Abu Dhabi has reached significant milestones across its air, land and sea transport, with more on the near horizon. The Midfield Terminal Building (MTB), which will facilitate higher visitor numbers, was scheduled to commence operations by the end of 2020, though this timeline was established before the Covid-19 pandemic broke out. Alongside the new terminal, the launch of two new low-budget airlines is set to make Abu Dhabi a more affordable travel destination.
Within the emirate, the green light has been given to key infrastructure projects that aim to improve the flow of traffic on road networks. These works signal renewed investment that will improve commute times and enhance the business environment. In addition, the second phase of Etihad Rail’s network will start taking shape, increasing interconnectivity within the UAE for passengers and freight. Meanwhile, past investments in the development of Abu Dhabi’s seaports saw substantial increases in container traffic and cruise liner visits in 2019, with further growth anticipated in the long term.
Structure & Oversight
The Abu Dhabi Department of Municipalities and Transport (DMT) administers a broad range of government services, including urban planning, civil aviation, and land and marine transport. It includes the municipal authorities of Abu Dhabi City, Al Ain and Al Dhafra; the Integrated Transport Centre (ITC), which is responsible for public transport, parking spaces and traffic monitoring; and its transport subdivision, which administers the Surface Transport Master Plan (STMP). Saaed is the road traffic safety services organisation of the federal Ministry of Interior, and works with Abu Dhabi Police to enforce, monitor and improve road safety. In 2007 Abu Dhabi General Services Company (Musanada) was created to manage roads and infrastructure schemes, as well as other development projects.
In terms of air transport, Abu Dhabi Airports is responsible for administering Abu Dhabi International Airport (AUH), Al Ain International Airport (AAN), Al Bateen Executive Airport and two smaller domestic airports – Dalma Airport on Dalma Island and Sir Bani Yas Airport on Sir Bani Yas Island. Abu Dhabi Airports was created in March 2006 and assumed the responsibilities previously undertaken by the Department of Civil Aviation.
Abu Dhabi’s rail network is undergoing expansion to allow greater movement of goods and better interconnectivity between Abu Dhabi’s commercial centres. It is run by Etihad Rail, which is 70% owned by the Abu Dhabi government, with the federal government owning the remaining equity.
In 2006 Abu Dhabi Ports was created by Emiri decree. It owns and operates 11 ports and terminals, including Khalifa Port, the emirate’s international deep seaport. Abu Dhabi Ports also runs Khalifa Industrial Zone Abu Dhabi (KIZAD), a 100-sq-km free zone adjacent to Khalifa Port that serves as the emirate’s centre for manufacturing, trade and logistics.
Other entities include the Abu Dhabi General Administration of Customs, which was established by Abu Dhabi Department of Finance to control the import and export of non-oil goods, while Abu Dhabi National Oil Company oversees oil, gas and petroleum shipments. Statistics Centre – Abu Dhabi (SCAD) collates data from each of these agencies to calculate the impact of the transport and storage sector on the emirate’s economy.
In February 2020 a number of Abu Dhabi’s publicly owned entities were transferred to a new holding entity, Abu Dhabi Developmental Holding Company (ADQ). Its portfolio includes four transport and logistics bodies: Abu Dhabi Airports, Musanada and Abu Dhabi Ports, together with its subsidiary KIZAD. ADQ was set up in 2018 with capital of Dh500m ($136.1m). In July 2019 the Abu Dhabi Executive Council reported that the government’s shares in 11 publicly owned companies had been transferred over to ADQ.
In its “Statistical Yearbook of Abu Dhabi 2020”, SCAD reported that the transport and storage sector contributed Dh26.3bn ($7.15bn) to GDP at current prices in 2019, up from Dh26.2bn ($7.1bn) in 2018 and Dh25.8bn ($7bn) in 2017. However, the sector’s contribution had declined from Dh36.2bn ($9.8bn) in 2014 and Dh37.1bn ($10.1bn) in 2015. In 2016 the sector fell by 25% to Dh27.6bn ($7.5bn) as the decline in global oil prices was felt. When GDP is measured in constant 2007 prices, the figures for 2014 and 2015 sat at Dh22.1bn ($6bn) and Dh21.3bn ($5.8bn), respectively, falling by 23% to Dh16.5bn ($4.5bn) in 2016, Dh15.6bn ($4.25bn) in 2017 and Dh15.3bn ($4.16bn) in 2018. In 2019 it rose again slightly to Dh15.4bn ($4.19bn). At current prices, the transport and storage sector contributed 2.9% to GDP in 2019, up from 2.8% in 2018 but down from 3.2% in 2017 and 4.8% in 2015. The sector’s contribution measured in constant prices was 2.8% in 2015, 2% in 2017, and 1.9% in 2018 and 2019.
Transport was responsible for 9.4% of gross fixed capital formation at current prices in 2019, at some Dh13.4bn ($3.6bn), reflecting the significant infrastructure investment that underpins the sector. Both the federal and Abu Dhabi governments have long recognised the importance of transport infrastructure as an enabler of commerce.
“The UAE’s transport infrastructure is advanced, both in regional and global terms. The government has made sure to invest consistently in land, sea and air infrastructure development, as well as expanding Etihad Rail’s network throughout the country, which is expected to be operational by 2024,” Bassel El Dabbagh, regional director for chemical logistics in the Middle East and Africa for logistics company Agility, told OBG. In the World Economic Forum’s “Global Competitiveness Report 2019”, the UAE ranked 25th out of 141 countries, up two places from the 2018 edition. The country was in 12th position overall for the quality of its infrastructure, while its road networks and the efficiency of air transport services both placed seventh internationally.
Roads & Bridges
As of late November 2019 Musanada had overseen more than Dh1bn ($272.2m) in road improvement and infrastructure schemes that year. These projects included the construction of two internal roads at Al Rahba City, at a cost of Dh453m ($123.3m); the construction of four intersections in Al Ain, with a collective budget of Dh438m ($119.2m); the Dh163.4m ($44.5m) East 25 project, involving road building and utility infrastructure between Shakhbout bin Sultan and Delma streets; and Dh108.7m ($29.6m) in improvements to a stretch of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Street, designed to keep traffic flowing more smoothly.
In October 2019 Musanada reported that approximately 60% of the infrastructure work for the Dh314.2m ($85.5m) Razeen Labour City project had been completed. Furthermore, in September that year work had commenced on the Dh158.4m ($43.1m) Shah gas field and the Mezairaa Link Road.
In October 2019 Abu Dhabi World Road Congress showcased one of the most complex road and bridge schemes under way in the emirate. The project aims to connect Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Street to Al Reem Island, crossing the Umm Lafina Islands. To achieve this, five bridges, 11.5 km of six-lane motorway and a 2.5-km causeway are being built.
Construction commenced on the Dh1.3bn ($353.9m) Mina Link scheme in December 2019. The scheme will provide free-flowing connections between Khalifa Bridge, the Corniche and Mina Zayed Port Area, and also includes tunnels and cuttings.
Musanada’s portal displayed details on 28 requests for proposals in November 2019, including a number of road-building or improvement schemes, such as an upgrade on the link road from the E11 road to the military airbase at Madinat Zayed. The STMP also includes contingencies for the replacement of roundabouts with junctions that are controlled by traffic signals when the volume of vehicles on the roads warrants the upgrade.
Musanada plans to implement a number of other road construction projects by 2025, the largest of which is the Mid-Island Parkway scheme linking mainland Abu Dhabi to Reem Island. Construction is expected to begin after the completion of the Umm Lafina bridge. Musanada is also set to upgrade three roundabouts in Al Ain – Asharej, Tawam and Zakher – which will help reduce travel time between Abu Dhabi and Al Ain. As of May 2020 construction work had commenced at the Asharej roundabout.
There was progress in road building from 2017 to 2018, particularly in road-widening schemes, which saw the total length of eight-lane motorways grow from 2288 km to 4573 km. The combined length of Abu Dhabi’s external roads multiplied by the number of lanes increased from 11,358 km to 12,591 km. The length of the emirate’s internal roads increased from 17,904 km to 17,991 km over the same period.
In late 2019 businesses in the infrastructure sector noted renewed vigour in the implementation of projects. “We have witnessed an increase in bidding and winning front-end engineering and design projects in the last 10 months, and we are seeing a number of projects that had been on hold come to fruition,” Christopher Venemore, civil infrastructure director at engineering company AECOM, told OBG. “We originally won a contract to work on the Musaffah Industrial Area roads and intersections project in 2012. In addition, the E30 road improvements involve major flyovers and interchanges. Work on this is due to start in 2020.” AECOM is also working on a major programme to build bridges and tunnels for Al Hudayriat Island. Abu Dhabi-based real estate developer Modon Properties is developing a master plan for the 28.5-sq-km island that includes road networks, homes, marinas and parks. As of May 2020 the plan had not yet obtained approval.
Abu Dhabi’s urban road network is controlled by Abu Dhabi Traffic Management Centre (TMC). The TMC uses a management system to respond to incidents, and can control traffic signals across the urban network to redirect vehicle flow and minimise the impact of lane closures or accidents in tunnels. It also uses intelligent systems to collect, analyse, model and predict optimum traffic flows. Variable message traffic signs and the Darb app can pass information from the system on to road users. The Darb app and portal run by the ITC also offers up-to-date information on a range of other urban transport services, including public bus routes, bicycle stations, ferries and car pooling.
In October 2019 the emirate trialled four toll gates aimed at easing congestion at peak times, known as the Abu Dhabi Road User Charging System. Following the testing period, the system officially came into force on January 2, 2020, and Gulf News reported that traffic was smooth on its first day of operation. However, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the UAE government waived all toll road tariffs in Abu Dhabi until the end of 2020.
In July 2019 Abu Dhabi passed a law allowing e-scooter operators to lease their devices as part of a pilot programme. A month later German company Circ launched operations in Abu Dhabi City with a fleet of scooters that can be unhooked for Dh3 ($0.82) and operated for Dh1 ($0.27) per minute. Circ’s service has quickly gained traction in Abu Dhabi City and four other e-scooter operators have since entered the market. Car sharing and bike sharing companies also operate in the emirate.
The emirate’s planners intend to develop a metro system linking Al Maryah Island, Zayed City, Masdar City, Abu Dhabi Airport and Yas Island, light railway lines connecting Saadiyat and Reem Island to Abu Dhabi City, and bus priority measures. In November 2019 contract tender websites reported that the project was on hold, but some of the groundwork for the network has already been completed as part of other civil engineering schemes, such as Sheikh Khalifa Bridge and the tunnels to Yas Island.
In 2019 a slew of agreements and contract awards showed Abu Dhabi was pushing ahead with rail network plans that had been delayed by fiscal constraints following the global slump in oil prices in 2014. In November 2018 the UAE Ministry of Finance and Abu Dhabi Department of Finance signed an agreement to fund the second stage of the 1200-km national rail project, which will be delivered in stages and packages. In March 2019 several contracts were awarded for package A of stage two, including a 139-km stretch of track connecting the Port of Ruwais with the Saudi border at Ghuwaifat. The Dh1.5bn ($408.3m) contract was awarded to a joint venture between China State Construction Engineering Corporation and South Korea’s SK Engineering & Construction. The Port of Ruwais is already served under stage one of the Etihad Rail network. A 266-km line links it to the Shah and Habshan gas fields on the Gulf, and has the capacity to carry about 20,000 tonnes of sulphur granules daily.
In June 2019 Etihad Rail awarded the civil engineering and track works contracts for packages B and C of the second stage’s projects to China Railway Construction Corporation, and Ghantoot Transport & General Contracting. Package B will run for 216 km from Tarif to Saih Shuaib, while package C will be some 92-km long, running from Jebel Ali to Sharjah. These portions of the network will be at the heart of the UAE’s logistics and freight infrastructure as they will connect KIZAD and Khalifa Port to Jebel Ali, enabling the goods that are manufactured in the country to be efficiently exported via its seaports. Etihad Rail stated that the contracts to build packages A, B and C had a combined value of some Dh4.4bn ($1.2bn). Contracts for package D, which will connect Dubai to Fujairah, have yet to be announced. The 132-km line will run through the Al Hajjar Mountains.
There are also plans to expand the network further with additional lines running across Abu Dhabi City to Al Ain and the border with Oman. Speaking at the ceremony to award one of the stage two contracts, Sheikh Theyab bin Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, chairman of Etihad Rail, highlighted the significance of expanding the network for the UAE. “[The national railway network] contributes to economic and social development by linking strategic ports, manufacturing, production and population centres, enhancing the transport sector in the country and leading a qualitative shift in freight and logistics,” he said.
Although package A of stage two is a relatively short section of track, it has strategic significance, as it forms part of the envisioned GCC rail network, which aims to operate freight and passenger services connecting all six GCC states. To the west of the UAE, across the border from Ghuwaifat, is the Saudi town of Al Batha, which is to be connected by a rail line running north along the coast of the Gulf to Al Khafji, near the border with Kuwait. In addition, this line will connect to the existing Saudi rail network and planned routes into neighbouring countries. The 2177-km line was first proposed in 2009, with 2018 set as a deadline for completion. This has since been rescheduled to 2023.
In August 2018 Construction Week Online reported that Kuwait had begun construction on the first phase of its network, a 111-km line from Kuwait City to the Saudi border. In January 2019 the International Railway Journal reported that Saudi Arabia was planning to launch tenders for its portion of the GCC rail project in the near future. Looking east, stage two of Etihad Rail’s project will connect the emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai to Fujairah in the Gulf of Oman. In total, the rail line will span approximately 605 km, from the Saudi border to the sea at Fujairah.
The MTB, which was in the final stages of development as of May 2020, will facilitate higher passenger numbers through AUH (see analysis). The new building will be completed as Etihad Airways continues a financial transformation programme designed in response to decreasing passenger numbers and freight volumes in recent years.
Figures from SCAD for 2019 showed that AUH saw a slight decrease in passenger numbers, from 23.4m in 2017 to 21.3m in 2018 and 21.2m in 2019. Similarly, AAN, which had enjoyed double-digit growth in recent years, saw a decline in passenger numbers, from 136,519 in 2017 to 92,555 in 2018 to 59,412 in 2019. There were similar drops in the volume of freight that was handled at AUH, from 734,290 tonnes in 2017 to 586,856 tonnes in 2018 and 558,329 tonnes in 2019. At AAN freight volumes declined from some 1177 tonnes in 2017 to 662 tonnes in 2018 and 461 tonnes in 2019.
Much of the decline can be attributed to a contraction in passenger numbers recorded by Etihad Airways, as the airline accounts for approximately 70% of the passenger traffic at AUH. In March 2019 the airline announced that it had carried 17.8m passengers globally in 2018, down from 18.6m in 2017. Similarly, its cargo revenue fell from $877m to $827m, as cargo freight tonne-km decreased by roughly 21%, from 4.3bn to 3.4bn over the same period. Overall, Etihad Airways reported a loss of $1.3bn in 2018. Over the three years to March 2019 the airline’s losses totalled $4.8bn, according to Bloomberg.
In 2017 the airline launched a five-year transformation programme designed to put the group on a sounder financial footing, which resulted in the airline cutting $21.4bn in orders from Airbus and Boeing in February 2019. In 2018 Etihad Airways cut unprofitable routes to Tehran, Jaipur, Entebbe, Dallas-Fort Worth, Ho Chi Minh City and Dhaka, among others, while opening new ones to Baku and Barcelona. The airline effectively reduced costs from $7.3bn in 2017 to $6.9bn in 2018. “In 2018 we continued forging ahead with our transformation by streamlining our cost base, improving our cash flow and strengthening our balance sheet,” Tony Douglas, CEO of Etihad Aviation Group, said in a press release in early 2019.
In October 2019 Etihad announced that it had agreed to set up a budget airline with Sharjah’s Air Arabia under the name Air Arabia Abu Dhabi. The joint venture will be the first low-cost carrier to be based in Abu Dhabi. During the Dubai Air Show in November 2018, Air Arabia placed a $14bn order for 120 Airbus A320 aircraft. Preliminary details on routes and destinations released in late December 2019 show the new carrier will focus on linking the UAE to the Indian market and neighbouring countries after the collapse of India’s low-cost Jet Airways in 2019.. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the new airline was scheduled to start operations in the second quarter of 2020. In mid-April a spokesperson for Air Arabia said, “There are no plans to delay or postpone. Preparatory work for the launch remains in motion and will progress as the market situation improves.”
Abu Dhabi is set to see the launch of a second low-cost airline, with ADQ and Hungary’s Wizz Air finalising a joint-venture deal in early March 2020. Announced in December 2019, the fleet will initially consist of three Airbus A321neos, and will gradually expand to comprise more than 50 planes by 2030.
Compared to 2018, 2019 saw a boost in passenger traffic and freight through the emirate’s seaports. In the first half of 2019 Abu Dhabi ports welcomed 35% more cruise ship passengers and saw the number of liner visits grow by 38% year-onyear (y-o-y). Meanwhile, total cargo handled rose to 22.47m tonnes in 2019, up from 19.7m tonnes in 2018. In 2019 the majority of cargo was discharged (20.65m tonnes), compared to loaded (1.82m tonnes). From January to November 2019 Abu Dhabi Ports handled 2.5m twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs), compared to 1.7m TEUs for the whole of 2018.
“With the commencement of commercial operations at CSP Abu Dhabi Container Terminal and the rejuvenation of the Port of Fujairah through our joint venture with Fujairah Terminals on track, we expect our strong growth to continue,” Mohamed Juma Al Shamisi, group CEO of Abu Dhabi Ports, said in a press release in September 2019.
SCAD data shows the value of non-oil foreign trade through Abu Dhabi’s ports fell by 5.4% in 2019, from Dh225.5bn ($61.4bn) in 2018 to Dh213.3bn ($58.1bn). Transport vehicles was the largest non-oil category of imports through Abu Dhabi’s ports in 2019, accounting for 20.6% of the total, at Dh21.1bn ($5.7bn). It also represented 38.3% of Abu Dhabi’s non-oil re-exports through ports that year, totalling Dh20.2bn ($5.5bn) (see Trade & Investment chapter).
In the latest round of SCAD’s data on foreign direct investment (FDI), taken in 2016, the classifications for the sector were amended, resulting in a significant increase in FDI for wholesale and retail trade, but also a fall in the value of FDI in the transport and storage category. In 2016 total FDI in the latter category sat at approximately Dh1.3bn ($353.9m), down from some Dh5bn ($1.4bn) in 2015. However, there have been some significant foreign investments made in the transport sector since then. For instance, in 2016 Chinese company COSCO Shipping Ports announced a Dh1.5bn ($408.3m) investment in the new CSP Abu Dhabi Container Terminal, which has since been completed.
Although the Covid-19 pandemic will delay some major projects and significantly dampen international trade, the emirate’s transport sector has made steady progress in recent years, and the last decade of the Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030 looks set to witness the rollout of the integrated rail and metro system. In the shorter term, the emirate is set to see the opening of the Dh10bn ($2.7bn) MTB at AUH. Another exciting project on the horizon is the Virgin Hyperloop One, which will reduce the journey time from Abu Dhabi to Dubai to around 12 minutes, by transporting passengers in pods that hurtle through depressurised tubes at 1130 km per hour.