Despite the recent focus on major gas deals, Qatar is also still trying to put itself on the map in sectors that require a more human kind of energy with the Doha Asian Games. Scheduled for 2006, preparations for this athletics tournament have placed a series of construction projects centre stage, all of which aim to make the small Gulf emirate a regional business and tourism hub.
The Qatari capital will be the first Arab city to put on the games, which only happen every four years. The government has pledged to spend $700m to build an Olympic-style sports city capable of housing 10,000 athletes, along with several thousand games administrators, by the time the two-week event gets underway in December 2006.
While sparing no expense to ensure that the games bring prestige to the country, the government has also made efficiency and sustainability important priorities in planning for the event. Accordingly, tenders for construction of the planned sports city initially called for athletes' accommodation to be convertible, with minimum additional time and expense, into a luxury housing complex after 2006. As the master plan developed, however, the idea of a high-tech medical centre emerged as the main post-games function for the site.
Yet ambitious construction plans have not necessarily been matched by efforts to streamline a slow-moving state bureaucracy. Privately, contractors express concerns about whether planned sports facilities can be ready by 2006. In addition, the government will need to consider ways to simplify visa procedures for visitors in order to host an international event of such magnitude.
The Asian Games are expected to bring at least 20,000 athletes, officials and visitors to the tiny emirate, pushing the limits of its rapidly expanding hotel and tourism infrastructure. The government says it has allocated a total of $2.8m to bring Qatar up to Olympic standards within the next two-and-a-half years.
Along with the $700m for the sporting city-cum medical complex, some $400m has been set aside to upgrade the emirate's present sports facilities, including the Khalifa stadium complex and other existing stadiums and swimming pools.
But the largest portion of the upgrading budget has been assigned to the New Doha International Airport project, a multi-phase plan to quadruple Doha's capacity for passenger air traffic by 2008. The new airport is meant to open in 2006, in time to funnel the crowds for the Asian Games, while the first phase of construction is still underway. Engineering at the new airport site should start by the end of this month, project officials said.
The lead contractor for the project, US-based engineering firm Bechtel, promises to equip the Qatari capital with a world-class passenger, cargo and maintenance facility that can eventually be expanded to accommodate up to 50m passengers a year, assuming such demand arises. Phase one will have the airport operating with a capacity of 12m passengers per year, up from actual traffic levels of well under 4m annually at Doha's current airport.
The new twin-runway "superjumbo" terminal will be built largely on reclaimed land, with nearly 28.5 sq km of landfill being added to an existing land area of less than 26 sq km, Bechtel's director of global aviation business development, Rudy Vericelli, said last week at a conference in Doha organised by the Middle East Economic Digest (MEED). The completed airport will cover an area "two-thirds the size of the city of Doha," according to Vericelli.
He added that noise contours from takeoffs and landings would be entirely over the adjacent waters of the Gulf, so that even a meteoric rise in air traffic would in no way lessen quality of life or interfere with the future development of the city. Flights to and from the current Doha International Airport create periodic jet noise over some residential areas.
Land reclamation will be covered by one of 18 tender packages for airport-related subcontracts, which Bechtel is expected to issue in the months ahead. Together, the 18 subcontract packages will add up to $2.5bn for first phase of airport construction and up to $5bn for further phases, Dow Jones Newswires reported January 15.
The new airport is meant to accommodate the 555-seat Airbus A-380, deliveries of which Qatar Airways expects to receive around the time the new airport goes into operation. In early December, Qatar Airways chief executive Akbar al-Baker announced that the state-run carrier had placed new aircraft orders with Aircraft Industries worth around $3bn.
Qatar Airways also bought four Global Express long-range executive jets for $180m. As recently as the mid-1990s, when al-Baker took charge, the airline's entire fleet consisted of four small and antiquated aircraft, an airport service contractor said.
Elsewhere in the region, other Arab cities including Beirut, Cairo and most crucially Dubai, have also set out to expand and improve their international airport terminals. Beirut is also in the process of creating an extensive area of reclaimed land to allow for expansion of its newly restored central business district over the next 10-15 years.
Dubai is likely to stay ahead in terms of total civil aviation capacity, with work already underway to increase its annual capacity to 60m passengers within the next decade. But Qatar is looking at an extraordinarily fast takeoff. New Doha International Airport "will be one of the best and most efficient airports you're going to find in the marketplace," Vericelli said. "Many will miss the boat. I don't think Qatar will be one of them."
The airport, just as much as the sporting city, will be vital to the success of Doha's Asian Games. Unlike most host countries, Qatar cannot count on its local population to fill many stadium seats. Qatar's entire population is under 700,000, of whom around three-quarters are foreign nationals, many of them relatively low-paid labourers.
Yet despite efforts to raise the emirate's visitor profile, the energy sector looks set to continue its dominance for a long while to come. Just as one example of this, on January 17, Qatar Liquefied Gas Co. (Qatargas) signed a 20-year export deal with Gas Natural of Spain, with shipments due to start after one year. Earlier the same week, Qatar Petroleum had signed three key contracts related to the Dolphin Project, which aims to lay the foundations for a regional gas grid, starting with links between the UAE, Qatar and Oman.
Nevertheless, the emirate remains under starter's orders for 2006.