Gulf Countries And The Art Of Fast-Tracking Big Public Works

Metro construction in Dubai
Metro construction in Dubai
Doron Peskin

DUBAI â€" Unlike other places, where building a new subway line can wind up taking a decade or more, the United Arab Emirates offers a very different approach to major public project deadlines: It meets them.

This Gulf metropolis has made itself a regional and global hub for commerce, financial services and investment, and virtually any serious multinational player has a branch in Dubai. Liberal policy has also transformed the city into a cosmopolitan center, where foreigners outnumber local residents. Dubai's population is growing by 6.5% annually, and it is expected to hit the 3 million mark within two years.

But this fast growth requires a rapid expansion of municipal infrastructure, including mass transit lines and the network of roads. Local authorities identified the issue and contracted an international firm to draw up the best possible transportation plan to meet Dubai's future challenges.

After receiving the recommendations in 2005, the Emir of Dubai Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum published a decree for the commencement of the works. The date set for the inauguration of the project's first phase was Sept. 9, 2009, at 09:09 A.M. And indeed, on that day, eight metro stations on the city's red line were opened.

It did turn out, however, that the number of stations was fewer than originally planned, but only because the 2008 global financial downturn has caused some delays and disputes between city officials and the project contractors regarding costs.

In April 2010, four years after the first excavations commenced, the entire red line opened. Stretching across 52 kilometers, it includes 29 stations, four of which are underground. September 2011 saw the inauguration of the 23-kilometer long green line that cost $12 billion, and in the coming years, two more lines, the purple and the blue, are expected to be completed. According to official figures, 1.74 million passengers used the metro in its first month of operation.

On a daily basis, the red line carries about 180,000 passengers and the green line close to 100,000. To further encourage the shift to the metro, Dubai's authorities built park-and-ride parking lots, the largest of which can accommodate 6,000 vehicles.

Dubai metro â€" Photo: Oiva Eskola

By 2020, Dubai's underground network is expected to reach 320 kilometers, serving an average of 1.2 million users. But it already was hailed in 2012 when it was registered in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the world's longest driverless network at 75 kilometers.

World Cup accelerator

Meanwhile in Gulf neighbor Qatar, then top ruler Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani signed a 2007 decree to build a new seaport. The cost on this mega-project was estimated at $7.5 billion, which was green-lighted as part of the ambitious development plan of the gas-rich country Vision 2030.

Achieving their economic growth and development ambitions, the country's leaders understood, would not be possible without developing infrastructure â€" ports, chief among them. In 2010 a new incentive appeared when the small peninsula country was chosen as host of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. A global event of this scale would require an investment of nearly $100 billion over the next seven years, and this can only happen if import capacity was boosted.

The new seaport, which began a pilot phase operations a few weeks ago, is expected to play a key role in the anticipated expansion of foreign trade and in the country's overall economic growth. The first phase is expected to be officially inaugurated in early 2016. Originally, the project was planned to be completed in 2030, but the World Cup announcement has triggered an acceleration of the works to allow the complete project to be opened already in 2020.

Dubai skyline â€" Photo: Mohammad Sabbouh

To meet the new deadline the Qataris save no money and effort. No fewer than 9,000 workers are working around-the-clock to complete the project, and virtually every mechanical device that exists in the port and ship building industry has been brought to Qatar to live up to the tight schedule. Located south of the capital Doha, the new port is considered one of the world's most technologically advanced. It stretches across 26.5 square kilometers and includes several terminals: a general terminal with an annual capacity of 1.7 million tons, a 1 million ton crops terminal, a car terminal with room for half a million cars a year, and a livestock terminal. Once completed, the port's cargo capacity will be 6 million tons per year.

Saudi Arabian authorities also have big projects in the works, including the target of connecting all households to the Internet within ten years. For achieving this goal, huge budgets have been allocated. For example, in 2013 Saudi investment in communication infrastructure stood at approximately $10 billion. According to estimates, this year this investment will exceed $13 billion. Consequently, Internet and mobile phone penetration in the kingdom is the highest among all Middle Eastern countries.

None of these projects has happened overnight, of course â€" just compared to other countries, it only seems that way.

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How China Flipped From Tech Copycat To Tech Leader

Long perceived as a country chasing Western tech, China's business and technological innovations are now influencing the rest of the world. Still lagging on some fronts, the future is now up for grabs.

At the World Semiconductor Conference in Nanjing, China, on June 9

Emmanuel Grasland

BEIJING — China's tech tycoons have fallen out of favor: Jack Ma (Alibaba), Colin Huang (Pinduoduo), Richard Liu (Tencent) and Zhang Yiming (ByteDance) have all been pressured by Beijing to leave their jobs or step back from a public role. Their time may be coming to an end, but the legacy remains exceptional. Under their reign, China has become a veritable window to the global future of technology.

TikTok is the perfect example. Launched in 2016, the video messaging app has been downloaded over two billion times worldwide. It has passed the 100-million active user mark in the United States. Thanks to TikTok's success, ByteDance, its parent company, has reached an exceptional level of influence on the internet.

For a long time, the West viewed China's digital ecosystem as a cheap imitation of Silicon Valley. The European and American media described the giants of the Asian superpower as the "Chinese Google" or "Chinese Amazon." But the tables have turned.

No Western equivalent to WeChat

The Asian superpower has forged cutting-edge business models that do not exist elsewhere. It is impossible to find a Western equivalent to the WeChat super-app (1.2 billion users), which is used for shopping as much as for making a medical appointment or obtaining credit.

The flow of innovation is now changing direction.

The roles have actually reversed: In a recent article, Les Echos describes the California-based social network IRL, as a "WeChat of the Western world."

Grégory Boutté, digital and customer relations director at the multinational luxury group Kering, explains, "The Chinese digital ecosystem is incredibly different, and its speed of evolution is impressive. Above all, the flow of innovation is now changing direction."

This is illustrated by the recent creation of "live shopping" events in France, which are hosted by celebrities and taken from a concept already popular in China.

10,000 new startups per day

There is an explosion of this phenomenon in the digital sphere. Rachel Daydou, Partner & China General Manager of the consulting firm Fabernovel in Shanghai, says, "With Libra, Facebook is trying to create a financial entity based on social media, just as WeChat did with WeChat Pay. Facebook Shop looks suspiciously like WeChat's mini-programs. Amazon Live is inspired by Taobao Live and YouTube Shopping by Douyin, the Chinese equivalent of TikTok."

In China, it is possible to go to fully robotized restaurants or to give a panhandler some change via mobile payment. Your wallet is destined to be obsolete because your phone can read restaurant menus and pay for your meal via a QR Code.

The country uses shared mobile chargers the way Europeans use bicycles, and is already testing electric car battery swap stations to avoid 30 minutes of recharging time.

Michael David, chief omnichannel director at LVMH, says, "The Chinese ecosystem is permanently bubbling with innovation. About 10,000 start-ups are created every day in the country."

China is also the most advanced country in the electric car market. With 370 models at the end of 2020, it had an offering that was almost twice as large as Europe's, according to the International Energy Agency.

Photo of a phone's screen displaying the logo of \u200bChina's super-app WeChat

China's super-app WeChat

Omar Marques/SOPA Images/ZUMA

The whole market runs on tech

Luca de Meo, CEO of French automaker Renault, said in June that China is "ahead of Europe in many areas, whether it's electric cars, connectivity or autonomous driving. You have to be there to know what's going on."

As a market, China is also a source of technological inspiration for Western companies, a world leader in e-commerce, solar, mobile payments, digital currency and facial recognition. It has the largest 5G network, with more than one million antennas up and running, compared to 400,000 in Europe.

Self-driving cars offer an interesting point of divergence between China and the West.

Just take the number of connected devices (1.1 billion), the time spent on mobile (six hours per day) and, above all, the magnitude of data collected to deploy and improve artificial intelligence algorithms faster than in Europe or the United States.

The groundbreaking field of self-driving cars offers an interesting point of divergence between China and the West. Artificial intelligence guru Kai-Fu Lee explains that China believes that we should teach the highway to speak to the car, imagining new services and rethinking cities to avoid cars crossing pedestrians, while the West does not intend to go that far.

Still lagging in some key sectors

There are areas where China is still struggling, such as semiconductors. Despite a production increase of nearly 50% per year, the country produces less than 40% of the chips it consumes, according to official data. This dependence threatens its ambitions in artificial intelligence, telecoms and autonomous vehicles. Chinese manufacturers work with an engraving fineness of 28 nm or more, far from those of Intel, Samsung or TSMC. They are unable to produce processors for high-performance PCs.

China's aerospace industry is also lagging behind the West. There are also no Chinese players among the top 20 life science companies on the stock market and there are doubts surrounding the efficacy of Sinovac and Sinopharm's COVID-19 vaccines. As of 2019, the country files more patents per year than the U.S., but far fewer are converted into marketable products.

Beijing knows its weaknesses and is working to eliminate them. Adopted in March, the nation's 14th five-year plan calls for a 7% annual increase in R&D spending between now and 2025, compared with 12% under the previous plan. Big data aside, that is basic math anyone can understand.
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