Building transport links across the region

04 September 2008
Trade between Gulf states is set to improve as the difficulties of crossing the region’s vast open spaces are resolved with a series of major road, rail and airport projects.

If it were not for the sight of aeroplanes crisscrossing the skies, there would be little to differentiate the Middle East’s transport infrastructure now from what existed 100 years ago.

The region’s cities remain largely unconnected and are separated by vast, inhospitable deserts. Some roads have been built, but they are used infrequently, and for the vast majority land travel is simply not an option. As a result, trade links between neighbouring countries are limited.

However, by 2030, all this is set to change. The region’s governments are implementing huge transport infrastructure programmes - including roads, railways, metros, ferries, causeways and bridges - that will bring the region’s rapidly growing cities closer than ever before.

“The region’s governments are looking seriously at developing their transport infrastructure,” says one European transport consultant. “Without good transport systems, their economies will not grow as fast as they should.”

Airports will remain a top priority. By 2030, the region will be home to some of the largest airports in the world. “The airport developments in the Gulf are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for contractors,” says one European contractor. “They are so big you have to ask whether they are too ambitious.”

Transport hubs

Airports do not just satisfy local demand for air travel. They also support government-backed intercontinental carriers such as Dubai-based Emirates, Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways, and Qatar Airways, which aim to connect to Asia and Australia in the east, and Europe and the Americas in the west.

Dubai is leading the charge. As the emirate began to develop its image as a tourism destination in the 1990s, it quickly became clear that it needed more than just a regional airport. In 2003, work started on a massive expansion of Dubai International airport to add a third terminal and two new concourses to the existing facility. Once completed, the scheme will increase the airport’s capacity to 70 million
passengers a year, making it one of the largest in the world. The new terminal and the first concourse will open in October 2008.

Not content with a huge expansion of its main airport, Dubai’s Department of Civil Aviation has also launched a second international airport project in Jebel Ali, about 40 kilometres from Dubai city near the Abu Dhabi border. The facility, to be called Al-Maktoum International airport, will eventually have capacity for 120 million passengers a year and will be the centrepiece of a 140-square-kilometre airport city.

Other cities in the Gulf are following Dubai’s example. In 2003, Doha announced plans to build a new international airport on a reclaimed site next to the city’s existing airport. Construction work at New Doha International airport began in 2005, and when all phases are completed in 2015, it will have a capacity of 50 million passengers a year. In 2006, Abu Dhabi announced a $6.8bn expansion of Abu Dhabi International airport that will also take the handling capacity of the airport to 50 million passengers a year by 2011.

Oman plans to expand its Muscat and Salalah airports to help develop the sultanate as a tourism destination. Bahrain is drawing up plans to increase the design capacity of Manama airport to 12-15 million passengers a year from 3 million, and there are plans to increase the capacity of Kuwait International airport to 14 million passengers a year.

Domestic travel

In Saudi Arabia, the rationale for building airports is different. Covering an area of more than 2 million sq km, and with a population of about 24 million, the kingdom relies on airports not just for connections to the outside world, but also for travel within the country. The cities of Mecca and Medina in the west receive almost 10 million people a year carrying out the annual Hajj pilgrimage - which alone attracts 2.5 million visitors a year - or the Umra, which can be undertaken at any time of the year.

To handle the growing number of pilgrims, planning is under way for a $240m main terminal at King Abdulaziz International airport in Jeddah, where the majority of overseas pilgrims enter the kingdom. Scheduled to open by 2012, it will have the capacity to handle 30 million passengers a year. Expansion plans are also being prepared for the airport at Medina. Elsewhere in the kingdom, upgrades are under way to airports at Yanbu, Hail, Gurayat, Tabuk and Madin Saleh.

A series of expansions are also being planned in North Africa, albeit on a more modest scale. Cairo is completing a third terminal together with a new runway, Libya is expanding airports at Tripoli, Sebha and Sirte and building a facility at Benghazi, and Tunisia is working on the development of a new airport at Enfidha. In the Levant, Jordan is moving ahead with the expansion of Queen Alia airport in Amman.

Airport projects are vital for the economic development of the Middle East. But the big change in 2030 will be that air travel will be supplemented by alternatives. Of the options available to the region’s governments, rail seems to be the most attractive. If all plans currently being considered go ahead, in 2030 it should be possible to board a train in Muscat and pass through Dubai and Abu Dhabi before heading into Saudi Arabia and up to Kuwait, through the Levant and then across North Africa to Morocco.

To make this vision a reality, much work still needs to be done. At present, the region’s rail network is asymmetric. In North Africa, thousands of kilometres of railways were built under colonial rule in the mid-1800s, whereas in the rest of the Middle East, there are only two major lines, totalling just over 1,000km, offering freight and passenger services between Dammam and Riyadh in Saudi Arabia.

The Gulf is hoping it can quickly catch up. Saudi Arabia has the most ambitious plans, comprising three multi-billion-dollar projects (see feature, page 42). The Landbridge project will link the kingdom’s east and west coasts, connecting Jeddah to Dammam via Riyadh. The holy cities of Mecca and Medina will be connected by the Haramain high-speed rail project. The third scheme, the North-South railway, will connect planned aluminium and fertiliser complexes at Ras al-Zour on the Gulf coast with the Al-Jalamid phosphate mine and Al-Zabirah bauxite mine in the north.

The UAE is also moving ahead with a new rail network to connect the seven emirates. Project managers and operators have already been approached for the first phase of the scheme, which will provide cargo services between Abu Dhabi and the Saudi border.

Developing rail

Rail is also on the agenda elsewhere in the Gulf. Kuwait has completed a feasibility study for a $14bn rail network and the government is now deciding how best to proceed with the scheme. In Oman, the government is considering plans for a 200km line to link Sohar and Barka. Qatari Diar Real Estate Company has also signed a memorandum of understanding with Germany’s Deutsche Bahn to draw up the conceptual designs for a national railway system in Qatar estimated to be worth $10bn.

The Qatari scheme comprises an east coast rail link, a high-speed line linking New Doha International airport and Doha city centre, and another to Bahrain via the planned causeway between the two Gulf states (see box, page 56), a freight link connecting to the GCC rail network, a new metro system in the capital, and a light rail system connecting new developments to the north of the capital.

The rail projects in the six Gulf states will combine to form a single rail network, currently being planned by the GCC secretariat. Feasibility studies on the scheme are scheduled for completion by October 2008. The network will run south from Kuwait, through Saudi Arabia, branching off to Qatar before entering the UAE and Oman, and eventually reaching Yemen.

The North African governments are also
planning to reverse decades of decline in their railways with new lines, rolling stock and upgrades to existing services (see feature, page 46). Libya, which has no operating rail lines, plans to use its new-found oil wealth to invest heavily in railways over the coming years.

Algeria is building billion of dollars worth of new railway lines, including high-speed links, that will connect its cities and provide new transport routes to its neighbours. Morocco is also planning a high-speed rail network that will eventually extend from Tangiers in the north to Agadir in the south.

The new vision for the region’s transport infrastructure is not confined to inter-state networks. Having arrived at one of the region’s airports or international train stations, passengers will be presented with a totally revamped transportation system.

Light railways

At the moment, the only options for national travel are the private car, taxis or limited bus services. With the exception of Cairo, which opened a metro system in the late 1980s, and Tehran, which opened one in 2000, no Middle East city has a functioning underground light-railway network.

Plans in North Africa are among the most advanced. Though much-delayed, Algiers is expected to open the first line of its revamped network later this year, and plans are being drawn up for further extensions. Tunis is also developing plans for a new suburban transport system comprising an integrated metro, light rail and bus network, with new multi-nodal transport hubs to facilitate interchanges between the different transport modes.

In 2009, Dubai will also join the metro club and other Gulf cities are set to follow (see feature, page 50). Abu Dhabi has already announced its intention to build a similar scheme in the UAE capital, and light rail schemes are being prepared in Doha, Kuwait City and Riyadh.

As in Tunis, other parts of the region are developing a range of rail-based facilities to supplement the planned metro systems. Dubai is building two tram systems - one serving Dubai Marina and the Al-Sufouh area, and the other serving the Burj Dubai downtown district. Algeria is developing tram networks in Oran and Constantine.

Water is also an option for the regional transport network of the future. With a few exceptions, the region’s cities are situated either on the coast or along rivers. In the Gulf, waterfront areas have become prime locations for real estate projects, and the coastline is being extended by hundreds of kilometres through the creation of offshore islands and the development of inland canals.

The new developments enable the region’s cities to mimic great maritime metropolises such as New York, Sydney and Hong Kong, where ferries connect different parts of the city along rivers, across harbours and between islands. Although not a primary means of transport around a city, water transport provides an alternative form of travel for tourists and less time-conscious commuters to access the city at a more leisurely pace.

Although government spending on alternative forms of transport has increased exponentially, the private car will remain important. As a result, traditional road, bridge and tunnel projects are still being developed.

The most ambitious of these schemes are giant causeways that are set to connect the Gulf islands to the east and link Arabia and Africa across the Red Sea to the west (see feature, page 52). The proposed link between Yemen and Djibouti will involve Dubai-based Middle East Developments investing $20bn in a 28.5km causeway to link two new cities on either side of the Red Sea.

More advanced is the Qatar-Bahrain causeway project (see feature, page 52). In May, a consortium of contractors was selected to build the 40km link. Completion of the $4bn scheme is expected in the second half of 2012.

More conventional road schemes are also planned across the region. Construction is under way on a 1,216km motorway to link Algeria’s borders with Tunisia and Morocco across the north of the country, and motorway schemes in the two neighbouring states
promise to make a cross-continental road a reality, if Algiers and Rabat can set aside their political differences.

Tackling congestion

In an effort to combat congestion, Dubai is awarding about $1bn worth of road contracts every year to increase the number of bridges crossing the Creek - an inlet to the emirate - and the number of road arteries running through the city. Abu Dhabi is also working on alternative highway corridors into the city from the airport as the emirate attempts to avoid the congestion currently experienced in Dubai (see feature, page 58).

Saudi Arabia is also moving ahead with major road schemes to alleviate congestion in its main cities, such as King Abdullah road and the outer ring road in Riyadh, as well as the Jeddah ring road. Qatar is building highways that will link Doha with new industrial areas in Mesaieed and Ras Laffan.

If all goes to plan, by 2030 the Middle East and North Africa region will be able to enjoy the economic benefits and ease of travel provided by an intricate web of roads, railways, flight paths and shipping lanes.

As the Middle East seeks to convert its oil earnings into a sustainable economic future, investment in transport infrastructure is a logical step.

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