Qatar's extraordinary boom

DOHA // It's probably time to add Qatar to the list of great modern-day growth stories.

Its GDP and population have doubled since 2004, and as of June, there were 18,000 buildings under construction – more than one for every 100 people in the country.

Most of that construction is taking place in Doha, which has exploded from a population of 500,000 people in 2004 to 1.3 million today, blossoming from a small, quiet burg to a buzzing, polyglot city of business, research and progressive thinking.

“The rate of growth in Doha is nothing short of extraordinary,” said Robert Puentes, an urban growth analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington, adding that no major American city had ever grown at this pace.

Labourers, scientists, academics, designers and financiers have come knocking. According to the World Population Bureau, Qatar’s net migration rate of nearly 10 per cent is nearly double those of its nearest competitors – Bahrain, Singapore and the UAE.

As its natural-gas fuelled economy zips along – one of the world’s fastest growing at an estimated growth rate of 16 per cent this year – the good times are likely to continue for Qatar.

“Its incredible, but it’s expected in Qatar,” said Hatem Samman, the head of Booz & Company’s Ideation Centre, a thinktank based in Dubai.

“The trend for Qatar is headed in the right direction, given that there is economic and population growth to rival any country in the world,” he said.

Masraf al Rayan, a financial analyst, estimates Qatar’s population will reach 2 million by 2013, which means Doha will grow by an additional 20 per cent in the next three years.

This explains the capital’s construction boom, which includes a major airport, the US$20 billion (Dh73.45bn) Pearl Qatar residential and retail development, the $5.5bn Musheireb urban-renewal project downtown and the $14bn Lusail City residential and commercial waterfront development. The number of hotel rooms in Doha is set to double in the next two years even as new financial centres, exhibition facilities and housing complexes appear.

Landlords might argue the city has enough housing. The number of units has increased by nearly 150 per cent since 2004, outpacing the population boom. Doha has become a tenants’ market, with rents down 50 per cent or more in the past 18 months, including 11 per cent in the first quarter of this year, according to Asteco, the property advisory firm.

Ibrahim Ibrahim, an economic adviser to the Qatari government, expects economic expansion to slow by more than half in the next two years as major energy and infrastructure projects are completed and tens of thousands of labourers return home.

“Part of this new population will eventually leave, in the short term,” said Mr Samman. “But still many people are going to stay, maybe two thirds will stay and it should be fine.”

One government estimate has the country’s population growing as little as 500,000 by 2030.

Mr Puentes said, “Unless a comprehensive approach is taken to managing growth there is certainly a risk of overbuilding.” He spoke of the problems the vacation hotspot of Las Vegas and other American cities have faced because of a glut of housing in the economic downturn.

“There are more vacant homes for sale now than at any time in our nation’s history,” he said, referring to the US. “This is a problem because it can breed crime and disorder, and also accelerate a process of further disinvestment from certain neighbourhoods.”

He urged Qatari leaders to find a way to make vacant properties productive and also to be mindful of carbon reduction and the demands of climate change.

“The world economy is rapidly moving away from carbon-based fuels and towards new sources of energy,” he said.

For Qatar, this would mean altering construction and building methods, as in other countries, but also great economic diversification. This is not news to Qatari leaders.

Qatar’s domestic expansion is in line with its rising international profile. It is the world leader in exports of liquid natural gas, but it also wields the increasing reach and influence of al Jazeera TV and promotes peace, education and charity via diplomatic conferences and the Qatar Foundation.

Some might argue Doha has wrestled the title of world’s fastest growing city from Dubai. But Mr Puentes sees the regional centres as allies.

“A co-operative network would make sense,” he said. “They must remember that they operate in a global marketplace. Metros that are able to grow and attract globally-connected, high-value service firms can access, and benefit from, a worldwide array of customers, workers, and contracted services, ultimately boosting quality growth at home.”

originally appeared in the 13 Aug 2010 The National.

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