How roads are becoming integral to the region's long-term economic vision

Published in MEED, 29 June 2015 Road, bridge and tunnel projects are cornerstones of the region's economic growth.

The King Fahd causeway has been breaking records this year. On 28 February, more than 100,000 people travelled across the 25-kilometre link connecting Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, the highest daily total since it was opened in November 1986.

The causeway is a critical element in Bahrain’s infrastructure, but it can get crowded. Traffic flows have been growing by more than 10 per cent a year, with an average of 27,000 cars using the crossing every day last year, up from 24,000 in 2013. So it is just as well that plans are in place to allow more traffic to travel between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. The existing causeway is undergoing a seven-year, $5.3bn expansion to increase the number of lanes in each direction from five to seven.

Second causeway

In addition, an entirely new link is to be built. The $5bn King Hamad causeway is due to include a rail link, which will form part of the wider GCC Railway, and will run to the north of the existing route. The main contract on the project is due to be awarded in November this year and it is expected to be another four years before it is open.

If the new causeway does go ahead as planned, it will give a welcome boost to the faltering Bahraini economy, providing an enhanced link for logistics firms that want to serve Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province and potentially encouraging more Saudi tourists to visit the island or buy second homes there.

Such economic arguments provide the underlying logic for transport projects all over the region. Roads, bridges and tunnels are not cheap to build but, if done correctly, the investment should pay off in greater economic growth.

Governments also need to keep building roads just to keep pace with the high levels of car ownership in the region. Globally, there are about 174 vehicles for every 1,000 people, but the GCC countries easily outstrip that, with averages ranging from 214 vehicles in the UAE to 727 in Kuwait. This adds up to a total of 17.5 million vehicles on the roads of the GCC and Egypt, of which 13.3 million are passenger cars.

The Paris-based International Organisation of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers reckons a further 1.2 million cars and 380,000 commercial vehicles will join them on the road this year.

With such statistics in mind, it is little wonder that governments are spending as much as they are on new roads. Across the Gulf and Egypt, some $124bn-worth of road, tunnel, bridge and causeway projects are either planned or under way.

Often these projects are integral to the long-term visions for economic development set out by governments. The Abu Dhabi Vision 2030, for example, states that the emirate’s government “will continue to improve its road network, ensuring that congestion is kept to a minimum” and that “improvements to roads linking the Western Region and southern Al-Ain with the rest of the emirate are also taking place to help boost regional development and integration.”

The total value of ongoing projects around the region includes $23.8bn-worth of causeways and bridges. In addition to the new Bahrain-Saudi crossing, other major plans include the Sharq crossing in Doha, which is being led by the Qatar Public Works Authority (Ashghal), the Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah causeway planned by the Ministry of Public Works in Kuwait, and the Masirah Island causeway project in Oman, which is being led by the Ministry of Transport & Communications.

Link delayed

Not all projects are moving ahead as originally envisaged, however. The long-mooted $4bn causeway linking Qatar and Bahrain is going nowhere, seemingly a victim of the poor relations between the two countries these days. An official from Bahrain’s Public Works Ministry recently confirmed to MEED that the project is on hold and unlikely to go ahead.

Currently, the most active market is Qatar, where some $41.7bn-worth of projects are planned or under way as part of a wider infrastructure build-out ahead of the football World Cup in 2022.

The country’s road-building projects are led by Ashghal. Its major projects include the expressway programme, which will connect key cities, towns and villages around the country through more than 900km of new roads and 240 major junctions, including underpasses, flyovers and multi-level interchanges. The seven-year programme is estimated to cost $20bn and is expected to be completed by 2018. US-based KBR is the project manager on the scheme.

The second-most active market is Saudi Arabia, where the Ministry of Transport is responsible for most of the work. Its major projects include a second ring-road for the capital, Riyadh, costing an estimated $1.95bn. This will involve constructing a 107km route, with four-lanes in each direction, as well as service roads running alongside the carriageway. The main contract is due to be awarded in July this year, with the work scheduled to be completed by April 2024.

Also impressive in terms of scale, cost and ambition is the Eastern Province motorway. This $740m project is nearing completion and involves building a two-lane dual carriageway across parts of the Empty Quarter desert to create a road link to Oman. The main contractor on the project is the local Nassir Hazza & Bros, and work is 88 per cent complete, according to regional projects tracker MEED Projects.

Such projects only form part of the ministry’s wide-ranging road building and improvement efforts, however. MEED Projects calculates that the ministry has a total of $14.9bn-worth of road schemes planned or under way, most of which cost a few tens of millions of dollars, rather than hundreds of millions. For example, it is working on 39 road schemes in Asir Province, costing a total of $1.4bn, or an average of $36m each, and the 19 road projects in Medina Province are valued at a collective $708m, or $37m apiece.

Across the border in the UAE, the responsibility for road-building is divided among the authorities in the various emirates. In the capital, Abu Dhabi General Services Company (Musanada) is responsible for roads and infrastructure. Its major road-building schemes include improvement works on the Mafraq to Ghuweifat highway, which is due to be completed in early 2017, and the 62km Abu Dhabi-Dubai road, which should be finished by August 2016.

Under contracts signed in December 2013, the local Ghantoot Transport & General Contracting Establishment is building the first phase of the new Abu Dhabi-Dubai road, covering about 34km at a cost of AED1.3bn ($350m). Another local contractor, Tristar Engineering & Construction, is working with Abu Dhabi Salini Costruttori to build the second phase, which consists of 28km and includes three major intersections, at a cost of some AED840m.

The other markets around the Gulf are smaller in scale. In Kuwait, there are an estimated $16.6bn-worth of road projects, including the $2bn north and east regional highway, the $1.7bn south regional highway and the $1.2bn 7th ring road around the capital, all three of which are currently at the main contract bidding stage.

Batinah expressway

In Oman, there are about $12.3bn-worth of roads, tunnels and bridges planned or under way, most of which are being handled by the Ministry of Transport & Communications. The most significant project is the $2.6bn Batinah expressway, a 275km road running from Seeb, north of Muscat, to Oman’s border with the UAE at Khatmat Malaha. It is due to be finished by mid-2018. Also under way in Oman is the 241km Batinah coastal road, a $1.3bn scheme from Barka that also ends at Khatmat Malaha.

In Bahrain, there is little planned of major significance beyond the new causeway to Saudi Arabia, with just $588m-worth of other road projects in the pipeline. The Ministry of Works is in charge of these projects, which include improvement works to the Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah highway, the extension of the Sheikh Zayed highway and the widening of the Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman highway.

In contrast to all the activity in the Gulf, the road-building sector in Egypt is relatively underpowered today, with only about $4.5bn-worth of projects. The most significant project by far is a scheme to build seven new tunnels under the expanded Suez Canal.

Of these, three will be in Port Said, with two for cars and one for trains. The other four will be further south in the town of Ismailia. Each tunnel will be just over 3km in length and the total cost is estimated at $4bn. The project is being run by the Suez Canal Authority. The main contractor is a local joint venture of Orascom and Arab Contractors, with work expected to get under way in November.

New Cairo

Many more large road-building schemes seem likely to emerge in Egypt in the coming years, not least those that will be needed for the new capital city that has been proposed. The government is aiming to build a new $45bn administrative capital to relieve the pressure on the notoriously congested Cairo. It has included the creation of 4,500km of new roads as part of its Sustainable Development Strategy published in March.

Causeways could also present an enticing prospect for construction firms in Egypt, particularly one scheme involving Saudi Arabia. A $7bn causeway linking the two countries has been proposed, to be organised by a joint venture company called the Egypt Saudi Association for Construction of the Tiran Causeway.

The 32km route would link Ras Hameed in Saudi Arabia to a point just north of Sharm el-Sheikh on the Sinai peninsula. The causeway gets its name from Tiran Island, which lies in the middle of the straits. The project has been talked about since at least the 1980s and, for now, remains on hold.

However, feasibility studies were carried out in 2012 and 2013 and a contract award has been mooted for January 2017. Given how underpopulated the Saudi side of the causeway is, however, it seems unlikely that this causeway would ever break the record set by the King Fahd crossing earlier this year.