Turning the region into a transport hub

27 April 2017

New airports, ports, railways and causeways will play a pivotal role in the region’s economy over the coming 60 years

One of the key components of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 is developing the kingdom as a logistics and transportation hub that leverages its strategic location between the markets of Asia, Africa and Europe.

This vision will require billions of dollars of investment to upgrade the kingdom’s infrastructure with new airports, ports, highways and railways. While the sums involved will be significant, it will not be a new trend for a region that has been actively developing its transportation infrastructure since 1957.

Airport growth

Control tower at Al-Mahatta Museum, the preserved  former airport in Sharjah, UAE

Control tower at Al-Mahatta Museum, the preserved former airport in Sharjah, UAE

Control tower at Al-Mahatta Museum, the preserved former airport in Sharjah, UAE

The first airports on the Arabian Peninsula were established by the UK in the 1920s and 1930s in Kuwait, Bahrain and Sharjah. As a sign of things to come, one of the next wave of airports to open was Dubai International, which began operations in 1960.

Abu Dhabi International, King Khalid International in Riyadh and King Abdulaziz International in Jeddah followed in the 1980s, and by the start of the new millennium every major city in the Gulf was served by an airport.

Many of these facilities have been greatly expanded. As the hub for Emirates airline, Dubai International is now the world’s busiest airport in terms of international passengers, with 83.6 million handled in 2016.

Like Dubai, Doha has invested heavily in its airport facilities to allow its national carrier Qatar Airways to grow. In 2014, it opened Hamad International close to Doha International, which has since closed down.

Abu Dhabi International airport is also being expanded with the construction of a new Midfield Terminal Complex that is expected to open in 2019.

Elsewhere, work has started on a second terminal at Kuwait International Airport; this facility is expected to be completed in 2020.

The largest scheme by far is the $33bn expansion of Dubai’s Al-Maktoum International

In Saudi Arabia, the General Authority of Civil Aviation (Gaca) is expanding King Abdulaziz International in Jeddah, as well as King Khalid International in Riyadh.

Gaca plans to use the private sector for future projects. The kingdom’s first airport public-private partnership (PPP), Prince Mohammed bin Abdulaziz International in Medina, was developed on a build-operate-transfer basis and entered full operations in June 2015. Contracts were recently signed to develop and operate airports at Taif, Al-Qassim, Hail and Yanbu.

Other airport schemes are also planned across the region. The largest by far is the $33bn expansion of Dubai’s Al-Maktoum International. The project aims to make the airport the biggest in the world by 2050, with the capacity to handle 255 million passengers a year.

Large-scale modern ports have also been developed. In 1979, Dubai opened Jebel Ali port, which is still the region’s busiest facility. Since then, the model of developing a port and a surrounding free zone and industrial area has been mimicked in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi, Oman and Bahrain.

Rail lines

The strength of these industrial hubs will be further enhanced by rail lines that will allow goods and people to be transported around the region. These proposed railways will add to the lines already operating. Saudi Arabia opened the Dammam-Riyadh line in 1981 and Mecca’s Al-Mashaaer al-Mugaddassah Metro Southern Line in 2010; Dubai Metro opened in 2009; and the UAE opened the first phase of its Etihad Rail project in 2014.

These existing lines will soon be joined by two new metro networks in Riyadh and Doha that are now in the advanced construction stages. Metro schemes in Kuwait, Jeddah, Mecca and Abu Dhabi, and a GCC-wide rail network, are also planned.

Kuwait began building a 37.8km-long causeway, officially named the Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah bridge, in 2008

Causeways have likewise been built to improve connectivity within the region. The first major project came in the 1980s, when the King Fahd Causeway was built to connect Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Opened in 1986, the 25-kilometre road crossing cost an estimated $1.2bn to construct and now records more than 10.2 million vehicle movements each year. A second link is planned as increasing traffic means the causeway is expected to struggle to cope by 2030.

Bahrain has also planned a causeway link with Qatar. The scheme was moving towards construction in 2008, but stalled during the financial crisis.  

Another proposed project seeks to link Saudi Arabia and Egypt. King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud announced the plans for a crossing during a state visit to Cairo in early 2016. Since then, the project has stalled following a court decision earlier this year declaring Egyptian sovereignty over the disputed Tiran and Sanafir islands in the Red Sea.

Domestic causeways are also being built. Kuwait began building a 37.8km-long causeway, officially named the Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah bridge, in 2008, as part of plans to build a new city in Subiya to the north of Kuwait City. Qatar intended to start building a series of tunnels and bridges across Doha Bay in 2015, but shelved its $12bn Sharq Crossing to concentrate on critical infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup.

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