

The domestic and geopolitical trends that underscore Iraq’s relations with the region make the Development Road project aspirational at best, but the initiative also warrants the benefit of the doubt given Qatar’s and the UAE’s pledged support. Like others in the region, both countries may be adopting a “wait and see” approach to the project and Iraq’s attempts to get it off the ground.  


Connectivity and Order  

Galip Dalay 

Apart from their economic logic, major connectivity projects rest on a vision of regional and global order. This is particularly true when such projects are implemented or supported by global superpowers. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the U.S.-supported India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) are cases in point. The countries these projects include and exclude shed light on the vision and geopolitical logic that underpin them. For instance, through connectivity and major infrastructure projects, BRI creates (inter)dependency between China and the involved countries and regions. It contains hard and soft power elements in its design. Geopolitical infrastructure and connectivity projects that form key components of the BRI have also become crucial arenas of great power competition. As such, the U.S. has pressured its allies to withdraw from the BRI—as Israel did during Donald Trump’s presidency.  

Similarly, IMEC at its core is aimed at several structural goals: undermining China’s BRI; downsizing China’s and Russia’s regional role; facilitating more cooperation between Israel and the Arab states (a key component of Washington’s vision of regional order); and a larger role for India in Mideast geopolitics, while excluding and containing Iran and, by extension, Türkiye. The exclusionary nature of this project is what elicited strong criticisms from Ankara. 

The latest such initiative threading the nexus of connectivity and order is Iraq’s Development Road project, which Türkiye has agreed to support. Where it diverges is in its regional ownership, bringing together Iraq, Qatar, and the UAE to connect the Gulf with Europe via Türkiye. As such, it offers a major connectivity project de-linked from the regional ambitions of external powers. While this project is more competitive than IMEC, providing a shorter land route between the Gulf and Europe, the new initiative still faces some of the same challenges that other connectivity projects have encountered. To cite one, the $17 billion price tag could be tricky to finance. The shaky security environment in Iraq, where forces from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to pro-Iran militias hold sway, is another. Given that Iran is an excluded party, Tehran may seek to undermine the initiative. It is also not clearly understood how Europe, as the final destination, and the United States view the project.  

In short, the Development Road project holds significant potential given its regional ownership and implications for regional order. Nonetheless, the challenges loom large.  


The UAE’s Strategic Interests  

Dania Thafer 

The United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) decision to join the Development Road project with Iraq, Türkiye, and Qatar exemplifies a trend of minilateralism, where states are now crafting agile and flexible diplomatic coalitions to pursue their interests. This approach has been on the rise in the emerging multipolar international order, with the UAE taking a leading role in engaging with a small set of partners, pursuing their shared aims rather than ideological alignment. In this context, there is a confluence of strategic considerations and economic interests that likely motivated Abu Dhabi’s involvement.   

First, with the war in Gaza raging, the UAE has grown wary of the viability of the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC), which was billed as an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Another of Abu Dhabi’s considerations is the reluctance of key Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan, to engage in economic deals involving Israel. Second, Emirati investments in Iraq, particularly through Abu Dhabi Ports Group’s involvement in the development of the Grand Faw Port, highlight its vested interest in strategic infrastructure projects. Third, the UAE’s increasing financing of Iraq’s reconstruction and energy sectors align with broader efforts to counterbalance Iran’s influence in the region, reflecting a strategic alignment with other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. For example, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh agreed to invest $6 billion in Iraq in July 2023, and in 2021 the UAE committed $3 billion to support the reconstruction of Mosul after the defeat of ISIS.  


Türkiye Pursues Regional Ambitions 

Özge Genç 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent visit to Iraq marked a milestone in relations, with agreements inked spanning sectors including water, transportation, energy, trade, and defense. At the heart of the agreements was the Iraq Development Road project—a plan for a competitive transport route initiated by Türkiye and Iraq. With the cooperation of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, it will link the Gulf and Europe via Iraq’s Grand Faw port, utilizing Türkiye’s rail and road infrastructure. 

The project is poised to contribute to Türkiye’s economic development, positioning it as a regional transit hub and a crucial link between Europe and Asia—a role Ankara eagerly anticipates. Türkiye, having been excluded from rival proposals such as the U.S.-backed India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC), sees the project as an opportunity to assert its regional influence.  

Although the Development Road project has revitalized Türkiye’s relations with Iraq, critical issues remain to be addressed and there are questions about the ambitious initiative’s financial sustainability. In Ankara’s view, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has forces positioned in Iraq and engaged in armed conflict with the Turkish state, poses a security risk to the project. Türkiye has urged Baghdad to coordinate actions against PKK’s presence in Iraq. In response, Iraq merely labeled the PKK as a “banned organization.” However, Ankara seems willing to compartmentalize the issue in the interest of development cooperation for now. 

Considering the security concerns surrounding the PKK’s regional presence and Türkiye’s efforts to address them, it is imperative to recognize the potential of development initiatives to promote broader regional stability. Regional collaboration on the Development Road offers Ankara’s reform-minded policymakers opportunities to advance the Kurdish peace process while bolstering Türkiye’s global standing and prosperity. 


An Alternative to IMEC and BRI, But Where Is the Money? 

June Park 

The announcement of Iraq’s $17 billion Development Road project with Türkiye, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to connect the Gulf with Europe should raise some eyebrows, especially as Türkiye—the initiative’s driver—maintains a geopolitical balancing act as a link between the East and West. Two key points: First, the project is a test of geopolitical competition, a challenge which emanates from Turkish FOMO (fear-of-missing-out) in global and regional supply chain routes. Türkiye has sought to incorporate like-minded neighbors to mobilize on infrastructure and trade route-building in response to its exclusion from the G20-driven India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) and its lack of incentives from China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)—receiving only $4 billion from Beijing. The second is the financial component; the three-staged project proposes constructing high-speed railways, roads, and ports, encompassing a 1,200 kilometers (745 miles) long route that connect the UAE, Qatar, Iraq, and Türkiye to Europe by 2050. But it is unclear, given Türkiye’s fiscal woes that stem from its unconventional monetary policy and financial instability, if the country can be counted on to foot its part of the bill for the Development Road. In the meantime, Iraq’s oil revenues amid pressures from OPEC-mandated production cuts and political instability also signal uncertainties in delivery of funding, while the Gulf states are likely to follow through on funding only when they see a viable investment opportunity. The project is a long game that requires short-term goals. However, as an alternative to IMEC and BRI, it is not on strong financial grounds and is in need of a feasibility test.  


Council Views is an ME Council article series that brings together our experts’ insights on headline issues facing the Middle East and North Africa region.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Council on Global Affairs.

Issue: Great Power Competition, Political Economy, Regional Relations
Country: Iraq, Qatar, Turkey, United Arab Emirates