There was a cast of big hitters present at the signing earlier this week of Shell's 10-year lease on a facility at the Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP). The agreement makes the Royal Dutch/Shell Group of Companies the first anchor tenant to fully sign up to be part of the Qatar Foundation's knowledge based research and commercialisation facility.
The inking of the paper on February 13 followed a meeting between Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al-Misnad, chairperson of the Qatar Foundation and wife of the Emir, Minister of Energy Abdullah bin Hamad al-Attiyah, and Jeroen van der Veer, Shell's chief executive. They were then present at the signing between Abdulla al-Kubaisi, member of the board of the Qatar Foundation, and Linda Cook, the executive director of gas and power for Shell.
"The signing of this agreement and the announcement of Shell's programme mark two significant milestones in the development of the Qatar Foundation's science and technology park," explained Sheikha Mozah. "I am pleased with Shell's strong commitment to the development and transfer of technology in Qatar and am confident that our partnership with Shell will contribute to the development of significant new technologies in the energy field at the science and technology park, which will help Qatar to become a knowledge leader in the oil and gas industry."
The arrival of the high level team from Shell comes in a week that has also seen the global heads of BP and ExxonMobil in Doha on business. With Shell, these companies represent the world's three largest energy companies and their interest in Qatar is indicative of the state's emerging role as the world's LNG and Gas-to-Liquids (GTL) capital.
However, some see the seriousness they treat this with as reflected less in the high-level delegations and more in the way they are supporting their investment; namely by seeking to compliment Qatar's own development plans. Shell is the first of a number of anchor tenants to sign at QSTP, with EADS or Airbus Industries, Microsoft, ExxonMobil and Total all expected to put pen to paper over the next few months.
The attractions for the partners are obvious.
"We're coming back into Qatar with a huge project, but we aren't just here to do the project," said Andrew Brown, president of Qatar Shell GTL, when speaking to OBG this week. "We want to contribute across a broad spectrum of areas. I think we see QSTP as an area where we can take our research and commercialisation and bring them to Qatar where they are closer to the work, where they are more relevant, whilst at the same time helping to build the fabric of the education city and contribute to the development of the economy overall."
Proximity to the object of their desire is a sure-fire pull for the energy giants, but the idea behind QSTP is to pull in clients from a number of fields - including aircraft operation, environmental technology, healthcare, IT and communications, and water technology. The park also has to compete with other knowledge and industrial parks in the region.
"There are a number of projects we are aware of which are developing activities associated with knowledge based business," explained Eulian Roberts, project director at QSTP. "They're mostly in the UAE with some in Saudi and Oman. Our focus is very much on ensuring we get the high valued-added parts of the development activities from the clients though. We are not looking for high employment-generating activities like manufacturing. Moreover we aren't looking to badge all the buildings with major multi-nationals; we need to keep the balance between them whilst keeping an eye on the content. If it is knowledge based, then that's great."
Some 10 further clients are past the first stages of securing tenancy, Roberts adds. "We're quite far down the line in terms of how many tenants we have, considering we are 15 months from completion of the first phase. It demonstrates that the products and services are much in need, and so we hope to see more as further clients see the success and can touch and feel the success."
The park has a number of competitive factors going for it. Qatar's political stability and strong international relations form a good foundation, alongside the sound economic fundamentals driving growth and successful industrial diversification.
These are bolstered by the free-zone benefits offered by the park. These include the possibility of 100% foreign ownership, with no need for local partners or agents; the ability of a company to sponsor its own employees; no tax and unrestricted repatriation of capital and profit.
Yet such benefits are available at other such parks in the region too, making the effective marketing of the QSTP a vital factor. At the same time, many analysts point out, whilst the big names will likely continue to arrive to inspect progress and shake hands, the extent of their commitment to becoming fully integrated into Qatar's economic vision will be the true measure of how important the sandy peninsula state can become to some of the world's largest corporations.