Gas buoys Qatar plans

Gas buoys Qatar plans

Five years ago, half a dozen cars at a traffic light in Qatar’s capital Doha would lead to mutterings about how crowded the city was becoming. Now bumper-to-bumper traffic often clogs a seafront dominated by gleaming skyscrapers. At night, tastefully lit buildings exude opulence, and wooden dhows plying the water are the only obvious sign of the past.

By Sitaraman Shankar And Regan Doherty (Reuters)

Published: Sat 18 Feb 2012, 11:48 AM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 11:12 AM

But this change is nothing compared with the transformation that the country’s rulers plan over the next decade. Throw in its aspirations to be a regional peacebroker, and it is no exaggeration to call Qatar the world’s most ambitious country.

The gas-rich Gulf state has a population of just 1.7 million people, of which only about 250,000 are Qatari citizens; most of the rest are foreign workers. So as it spends $150 billion on a metro, airport, seaport, roads and an urban makeover in preparation to host the 2022 soccer World Cup, the inevitable question is being asked: has a country a quarter the size of Switzerland bitten off more than it can chew?

The betting is still that cash — plenty of it — will help Qatar buy its way to success, but there are risks in the longer term. One is the lack of depth in the energy-dependent economy.

“We’re relatively comfortable with Qatar currently. The top risk is a collapse in energy prices — given the size of the tickets they’re writing for themselves, things could get bad pretty quickly if they don’t generate enough revenue,” said Abdulkadir Hussain, chief executive at Mashreq Capital in Dubai.

“The economy is not diversified, and the diversification process is being funded by energy prices, so there would be a derailment if prices came off.”

Hussain doesn’t expect natural gas prices to collapse, at least in the next three years, but any slowdown among key emerging market consumers could hurt. Prices have fallen in the past few years because of new gas sources and a slowing global economy, and they recovered only slightly after last year’s earthquake in Japan boosted demand.

Qatar bulls point to estimates of as much as $17 trillion in monetisable natural gas riches still in the ground. Exports of this bounty have lifted Qatar citizens to a per capita income of well over $90,000, the world’s second-highest.

The country’s desire to think big and impress is evident. An $11 billion new airport will eventually be able to handle 50 million passengers annually. It will start operations later this year, boasting onyx countertops, sunken gardens, a mosque complex, squash courts and a swimming pool.

Qatar Airways’ rapid expansion — and the desire to make Doha a transport hub — mirror plans by Dubai and Abu Dhabi and their airlines.

The country’s sovereign wealth fund is the most aggressive in the region, having spent north of $20 billion on buying into companies ranging from iconic German carmakers Porsche and Volkswagen to luxury British department store Harrods and two football clubs.

But the scale of the task in hand and the reliance on nature’s gifts may conflict with the relatively small number of talented managers to see development plans through.

“They have probably the best leadership in the Arab world. The prime minister is the hardest working in the region. Their biggest problem is finding people to manage their vision,” said a Doha-based senior banker, who declined to be named because of the sensitive nature of the discussion.

The workaholic prime minister Shaikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, a member of the country’s ruling family, doubles up as foreign minister and also pulls the trigger on big purchases by the sovereign fund. The banker cited Shaikh Hamad’s busy schedule as a reason the fund did not do still more deals.

Not surprisingly, the perception in financial circles is that the government takes on responsibility for too much, stunting the private sector’s development.

Much is made of the role that small and medium-sized Qatari companies will play as contractors and subcontractors in preparing for the World Cup, but such firms are thin on the ground.

Qatari bankers are concerned about which projects to fund, and the relatively small size of the banking system means contractors may have to look to Saudi banks for financing.

Some in the industry say the risks of delay in executing Qatar’s World Cup development plans are substantial, mirroring slow changes in economic and financial regulation.

“They move very slowly here. Ten years may appear a long time, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they require every bit of it,” said a construction industry source.

Four years after Qatar announced a plan for a market watchdog combining the powers of the financial centre regulator, the stock market regulator and the central bank, there has been little progress.

The stock exchange has just introduced treasury bill trading and talks of introducing market makers, traders who would spur activity by quoting both buy and sell prices. But there has been little progress in getting companies to raise limits on foreign ownership of their shares, causing equities index compiler MSCI to delay a decision to lift Qatar to emerging market status.

However, international belief in Qatar’s prospects — at least relative to a worsening global economic climate — still appears strong, as evidenced by the success of its $5 billion sovereign bond issue late last year.

Too much of a good thing?

Qatar has a long way to go to create a financial centre rivalling even Dubai, an hour’s flight away and still the preferred destination for Western bankers in the region. Dubai was the major recipient of capital flight out of Bahrain during that country’s popular revolt last year.

And so, much as the government talks of diversifying the economy away from the energy sector, it’s clear that it’s going to have to be gas that does most of the heavy lifting.

In the mid-1990s, with the country in dire straits financially, the government borrowed to invest in technology needed to develop its natural gas reserves. The gamble has paid off; in just over 15 years, Qatar has become the world’s top liquefied natural gas exporter.

The fact that Qatar owns the entire LNG value chain works in its favour, analysts say. Qatar owns not only extraction facilities but also ships which transport the gas and once it gets to markets, regassification plants as well.

“There is a big difference between Qatar and other countries in the region — Qatar’s economy is built on real assets, not on real estate or other ephemera,” Shashank Srivastava, acting head of Qatar’s Financial Centre Authority, told a conference. If Qatar pulls off its massive expansion, attention will turn to whether it can build on that success, using infrastructure and facilities created for the World Cup to sustain continued growth.

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