RIYADH (AFP) – China has signed a deal to build a monorail in Mecca during President Hu Jintao’s visit to Saudi Arabia, underscoring its growing role as a key contractor for infrastructure in the oil-rich kingdom.
The 1.8 billion dollar deal is for a mass transit system in Islam’s holiest city to ferry pilgrims between key holy sites during the hajj, or annual Muslim pilgrimage.
It was signed on Tuesday night between China Railway Corp and Prince Miteb bin Abdulaziz, chairman of the commission for developing the holy cities Mecca and Medina.
This was the second contract in a week involving a Chinese railway builder and Mecca.
On Friday, a consortium including China Railway Engineering won a separate 1.8-billion-dollar civil works contract for a 444-kilometre (275-mile) high-speed railway linking the Mecca and Medina through Jeddah.
As a dense sandstorm enveloped Riyadh on Wednesday morning, the Chinese leader visited Riyadh Cement company, which has just contracted China’s Sinoma International Engineering to expand its expansion production lines.
In the afternoon, Hu is to meet with Gulf Cooperation Council Secretary General Abdulrahman Hamad al-Attiyah to discuss trade liberalisation measures, GCC officials said.
The Mecca deal highlighted the growing role of China in Saudi Arabia’s plan to undertake 450 billion riyals (120 billion dollars) in major infrastructure, education and new cities projects over the next five years.
The monorail will link Mecca with the holy sites of Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifah, which are visited by massive tides of pilgrims during the hajj, the state news agency SPA said.
The project is set to be completed over two years, but will be ready to operate at 35 percent capacity for this year’s hajj, which falls at the end of November, SPA said.
According to media reports, the project comprises four elevated tracks intended to carry up to 20,000 passengers an hour.
The project was announced at a state dinner on Tuesday hosted by Saudi King Abdullah.
The two sides also signed an agreement covering cooperation in developing and trade in oil, natural gas, petrochemicals and minerals late Tuesday as China seeks to secure long-term natural resource supplies for its giant economic machine, SPA said.
China is already one of the top buyers of oil from Saudi Arabia, importing 36 million tonnes of Saudi crude in 2008, according to Chinese figures.
Chinese firms are also exploring for new oil deposits inside Saudi Arabia together with the kingdom’s state oil company Aramco.
Hu is on the second day of a three-day visit to to shore up economic relations and discuss energy supplies with the world’s top oil exporter.