A focus on infrastructure
From energy to telecommunications and transport, Bahrain is investing in world-class infrastructure
A $32-billion infrastructure investment program is underway in Bahrain that includes landmark transport, telecommunications and energy projects.
Minister of Transportation and Telecommunications Kamal Bin Ahmed Mohammed says more investment in his sectors is important: “Bahrain is an island and the gateway to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), so logistics—moving people, goods and information—are vital. For example, we are in talks to build a second causeway with Saudi Arabia and to link to the GCC railway project, and we are constructing a new terminal at Bahrain International Airport (BIA), to increase capacity to 14 million passengers a year.”
Landmark airport modernization project
“Competitive, efficient and friendly,” BIA is the kingdom’s gateway says Mohamed Yousif Al-binfalah, CEO of Bahrain Airport Company (BAC), which is responsible for BIA’S operation and was formed in 2008 as one of Bahrain’s first privatizations. Built in the 1970s and expanded in 1994, the current terminal of the GCC’S first international airport has a capacity of around four-million annual passengers. However, he notes: “The country’s economic growth has seen the terminal stretched and BIA now processes nine million passengers per year with these constrained infrastructure resources, which is a challenging situation for BAC and its partners.”
Even with that challenge, BAC has run the airport profitably since 2010—and funded all of the airport’s operations, maintenance, and capital investments—and 2017 saw net profit rising 70 percent year-on-year to about $34 million, reflecting a 20 percent spike in revenues to $112 million. But to sustain operational and commercial excellence for travellers and stakeholders, the airport’s infrastructure, facilities and services needed elevating, so BAC developed a strategic roadmap for the future. “Through this strategy and in cooperation with our partners, BAC aims to increase the aviation sector’s contribution to the national economy,” says Al-binfalah.
Launched in 2014, BIA’S modernization program has been fast tracked, construction is on time, over 60 percent complete and operational trials should start in spring 2019, says Al-binfalah: “We are focused on serving customers through the new terminal by the third quarter of 2019.” Its design, he notes, “adheres to the highest environmental sustainability practices and it will be LEED gold certified for energy consumption and water conservation. We have also provided a robust information-technology platform, so the concept of a smart airport will be very easy to implement here.”
The design additionally takes into account projected passenger demands and aviation trends. “Passengers will have more contact gates, a dedicated road for BIA, and will be able to traverse the terminal more quickly than at any other regional airport,” he explains. “The duty free area will be four-times larger and retail areas three-times bigger, turning the airport into a key commercial hub. It will also have more food and beverage offerings, with SSP Group making its Bahrain debut, and a broad selection of local brands allowing the airport to treat all customers, even transit passengers, to a taste of Bahraini hospitality. In addition, there will be more lounges, an airside hotel, spa and clinic.”
Benefits for airlines include rehabilitated airport apron and aircraft stands, and a new fuel depot. “We are also working on a maintenance, repair and overhaul hangar, a general aviation terminal, and hope to start a runway upgrade soon,” says Al-binfalah. All of these things should attract more international airlines and reinforce BIA as an aviation hub, a position it holds in part by offering the region’s most economical charges and fuel prices. Logistics companies will also welcome BAC’S upcoming new cargo area, with warehouses and aircraft parking, which is “part of our efforts to transform logistics and air cargo into one of Bahrain’s primary sectors,” he says. In this and throughout its modernization, the new BIA will enable diverse economic activity, and Al-binfalah looks forward to “establishing private-sector partnerships to take advantage of the developments.”
As well as transport projects, the government is focused on telecommunications, stresses Mohammed: “The world is changing and a knowledge-based economy is what will differentiate countries in the future. Bahrain must ensure it has the correct infrastructure.” The United Nations ranks its current infrastructure as the world’s 11th best, 72 percent of the country is connected to a fiber-optic network and it has four international telecommunication cables. But, says the minister, “We need more diversity and capacity. We hope fiber-optic connections will reach 100 percent in 2020 and are in talks with investors to bring more international cables.”
The telecoms market leader drives change
The first country in the GCC to fully deregulate telecommunications, Bahrain has three operators: Batelco, Zain and market-leader VIVA Bahrain, a subsidiary of Saudi Telecom Company. VIVA CEO Ulaiyan M. Al Wetaid shares Mohammed’s view about the sector’s importance: “Telecommunications are the modern cornerstone for economic development. VIVA launched in 2010 aiming to transform the industry and take it to the next level in terms of technology, offering and contribution to people’s lives. Providing cutting-edge technologies helps create an infrastructure that is very supportive for growth.”
VIVA invests heavily in infrastructure and network upgrades, and developing unique voice, data and enterprise services for individuals and businesses. At the forefront of innovation and customer experience, it became market leader by 2012 and now offers the country’s best coverage and service, fastest speeds and clearest connections at some of the lowest prices. Amongst its many innovations, VIVA was the first operator in Bahrain to showcase 4G, supply true voice-over LTE and begin 4G+ services, and the first in the world to launch nine-beam antenna technology, which delivers about nine times the capacity of standard mobile towers. VIVA’S successful deployment of this at April’s Bahrain Grand Prix gave nearly 95,000 racegoers uninterrupted telecom services.
Its latest first came in June, when it became the first in Bahrain to introduce live 5G—a game-changing technology that will enable the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence and robotics. This early adoption of 5G is expected to drive the kingdom’s digital transformation, economic development, productivity and competitiveness. “Bahrain leads the Arab world in terms of telecommunications,” says Al Wetaid; “This is a result of collaboration from everybody, including our competitors. Everyday, we push ourselves and the industry to move forward. But being in a competitive market, competitors replicate each other’s successes, which pushes VIVA to do even better tomorrow.” Collaboration is also vital for one of Bahrain’s major energy infrastructure projects: a 400 kv electricity transmission interconnector linking all GCC states as an emergency backup. “It will further improve the security and reliability of Bahrain’s power supply,” believes Hidd Power Company (HPC) Executive Managing Director Yahya Bin Yunus. HPC’S shareholders—currently Malaysia’s Malakoff, France’s Engie and Japan’s Sumitomo—own a power plant that has five gas and one steam turbine units, one of which will be directly connected to the interconnector.
“HPC supplies around 30 percent of Bahrain’s power and 60 percent of its potable water by producing nearly 1000 MW of power and 90 million gallons of water a day from 14 desalination units,” states Yunus; “We can’t afford to have breakdowns and work hard to ensure our processes are reliable, efficient, safe and clean. Making our plant as efficient as possible is particularly important,” he says, “so we have initiated discussions with turbine manufacturers to explore technical options.” In sentiments echoed by all involved in Bahrain’s infrastructure development, Yunus stresses that: “We are crucial to the country and our goal is to have a positive impact on the kingdom’s economy.”
Minister of Transportation and Telecommunications Kamal Bin Ahmed Mohammed
Mohamed Yousif Al-binfalah CEO, Bahrain Airport Company
Ulaiyan M. Al Wetaid CEO, VIVA Bahrain