By Nandita Bose
NEW DELHI (Reuters) -Global leaders announced a multinational rail and ports deal linking the Middle East and South Asia on Saturday on the sidelines of the G20 summit in New Delhi.
The pact comes at a critical time as U.S. President Joe Biden seeks to counter China's Belt and Road push on global infrastructure by pitching Washington as an alternative partner and investor for developing countries at the G20 grouping.
Biden said it was a "real big deal" that would bridge ports across two continents and lead to a "more stable, more prosperous and integrated Middle East."
He said at an event announcing the pact that it would unlock "endless opportunities" for clean energy, clean electricity, and laying cable to connect communities.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi of summit host India said: "Today, as we embark upon such a big connectivity initiative, we are sowing the seeds for future generations to dream bigger."
The deal will benefit low and middle-income countries in the region, and enable a critical role for the Middle East in global commerce, Jon Finer, the U.S. deputy national security adviser, told reporters at the bloc's annual summit in New Delhi.
It aims to link Middle East countries by railway and connect them to India by port, helping the flow of energy and trade from the Gulf to Europe, U.S. officials have said, by cutting shipping times, costs and fuel use.
A memorandum of understanding on the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor, or IMEC, was signed by the European Union, India, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the U.S. and other G20 partners.
IMEC is envisioned to consist of two separate corridors with an east corridor connecting India to the Arabian Gulf, and a northern corridor connecting the Arabian Gulf with Europe, according to the MOU.
Along the railway route, participants intend to lay cable for power and data lines, as well as pipeline for hydrogen derived from renewable energy for use in power generation.
French President Emmanuel Macron said the pact offers opportunities for manufacturing, innovation and people. "But our intention is to make it real, and to be sure that after this commitment we have concrete results," he said at the event. No immediate details of the value of the deal were available.
The move comes amid U.S. efforts for a broader diplomatic deal in the Middle East that would have Saudi Arabia recognise Israel.
From the U.S. viewpoint, Finer added, the deal helps "turn the temperature down across the region" and "address a conflict where we see it".
(Reporting by Nandita Bose, Krishn Kaushik in New Delhi and Timothy Gardner in Washington; Writing by Shivam Patel; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Marguerita Choy)