Driving the Economy


Economic News

22 Jul 2010
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The state of Qatar's roads has been under debate recently in Doha, with vehicle numbers growing and an infrastructure that is beginning to look creaky. Yet the government has earmarked funds for the problem - a natural consequence of economic expansion.

News of a future boost in road user numbers came this week via an announcement that three new driving schools are to open, bringing the total number in Qatar to eight. At the same time, the demand for driving licences has almost doubled in the last year, according to the Traffic and Patrol Department.

The driving schools will also soon see this department setting up offices on their premises, allowing them to issue licences on the same day as the test, avoiding the growing queues at the department's main office.

The increase in demand for driving licences is marginally to do with an increased number of applications from women - who have traditionally stayed away from driving schools - but is mostly due to the ever-increasing numbers of expatriate workers coming into the country.

This increasing volume is now hitting a shrinking road network, however. With constraints and diversions from a growing number of construction sites in the city - partly due to general economic expansion, and partly due to the fact that Qatar is hosting the Asian Games in December this year - the traffic jams can only get worse.

Yet help is at hand. The Public Works Authority (Ashghal) has recently increased its budget from QR27bn ($7.63bn) to QR31bn ($8.77bn) to cover a greater quantity of infrastructure work as part of its five-year plan.

This includes 40 major projects on the roads, involving the construction of more than 350 km of new highway. Work on these is expected to be completed in 2009.

However, there will not only be an increase in the road network. Ashghal is also proposing a railway link between the Free Zone at Doha's new international airport and Doha New Port, via Mesaied and Abu Samra. The rail link is expected to take a large amount of freight transportation off the roads and so further ease congestion. Ashgal has also suggested the operation of an underground metro service that will serve the new Lusail and Pearl real estate projects.

Public transport is a new phenomenon in Qatar. Mowasalat, which now provides a bus service, was only established at the end of 2004. Prior to that, only private-hire taxis were available. With public transport still in its infancy, there are a growing number of complaints these days about just how difficult it is to get a taxi.

At the same time, the poorer expatriate workers, many of whom are working on the myriad of projects in the construction industry, are left with the cheaper option of travelling by bicycle.

Yet this has a terrible downside. While it has been estimated by Nasser Khalifa al-Attiyah, president of the Qatar Motor and Motorcycling Federation (QMMF), that 200 young Qatari nationals die each year in motor accidents, no firm statistics exist as to the number of cyclists killed on the roads. However, of those that are, South Asian embassies have asserted, the vast majority are expatriate workers. This is despite a July 2002 law making it a legal requirement to wear a helmet when riding a bicycle, a rule that seems rarely to be observed.

At the same time, while buses may have given public transport a recent boost, the older, orange and white taxis, which provide much-needed inexpensive transportation for workers, are disappearing as their permits expire. No exact date has been given for when these old taxis will be taken off the road and rumours have varied, but all are expected to be out of commission by the end of the year.

At the same time, higher end taxi service Karwa has announced it will introduce over 700 new cars to its fleet. This will go some way to alleviating the taxi shortage, but it is not expected to benefit low-income families.

Meanwhile, there have already been some complaints about the bus fares - there is a minimum QR2 ($0.57) ticket price for short distances - and about the lack of coverage by the bus network, which currently covers only nine routes. This has meant that some workers, having taken the bus, are still left with a kilometre walk to get to their destination. To ease that burden, Mowasalat has announced it will opening seven new bus routes in the coming months.

Earlier this month, Project Qatar 2006, the country's third international trade exhibition for the construction industry, was held. This saw Ashghal display its billion-dollar projects and tenders to the 550 local and international companies that attended the exhibition. At the same time though, bicycle power may continue to rise outside the conference hall, as the economic boom Qatar is experiencing means more expatriate workers continue to come to the country for work.

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