Qatar Places $65 Billion Bet on Remaking Economy in World Cup Preparation
The stadium where Qatar will host the 2022 World Cup final isn’t built yet. Neither is the city.
Getting the Persian Gulf sheikhdom ready for the world’s most-watched sporting event will cost as much as $65 billion, Merrill Lynch estimates. That’s about $41,000 per person in Qatar, and only 20 percent of them are citizens.
Qatar, holder of the world’s third-largest natural-gas reserves, aims to transform itself into a global hub to compete with destinations like Dubai and Istanbul. While the preparation will keep growth above 10 percent in the next five to seven years, the country of 1.6 million still has to figure out how it can continue to benefit from the investment after the games are over, said Robin McCall, acting chief executive officer of Al Khalij Commercial Bank in the capital, Doha.
“Qatar would have to make a decision to become a tourist destination and they’ll have to come up with a plan on what to do with the hotels afterwards,” said Marios Maratheftis, a Dubai-based economist at Standard Chartered Plc. “Do they need to convert them into something else and what would that be?”
Qatar will build nine stadiums and refurbish three more and plans to equip each with solar-powered air conditioning to fight temperatures that approach 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) in the summer. The sheikdom promised FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, to more than double hotel and apartment rooms to 84,000 and build a $25 billion rail and metro network. South Africa said it spent about $11.4 billion preparing for the 2010 World Cup, or about $232 per person.
“The event is a catalyst for the development and the expansion of the economy and population overall,” said Mark Proudly, associate director at property adviser DTZ Research in Doha. “It will put Qatar on the map and that helps to raise its profile and make it into a major international city.”
Qatar aims to become a knowledge-based economy focused on areas like research and education, so the most complimentary industry for investment would be manufacturing, said Maratheftis of Standard Chartered. More than 50 percent of Qatar’s revenue comes from natural gas exports, making the country vulnerable to fluctuating energy prices.
“Post World Cup, will you need 60,000 to 90,000 rooms and will it be sustainable?” asked Al Khaliji’s McCall. “That’s a concern, having this legacy infrastructure that will hardly be used.”
Qatar gets about 1 million visitors a year and expects that to increase by 20 percent in the next five years, FIFA said in its report on the country’s bid. Dubai had 7.2 million visitors in the first half of this year, Khaleej Times reported on July 18, citing Mohammed Al Marri, head of Dubai’s Directorate of Residency and Foreigners Affairs.
The site of the 2022 World Cup final is now mostly empty desert dotted with a few cranes and piles of gravel on the northern outskirts of Doha. Qatar plans to build Lusail, a city of 200,000 hosting the final that will be linked to the rest of the country by new roads and railways. It’s also building an airport, a seaport and a 40-kilometer (25-mile) bridge linking the country to neighboring Bahrain.
Most of the work will be completed in seven years, Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jasim Bin Jaber Al-Thani said on Dec. 14.
“It’s unlikely in the extreme that productive use will be made of the facilities that are built,” said Andrew Zimbalist, professor of economics at Smith College and an author of books on the sports industry. “Tourism estimates are not likely to produce any substantial benefit, at least with regard to a return on the investment.”
Construction and real estate companies gained in Dubai on Dec. 6, the first trading day after the winning bid was announced, on speculation that they will win contracts in Qatar. Arabtec Holding PJSC, the biggest builder in the United Arab Emirates, surged the most since March. Emaar Properties PJSC rose 1.6 percent after saying a day earlier it will pursue contracts in the country.
Hochtief AG, Germany’s biggest construction company, agreed in May to form a joint venture to develop Lusail. Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund this month agreed to buy a 9.1 percent stake in the builder, which is fighting a takeover bid by Actividades de Construccion y Servicios SA of Spain.
Barwa Real Estate Co., Qatar’s biggest publicly traded property developer by assets, has advanced 8.1 percent in the nine days since the FIFA announcement.
Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund agreed to buy a 9.1 percent stake in Hochtief AG, Germany’s biggest construction company on Dec. 6, investing almost 400 million euros ($534 million.)
Ready to Start
To be sure, most of the infrastructure projects had been planned before Qatar was chosen by FIFA over the U.S., Australia, South Korea and Japan. A number of those that were stalled may be re-started and others may be accelerated, said Shahzad Shabaz, chief executive officer of QInvest LLC, a Qatari Islamic investment bank. An example is the $3 billion bridge to Bahrain, which was supposed to be started in February 2009 and hasn’t begun yet.
The deepest financial crisis since the great depression has stalled billions of dollars worth of projects in the Gulf. A construction drive that has left Qatar with an oversupply of both residential and commercial properties led rents to drop by as much as 30 percent. Vacancies now range from 15 percent to 20 percent, DTZ’s Proudly said.
Qatar’s QE Index of the country’s 20 leading publicly listed companies has gained 7.2 percent since the World Cup announcement on Dec. 2.
Dubai, in the nearby U.A.E., will be the second-biggest beneficiary of the World Cup as some visitors take the chance to see attractions such as the world’s tallest tower, said Chet Riley, a Nomura Holdings Inc. analyst based in the emirate.
“There will be an overflow effect,” he said. “Some people will stay in Dubai and travel to Qatar to watch certain games.”
A sharing arrangement that accommodates spectators in places like Dubai “makes economic sense” and could reduce the need to build hotels Qatar will have no use for later, said Mark McFarland, an economist at Dubai-based Emirates NBD.
The World Cup may help shift lending from the public sector, where it has been concentrated over the past year, to the private sector, said McCall of Al Khaliji Bank. Moody’s Investors Service, which estimated Qatar’s spending at $57 billion over the next decade, also said the event “will create new lending activity for all banks.”
Qatar’s national soccer team ranks 113th in the world, according FIFA’s website. The smallest country to host a World Cup so far was Uruguay, home to the first tournament in 1930. At the time the population was similar to Qatar’s today at about 1.73 million, though only about 20 percent of people in the middle east country are Qatari nationals. A total of 13 nations competed in the first tournament, compared with 32 in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
The country’s World Cup bid includes plans to limit the amount of construction left over after the event. The stadiums can be partly or fully dismantled after the tournament, with about half the seats shipped to developing countries.
In addition to hotels, guest apartments and compounds will be used to accommodate visitors and a cruise ship is to provide accommodation of about 6,000 football fans, according to the FIFA report.
The sheikhdom’s gas reserves have made it the second- richest country per capita behind Lichtenstein. Its economy has grown at an average annual rate of 17 percent over the past five years amid rising liquefied gas production, International Monetary Fund data show.
“Qatar has been active through this financial crisis without it having a significant impact,” said Abdul Hakeem Mostafawi, chief executive officer of HSBC Qatar. “Having the World Cup will improve things even further.”
The tournament may push rental rates for homes by as much as 15 percent in the next one to two years, Proudly said. “That won’t have anything to do with supply and demand. It will be solely on the back of landlords being optimistic and more bullish in their predictions,”.
Zimbalist of Smith College pointed out that South Africa attracted fewer foreign visitors than expected in 2010 and tourism estimates for Qatar don’t indicate a good return on its investment.
“It’s a lot of money for not very much productive results,” he said. “If I had been advising the government, I would have said ‘don’t do it.’”