The drive to build man-made island projects in the Gulf, as a result of developers seeking to develop waterfront properties, has spawned a boom in bridge and causeway projects across the region.
But these links, typically somewhere between a few hundred metres and 10 kilometres in length, are being dwarfed by a string of proposed international schemes.
These include causeways linking Qatar to Abu Dhabi and Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia to Egypt, as well as one joining the southwest corner of Yemen with the small Arab state of Djibouti on the east coast of Africa.
In total, more than $50bn worth of bridge and causeway projects are planned or under way in the Middle East. But it seems unlikely that some of the biggest projects will get as far as the main contract award.
Progress appears to have stalled on the $13bn Qatar-UAE causeway and the $3bn Tiran crossing between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. “We have not heard anything on the Tiran project for more than a year,” says one senior consultant close to the scheme.
In January 2007, MEED reported that a project company known as the Egyptian Saudi Association for the Construction of the Tiran Causeway had been established to develop the scheme on a build-operate-transfer basis.
Expectations that the 50km link over the Red Sea would go ahead were raised in the wake of the Al-Salam Boccaccio ferry disaster the following month, when more than 1,000 passengers, most of whom were Egyptians working in the kingdom, died after the ship sank.
Soon after, however, the political will behind the scheme began to crumble.
In May 2007, Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak was quoted by the country’s state-owned Al-Messa news service as saying the causeway would be damaging to Egypt’s tourism sector.
“A causeway piercing through Sharm el-Sheikh would cause damage to a number of hotels and tourism establishments,” said the president. “It would harm the calm nature [of the place] and its security, which would force tourists to go elsewhere.”
Since then, little has been heard of the scheme. The governments of Saudi Arabia and Egypt will not comment, and industry sources say they are not optimistic about its future.
With many such projects still on the table elsewhere in the region, developers need not lose heart just yet.
Despite the disappointment over the Red Sea scheme, the surge in construction activity in the region has underpinned a clear upward trend in bridge and causeway development.
“Generally what we have seen with this burst of [construction] activity is that some of it is on infrastructure for revenue generation, such as ports, energy infrastructure and real estate,” says Jesper Damgaard, managing director of Denmark-based design consultant Cowi. “Bridges are a natural extension of that.”
In some cases, causeways are specifically intended to act as a catalyst for economic regeneration, while in others they hold a more symbolic value.
“There are two aspects: the economic benefits of a freer flow of goods and labour, and the symbolic effect of linking two different countries,” says Henrik Andersen, head of Cowi’s department for major bridges.
The Yemen to Djibouti crossing is a case in point. Taken in isolation, it would not make an attractive investment proposal.
But the developer, Tarek bin Laden – a shareholder in Saudi Binladin Group and owner of the project’s developer Middle East Development – has ambitious plans to build cities at each end of the crossing.
“In the Arab world, there is a lot of joblessness, and poverty levels are high,” says Bin Laden.
“The disparity between rich and poor is very high and the gap is growing. The vision of these cities is to bring the gap back to normal.”
Under the plans, Yemen would supply resource-poor Djibouti with natural gas through a pipeline carried by the road and rail bridge, stimulating industrial activity in the small state.
Under the proposals, the rail link would also connect to the planned GCC railway that is eventually expected to run into Yemen.
The cities are being developed by Al-Noor Cities, a subsidiary of Middle East Development.
The consultant on the project, the US’ DCK Worldwide, is in talks with contractors over infrastructure work in the cities, while the developer is trying to attract investors.
Each city is to host industrial zones, airports, ports and, on the Djibouti side, a financial district.
The next stage of the scheme is to produce a more detailed crossing design for the 27km route.
“Yemen Djibouti has had sketch designs,” says Damgaard. “This is not a concept design yet – it is just a desk study. To go to the next stage requires site investigation to study the sea bed, its depth, the environment, navigation and risks of collision.”
The structure will present a great technical challenge because of the depth of water it must pass over.
The causeway features a series of free spans with a minimal number of piers to mitigate the problem of working in deep waters and ensure shipping routes are kept clear.
The Qatar-Bahrain causeway, in contrast, will cross much shallower waters.
The $4.2bn causeway, named the Friendship Bridge, is intended to bring the two Gulf states closer politically, as well as generating economic advantages.
It is hoped that the scheme will enjoy similar success to the King Fahd causeway built between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in the 1980s and reinforce good relations between Qatar and Bahrain following the resolution of a dispute concerning sovereignty over the Hawar islands in 2001.
Building work on the scheme will be carried out by a team of contractors led by Qatari Diar and France’s Vinci Construction Grand Projets, and including Germany’s Hochtief, Athens-based Consolidated Contractors Company, Belgium’s Dredging International and the local Middle East Dredging Company (see box, page 56).
As for the planned causeway between Qatar and the UAE, a construction timetable is yet to be defined following changes to the original plans.
The planned 40km route was changed when challenged by Saudi Arabia, which claimed it ran through Saudi territorial waters.
The 65km crossing now being proposed could cost as much as $13bn. Although it would reduce journey times between the two countries, bringing potential economic benefits to them both, industry sources say the government is waiting to see how the Qatar-Bahrain causeway progresses before any firm decision is made.
The scale of investment and co-operation required by such projects means that political uncertainty is often a barrier to their realisation.
“They can be complicated to get under way,” says Andersen. “They require major capital expenditure, there can be technical challenges, there has to be international collaboration, and it could cross international boundaries, so it takes a long time to consult on these schemes.”
A proposed 2.5km crossing between the Iranian mainland and Qeshm island, just off the north coast of the UAE, has been in consultation for more than a decade.
A series of feasibility studies were completed in 2002, but no further progress was made. In 2007, it was resurrected as part of the government’s efforts to maximise the island’s potential as a free trade zone.
An airport was completed at Qeshm in mid-2007 and the government is investing heavily in exploiting oil and gas resources both on and around the island.
A 120,000-barrel-a-day (b/d) gas condensate refinery and a 160,000-b/d crude oil refinery were approved in early 2007.
An export terminal is also planned to export the ultra-light crude found in the Hangam field, while a 45km pipeline will transport oil to Qeshm island.
Although it is only a short hop across the sea from the mainland to Qeshm, land crossings can represent massive time savings.
“You get tremendous advantages in terms of speed,” says Andersen. “A ferry crossing might take an hour, but you have to get there 30 minutes prior to departure time.
A bridge or tunnel might only take 10 minutes to drive through. There is also a huge difference in terms of the number of people that can be transported.”
Another advantage of such crossings is that their aesthetic qualities make them attractions in their own right.
“Crossings have a straightforward infrastructure function of getting from A to B, but bridges are also seen as landmark structures,” says Damgaard. “Some have symbolic value and act as a showcase for a particular country or group of countries.”
Turning essentially functional projects into landmarks is becoming increasingly popular in the Gulf.
In the next two months, Dubai’s Roads & Transport Authority is expected to invite tenders for the Sixth crossing over Dubai Creek, an inlet into the emirate, to ease congestion.
The structure includes two 205 metre-tall, 630 metre-long arches, making it the largest arch bridge ever built, carrying six lanes of traffic in each direction, with two metro lines running through the centre.
“It is the highest arch in the world,” says Ayman Makeen, project manager at FXFowle International, the architect on the scheme.
“The inspiration for the concept comes from water and the idea of waves. We have divided the bridge into two, creating an island in the centre.
The final design has gone to the client for approval, after which construction should start within six months. I expect they will start to tender within two months.”
Another spectacular structure is the Palm Jebel Ali bridge, designed by Netherlands-based Royal Haskoning for Dubai-based developer Nakheel.
The cable-stayed bridge will be 450 metres long and connect the palm development with Dubai Waterfront.
Royal Haskoning submitted the final design to the client in early August and bids for construction work are expected to be invited shortly.
The proliferation of road and bridge crossings throughout the region is gradually providing improved connections between states and swifter delivery times for freight.
But governments still have to overcome their understandable nervousness when it comes to large-scale international transport links.
Improving infrastructure is a key element in the diversification drive of many of the Gulf states.
Now they need the confidence to take it one step further. “There is huge investment involved,” says Andersen. “But the client, whether private sector or public, has to see the long-term benefits to society.”
The Friendship bridge
After nine years of planning, contractors are finally gearing up to start work on one of the region’s most ambitious engineering projects: the $4.2bn Qatar-Bahrain causeway, known as the Friendship bridge.
The first signs of construction will be clearly visible within one year, and if the project moves ahead on schedule, it will be open to traffic in late 2012.
Despite the high-level involvement in the project, it has a history of slow progress.
In 2001, a Danish consortium, led by engineering consultant Cowi and including operator and toll specialist Sund & Baelt, hydraulic consultant DHI Water & Environment and architect Dissing & Weitling, was commissioned to conduct a feasibility study.
But there was little sign of progress in the seven years that followed, leaving many questioning whether the project would ever happen.
Politically, the project is sensitive.
There were fears that Riyadh, which voiced concerns about the Qatar-UAE causeway and the Dolphin gas pipeline project between Qatar and Abu Dhabi, would object to the scheme.
But the project was rekindled in October last year when a memorandum of understanding was signed by the Qatar Bahrain Causeway Foundation with an international consortium led by Qatari Diar.
The announcement took the market by surprise, but it was only the first step in the lead up to a contract award.
The consortium spent seven months defining its scope of work, reviewing preliminary designs, preparing detailed designs and assessing the project’s viability and cost.
The appointment of a client representative or programme manager has been slow.
The consultancy role was originally tendered in January and bids were duly received, but the client recently decided to retender the contract.
The UK’s Mott Macdonald and a team of US-based KBR with UK-based Halcrow have shown interest in the most recent tender.
The client’s difficulties in getting a consultant on board quickly enough to manage the project from the start shows that some underlying issues remain.
Equally, the progress made towards the appointment of the contractors offers hope that the project can be driven forward.
The two countries will just have to learn to work together as the project progresses.