Kamal bin Ahmed Mohammed is a busy man. His ministry is overseeing a multibillion-dollar portfolio of projects including airports, railways and causeways, which will transform the country’s transport infrastructure over the coming decade.

The most advanced scheme is the $1.1bn new terminal building at Bahrain International airport, awarded to a team of the UAE’s Arabtec Construction and Turkey’s TAV in January 2016.

“We are late with our airport,” says Mohammed. “We have an old airport. Half of it was built in 1973, and the last expansion was done in 1993. Today, we have about 8.7 million passengers and this airport is built only for 4 million, so we needed to build as soon as possible.”

Bahrain has chosen to build a new terminal rather than expanding the existing one.

“The new terminal will be almost 3.5 times bigger than the existing one,” says Mohammed. “But we will make sure we maintain the friendliness of our airport. Today, when you land in Bahrain or take off from Bahrain it is so easy for passengers to do all those processes quickly, efficiently and smoothly. We have made sure the new design will maintain the same things.”

Grander plans

In the longer term, Bahrain has grander plans, with preparations being made for a new $10bn-plus airport. “We have limitations with our airport,” says Mohammed. “We have only one runway and that will only give you a number of movements. We know that if we are lucky and have the growth that we want, we need a new airport in 15 years. If you want to build a new airport, it takes 10 years, so we need to start now to plan for the other one.”

The new airport will be built on reclaimed land to the north of Muharraq Island, where Bahrain International is located.

“We have decided on location; we have done hydrological studies; we have done aerospace studies,” says Mohammed. “A lot of consultants were involved, there were some options, but the best option is this one.”

The new island will require dredging and infrastructure, including a bridge or causeway to connect it to the rest of Bahrain. The minister says that early estimates for a budget will be at least 10 times the cost of the $1.1bn new terminal currently being built at the existing Bahrain International airport.

Unlike the under-construction terminal building, which is being developed directly by the government with GCC funding support, the proposed new airport is likely to be developed in partnership with the private sector.

“For sure if we do it, it will be a different way of developing,” says Mohammed. “It is greenfield, this [new terminal building at the existing airport] is brownfield. With greenfield, there are more ways of financing, such as BOT [build, operate, transfer]. We think that if we do a good job [at the existing airport] and increase growth, that it will be viable to be built in another way.”

Rail network

As for land transport, a rail network is planned. “Over the past 60-70 years, Bahrain used its oil revenues to build the infrastructure we have today,” says Mohammed. “But when it comes to land transport, we have only built roads and highways. I don’t think continuing with this mode of development – building only highways and roads, and encouraging people to use [their cars] – is sustainable.”

The minister says Bahrain will make a decision on how to proceed with its proposed light rail network once a nine-month study is completed at the end of September.

Spain’s Idom Consulting Engineering Architecture started work for the Ministry of Transport & Telecommunications on the light rail study in January this year. It covers a study of the existing transport system in Bahrain, preparing plans for the network and individual phases, selecting the best technology to be used, the preliminary design of the first phase, as well as the cost of implementing phase one and the best method to procure it.

“By the end of September, we will have all this information,” says Mohammed. “As transport minister, I then need to take this outcome and sell the business case. I am convinced, but I need to convince others, especially as there are limited financial resources. We need to have ways to convince people this is the only way to resolve the transportation issue in Bahrain.”

Another proposed project is Bahrain’s connection to the GCC rail network, which will cross the sea to Saudi Arabia on a new causeway. “[Rail] is an opportunity to do another causeway because we think the existing [King Fahd] causeway will not provide a good enough service by 2030, and it is better to do it now when it is cheaper than doing it later,” says Mohammed, adding that the causeway and the rail project are integrally connected. “They are one project. People keep separating them,” he says.

Private participation

Again, the private sector will be engaged for the project. “We are planning to test the private sector’s appetite for this scheme,” says Mohammed. “Hopefully, we will invite the private sector to brief them about this project. I don’t want to give dates, but we have a meeting [in April] in Bahrain and we will decide. We want to do it very soon.”

The minister says there is a strong business case for the scheme. “This is a tested project,” he says. “You have 10.2 million vehicles crossing the existing causeway. So even from a risk point of view, there is little uncertainty.”

A technical and financial feasibility study for the causeway was completed by Canada’s SNC-Lavalin in 2016, and since then it has been reviewed by Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

“We now understand the situation, and we are convinced this project is important for both countries,” says Mohammed. “We need to have connections that will benefit Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, not only for economic and commercial reasons, but also socially and politically.”