SNCF's Keolis Targets Persian Gulf for Rail-Operating Projects

  • Region may generate $100 million in annual sales in five years
  • French company studies contracts in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE

Keolis SA is bidding to operate subways and light-rail services in Persian Gulf countries that are setting up public-transport networks, the French company’s first foray into the Middle East.

The unit of Paris-based state railway SNCF is looking at pursuing contracts in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, Keolis Executive Chairman Jean-Pierre Farandou said in an interview in Dubai. He has also met senior executives from Dubai’s Road and Transport Authority and Abu Dhabi’s Department of Transport. Farandou declined to identify countries where Keolis has submitted preliminary offers.

Countries in the region are developing metro lines domestically as well as passenger-train lines to connect the six Gulf Cooperation Council nations. Some officials have voiced doubts about whether the cross-border project will meet its 2018 completion deadline following a drop in oil prices.

Keolis is bullish on the Middle East, which offers  “tremendous opportunities,” and successful bids may generate annual turnover of $100 million in five years, Farandou said. The executive said he hopes to hear back on some of the tenders by the beginning of next year and to win a contract by then or in 2017.

Entry into the Gulf markets would be a "big game-changer" for the company, half of whose turnover comes from France, Farandou said.

Markets Abroad

Revenue last year totaled 5.6 billion euros ($6.36 billion), of which other European markets accounted for 39 percent of sales, the Australia-New Zealand region for 6 percent and North America for 5 percent.

Contracts outside France include running the U.K.’s Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern rail lines as a partner in the Govia joint venture, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s commuter-train network serving the Boston area and Melbourne’s Yarra Trams system.

"In 10 years, if we are successful, the Middle East could be one of the major zones for us," Farandou said.

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