Greetings from Qatar!

Qatar is a red-hot economy. Last year it grew around 18% and this year it ought to grow another 16%. We saw the headlines in the Gulf Times in the lounge while waiting for our transfer to Dubai.

Qatar’s greatest asset is its natural gas reserves. In fact, the largest gas field in the world is here. Its discoverers were disappointed when they found it in 1971. They were looking for oil.

The boom Qatar now enjoys is the result of some daring investments in liquefied natural gas (LNG) back when people thought doing such a thing was a little batty. Faisal Al Suwaidi, the head of Qatargas, deserves the props for his wager, which have paid off handsomely. Today, Qatar produces about one-quarter of the world’s natural gas.

Qatar supplies such faraway customers as Japan, India and China. Qatargas also operates the largest LNG terminal in Europe at South Hook on the Welsh coast. This facility provides Britain with a fifth of its gas needs.

Qatar’s dominant position has filled its coffers and changed the country forever. On a per capital basis, it is one of the wealthiest countries in the world. And given the world’s growing energy demands and the appeal of clean-burning (and cheaper) natural gas when compared with oil, Qatar seems in a good position.

In Dubai, the story is quite different, as Dubai does not have Qatar’s gas reserves, nor does it have much oil. Dubai’s story is one of trade and finance.

As I write, the sun is just peeking over the horizon. It is dawn in Dubai. Out my hotel window, I can see two buildings with cranes over them and in the distance another building in scaffolding. For a city that was once booming and turned bust – as with most places – there is still a lot of construction going on.

As recently as September 2008, realtors could claim that no one had lost money in the Dubai property market. That’s no longer true. In fact, now the market has too much of just about every property type. One headline story noted how 32,000 homes are about to come on the market next year, which is a big number to choke down in any city. Dubai had a huge property boom and now must suffer the flip side.

The hotels, too, are pretty empty. We are staying at the new Address Hotel downtown, which has been open for only 25 days, we are told. I’m the first person to stay in my room. It still has that new carpet smell.

I wandered down for breakfast and was alone in a cavernous dining room. The hotel is brand-spanking new and everything looks wonderful. It’s just mostly empty. I think there are more hotel workers than there are guests.

In Dubai, revenue per room is down 35% from a year ago. Yet there is still an expansion going on. Next year, estimates call for a 15% increase in the number of rooms. This would mean a 40% increase in two years.

Over breakfast, I perused my complimentary copy of The National. One of the things I like to do in a foreign city is to read the local newspapers. I’m kind of a newspaper junkie anyway – I get three dailies delivered to my doorstep at home. In any event, I always find interesting nuggets from a perspective you might not get if all you read is The Wall Street Journal or Financial Times.

Today’s business page carried an array of tales… There was the arrival in Doha of a new LNG tanker, fresh from Seoul’s shipbuilding docks. There was a story about how UAE consumer confidence is up. Also, notes on bond issues in the Gulf, the latest figures on money supply in Kuwait (it’s rising at a frighteningly quick pace of 18.7%), the price of villas in Dubai and more. All sorts of little odds and ends that help paint the picture.

There was also a lot of chatter about infrastructure, which I found particularly interesting. Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE, which I will visit on this trip, is looking to raise $100 billion for infrastructure projects. From The National: “The emirate needs to fund new transport, electricity and telecommunications schemes…”

Dubai itself also has ambitious infrastructure spending plans. Last night, as we made our way to our hotel, we could see the new Dubai Metro stops along the way, which, lit up as they were in soft blue and white twinkling lights, looked like something out of the future.

Incredibly, the Dubai government last year spent about 45% of its budget on infrastructure projects – mostly on the roads and ports. But there is a lot more on tap, as The National reports:

“Dubai could invest as much as $20 billion in desalination projects in the next decade alone as it increases its water output by 2.72 billion liters a day… [There are also] plans to add 14,405 megawatts by 2017… Construction costs for those new plants amount to $11.6 billion, while infrastructure costs, including substations and transmission lines, will be about $11.6 billion.”

This massive build-out is not unique to Dubai, or even the UAE. There are also big infrastructure projects of all kinds in India and China and other emerging markets.


Chris Mayer
for The Daily Reckoning

The Daily Reckoning