Travel Troubles


Economic News

22 Jul 2010
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Protests are mounting in Qatar as commercial traffic is being forced to wait in ever lengthening queues at the border with Saudi Arabia. Extensive delays are hampering the drive to meet construction targets, and giving many pause to reflect on how best to improve the peninsula's links, both with the wider region and the world.

Long queues at the Abu Samra border have left some truck drivers waiting for days for clearance before crossing from Saudi Arabia into Qatar.

The delays are due to the introduction of Qatar's customs' office's summer schedule, which reduces working hours to between 4.00 am and 11.00 am. The customs office also remains closed at the weekends.

Ordinarily, hundreds of trucks and lorries cross the border every day, but with truck drivers forced to wait in the heat and humidity for as long as three days at Abu Samra, many have started to complain at the lack of facilities at the border township.

On top of the financial losses to businesses caused by the delays, many of the trucks are bringing cement and construction materials to feed Qatar's construction boom. The delays are compounding the cement shortage already afflicting the country - a shortage which last month saw Qatar's ready-mix facilities operating at less than 25% of their production capacity. Many contractors have been left struggling to complete their projects in time for the Asian Games in December.

While a change in working hours might seem to offer the simplest solution to the problem, many will be pleased by news that Qatar and Bahrain have finally agreed to begin construction on a causeway linking the two Gulf states.

With the King Faud Causeway already linking Saudi Arabia to Bahrain, further transport links from Bahrain to Qatar could potentially shorten the journeys of drivers who are currently obliged to travel through Saudi Arabia in order to reach Qatar. The number facing such a journey has been increasing in recent months as building material shortages - and bottlenecks at Qatar's ports - have led many contractors to import via the UAE. This entails a long road journey from the Emirates via Saudi Arabia.

The causeway project was originally proposed after the territorial dispute over Hawar Island was settled by the International Court of Justice in March 2001.

An MoU was signed between the two countries in 2005, establishing a joint authority to manage the project, but it was only earlier this month that Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, heir apparent of Qatar, and Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifah, crown prince of Bahrain, met to sign the agreement to begin the bridge-building project.

Work is scheduled to begin in July, with the causeway taking 50 months to finish and the cost of the project estimated at $3bn - a whole $1bn more than the cost of the original proposal.

The original 40-km Friendship Causeway was expected to see 4000 vehicles a day, of which it was anticipated over 25% would be commercial.

Linking Bahrain and Qatar will not just improve commercial transport links. Both Qatar and Bahrain will also be hoping to benefit economically from more casual visitors, with journey times between Manama and Doha expected to be around an hour by car or train, if the causeway includes a rail link.

Indeed, as the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) pull together, transport plans such as the 2004 study for a GCC-wide railway service linking the six member states seem closer than ever before. Germany's maglev technology for high-speed trains, already in use in places such as Shanghai, is tipped for the 2000-km railway, which is estimated to cost around $1.2bn.

At the same time, Qatar is not only extending the Doha International Airport, but building a second one, the New Doha International Airport (NDIA). Situated 4 km east of the existing airport, the first phase of the project, at an estimated cost of $2bn, is scheduled for completion in 2009 and will have a capacity of 12m passengers. By completion of the third phase, in 2015, that capacity is expected to have grown to 50m passengers.

NDIA is also purported to be the first airport designed specifically for the Airbus A380-800, the world's largest passenger craft.

Yet as transport links to and from Qatar slowly strengthen, feeding into the country's economic boom, questions will be posed as to whether the country's physical and social infrastructure can withstand such a huge influx of people. Certainly, as residents increasingly sit in traffic around the capital, they have plenty of time to ponder what will happen next.

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