RIYADH - Saudi King Salman on Tuesday inaugurated a high-speed railway linking Mecca and Medina, Islam’s holiest cities, described by local officials as the biggest transportation project in the region.

The Haramain High Speed Rail system will transport Muslim pilgrims, as well as regular travellers, 450 kilometres (280 miles) between the two cities via the Red Sea port of Jeddah in two hours.

“This project is considered the biggest transport project in the Middle East,” Mohammed Falaha, a Haramain project manager, told AFP.

Thirty-five passenger trains capable of travelling at speeds of 300 kilometres per hour will slash the travel time from several hours to 120 minutes, transport officials said.

The rail project, dogged by several delays, was built at a cost of more than $16 billion, according to Saudi media.

In 2011, Saudi Arabia signed a deal for a Spanish consortium to build the rail track, supply 35 high-speed trains and handle a 12-year maintenance contract.

The kingdom is boosting its infrastructure spending and expanding its railways, including with a $22.5 billion metro system under construction in the capital Riyadh, as it seeks to diversify its oil-dependent economy.

The annual hajj pilgrimage, which is to be held in September next year, attracts more than two million Muslims to the Mecca region.

KSA to issue visas for sports, culture events

Saudi Arabia will begin issuing visas to visitors to attend sporting and cultural events from December, officials said Tuesday, a first for the kingdom as it seeks to kickstart tourism.

“Saudi Arabia will open up its borders to fans of live sport, music and culture for the first time with the launch of a new online visa process dedicated to welcoming international tourists,” the kingdom’s General Sports Authority said.

The new visa process will be first introduced in December for a Formula E motor racing competition near Riyadh, the authority said.

Tourism chief Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz had told AFP last year that electronic visas would be launched in the first quarter of 2018.

Visas to the kingdom are currently restricted to expat workers, their dependents and Muslim pilgrims travelling to holy sites in Mecca and Medina.

Kickstarting tourism is one of the centrepieces of Vision 2030, a blueprint to prepare the biggest Arab economy for the post-oil era conceived by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

In August 2017, the kingdom announced a multi-billion dollar project to turn 50 islands and other pristine sites on the Red Sea into luxury resorts.

The country also plans to develop historic sites such as the centuries-old Mada’in Saleh, home to sandstone tombs of the same civilisation which built the Jordanian city of Petra.