The Railway Projects
The Hijaz Railway was conceived by Abdülhamid as one of the pillars of the Ottoman policy of centralization, and certainly perceived as such by the Young Turks. The completion of the line to Medina coincided with the Young Turk Revolution and facilitated the efforts to extend central authority into the Arabian Peninsula. An extension of the railway, from Medina to Mecca and eventually to Yemen, remained an issue about which there was much deliberation, but no concrete results were achieved. This failure has generally been regarded as a frustration of Young Turk efforts to bring the Hijaz under central control.
Even though the strategic value of the extension to Mecca was appreciated in İstanbul, the government actually subordinated the continuation of the railway to other centralizing measures in the Hijaz. The difficulties of ensuring the security of the railway in tribal areas, where friendly tribal shaykhs could turn against the government overnight in order to further their particular aims, was apparent to the policy makers. They were all too familiar with the tribal unrest that the Damascus-Medina line triggered in southern Syria and northern Hijaz. Thus İstanbul opted for making full use of the advantages that the Hijaz Railway provided for its centralizing policy by strengthening its position in Medina, whence it could exert close control over the rest of the province and the neighboring regions. Instead of extending the railway, the Ottoman government chose to rely on the grand sharif in Mecca as a proxy to preserve its interests and to further its aims in Arabia. The government also had an interest in improving communications in the Peninsula for purposes of trade and the pilgrimage. İstanbul gravitated toward promoting the Red Sea routes and building shorter railway lines from the coast to the interior, specifically between Jidda and Mecca, Yanbu and Medina, and Hodeida and Sana, instead of constructing the costly Medina-Mecca line.
The scheme of building several shorter lines gave primacy to economic considerations over strategic ones. Tanin wrote in favor of a branch to Aqaba (which would circumvent the British-controlled Suez Canal for commercial transport) from the Damascus-Medina main line with additional short lines between the Red Sea ports and the towns of the interior, rather than extension of the line from Medina to Mecca. Christian deputies in Parliament urged that the railway in the Hijaz not be seen as serving religious objectives only but that economic considerations should also be taken into account. On the local level, too, a railway connecting the busiest commercial port of the Hijaz with Mecca was favorably received by the Hijazi merchants. The deputy for Jidda, Qasim Zaynal, declared his support for the Jidda-Mecca line.
The project of building coastal lines implied a shift of the major commercial and pilgrimage routes to the Red Sea. It offered practical advantages (in terms of speed and elimination of camel transport) and economic ones, once Ottoman ships started regular traffic along the coast. This shift would, however, constitute a strategic liability as well, as the Italian blockade of Ottoman ports along the Red Sea brought home during the Italian War. Nevertheless, the most significant of the links between the Red Sea and the interior, the Jidda-Mecca line, received more official attention than the Medina-Mecca extension. Because of its anticipated profitability for carrying seaborne pilgrimage groups to and from Jidda (most arriving from the Indian Ocean), this line could have generated funds needed for the longer and costly Medina-Mecca stretch. In Parliament, the minister for the Hijaz Railway, Zihni Pasha, declared that he gave priority to the Jidda-Mecca line.
Governor Kamil Bey arrived in the Hijaz in June 1910 and announced that construction on the Jidda-Mecca railway, along with the related improvements of the landing facilities in the Jidda harbor, would soon begin. The director of the Railway Department of the Ministry of Public Works confirmed that the construction of the line had been decided upon and that experts were being dispatched. Indeed, by March 1911 ten engineers had arrived to join the three already in Jidda there to proceed with the survey work. Sharif Husayn reported in mid-March that one-third of the survey work had been completed. He was advised by the grand vizierate to arrange for the protection of the construction.
The sharif’s ambivalence toward the construction of the Jidda-Mecca line continued. Even though he had joined the governor in 1909 in urging the construction of a railway between these two cities, he resorted to obstructionism as more definite steps were taken. In 1911 he requested the postponement of the construction until his return from the Asir campaign and also suggested a formal investigation of how the livelihood of the tribes that were engaged in camel transport between the two cities would be secured. The French consul in Jidda interpreted the sharif’s preparations in January 1912 for an expedition against Ibn Sa‘ud as a strategy to further delay construction.
If the Jidda-Mecca line was never built, factors other than the sha rif’s obstructions were instrumental. Military strategists placed their weight on the extension of the Hijaz Railway from Medina to Mecca instead. As the minister of war, Mahmud Shawkat Pasha argued for maximizing the military benefits derived from the Hijaz Railway by extending it further south into Yemen. He pointed to the problems posed by the Italian War in the defense of the Red Sea coast and maintained that the degree of naval preparedness that would enable effective defense of the coast would be too costly. In contrast, he maintained, the railway could be extended from Medina to Yemen for the price of one dreadnought. Mahmud Shawkat Pasha also dwelled on the difficulties involved in the supply of construction materials near Jidda as a result of the Italian hostilities. He urged the grand vizier to shelve the plans for the Jidda-Mecca line until the conclusion of the war. Among the shorter lines envisaged, only one, the Hodeida-Sana line, progressed. A French company started construction in 1911, despite Yemeni objections to the foreign concession, but the work was halted with the outbreak of the world war.