Transport on Track for a Boost

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Plans by the government of Ras Al Khaimah (RAK) to bolster the emirate's infrastructure in order to support a more diverse and expanded economy are on track, in more ways than one.

One of the cornerstones of the government's plan is an efficient transport infrastructure network. Over the past decade, there has been significant investment in the emirate's transport grid, with projects such the Emirates Road linking RAK to Dubai and the country's ports all supporting the long-term plans to promote industrial production, logistics services and tourism, while improving transport links for the local community.

Having set itself the goal of becoming one of the leading logistics and cargo-handling centres in the Gulf, the emirate has upgraded Mina Saqr Port to enable it to handle 350,000 twenty foot equivalent units of containers a year. Additional plans are being developed by the contracted operator, Kuwait-based KGL Ports International, to expand this to 1.7m by 2011.

The emirate's main airport has also been extended in keeping with the government's objective of attracting 2.5m foreign visitors a year by 2012, and making the tourism sector one of RAK's main revenue earners.

Furthermore, RAK is in the process of upgrading the emirate's local road and highway network as part of a $800m programme to meet the needs of its rapidly expanding population, which is projected to reach between 500,000 and 600,000 by 2015 from the present level of around 260,000.

According to Oussama El Omari, the CEO of the RAK Free Trade Zone, the programme of developing the emirate's transport infrastructure will not be affected by the global financial crisis, though the government was looking to attract further private equity from port and airport operators once the infrastructure was put in place.

"The roads and port require more than $5bn of development, and the government is looking to private equity partners to come in on this," El Omari said during an interview with Dubai-based business publication Citscape Intelligence in late March. "The airport is also a huge project and the government is interested in recruiting an operator on a long-term basis."

One of the strong points of RAK's transport infrastructure plans is that they were based on current and projected demand, rather than speculation.

"We are developing projects that are market-driven," he said. "We attract good companies and then build infrastructure for them, so it is a more sustained economy."

Two new projects currently in the planning stage would firmly place RAK as a regional transport centre and integrate it into the economies of the other states of the UAE and the wider Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

With the exception of Saudi Arabia, little attention has been paid to railways in the Gulf region, a situation that is in the process of changing. The federal government of the UAE plans to construct a rail network linking all seven emirates with tracked freight and passenger lines. Though tenders for the $3bn UAE-wide network are not expected to be called until 2015, the project will strengthen RAK's transport links along the coast and into the interior of the UAE.

These links will be further reinforced by the connection of the UAE rail grid with that of a larger network being planned to join all of the member states of the GCC. Construction on this wider network, planned to have 1900 km of track, is scheduled to start next year, and will speed up the transfer of goods throughout the region when services begin, a date tentatively set for 2016.

Not only will RAK's freight handling capacity be boosted by the rail links, the emirate's tourism sector will also benefit thanks to the high-speed passenger services that will operate on the two networks, with plans calling for non-freight trains capable of travelling at up to 180 km an hour.

A supporter of the proposed rail link is Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi, RAK's crown prince and deputy ruler. In mid-2008, following a briefing on the planned system, he said that, as part of a wider grid of transport infrastructure, the UAE rail network would assist in maintaining the pace of economic growth.

"An integrated and reliable transportation network across the country would greatly help in reducing congestion and increase productivity and economic growth of the country," he said.

Both through its own efforts, and through those of the UAE federal government, RAK is fast-tracking its transport infrastructure and so putting its economy on the road towards future growth and sustainability.

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