x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Iraqi province follows up airport project with plan for a monorail

A $450 million monorail in Karbala is the latest in a series of big construction proposed for Iraq

Iraq's southern province of Karbala is ready to move forward with a US$450 million (Dh1.6 billion) monorail line as part of a wide-ranging list of new projects to rebuild the war-torn country.

Iraq is the third-largest construction market in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region, behind Saudi Arabia and the UAE, according to Citi Investment Research & Analysis. The country has more than $363bn projects in the pipeline, a 42 per cent increase from a year earlier.

"Saudi Arabia and Iraq continue to remain the key driving forces of Mena construction awards," said Heidy Rehman, a Citi analyst.

The Karbala Investment Commission is inviting contractors to bid on the first stages of the 18km monorail project, Taief Ali, the head of the commission, told Bloomberg.

The rail is planned to link Karbala, an important pilgrimage site, with the provinces of Baghdad and Babel. It is designed to include 18 stations and terminate within 200 metres of Karbala's holy shrines, Mr Ali said. Companies from Lebanon, Iran and the Gulf have expressed interest in the project, he told Bloomberg.

Lebanese, Iranian and Gulf companies have expressed interest in the project, he said, but he did not disclose their identities.

Karbala also plans to seek bids later this year for an airport capable of carrying five million passengers a year, as well as a $167mproject to construct more than 2,700 residential apartments in the province, he said.

It also announced this month a plan to devote $1.7m to redevelop the three main entrances to the city.

While Karbala's role as a tourist destination has helped to fuel development - large projects have been announced throughout the country, in particular for housing and expansion of the petrochemical industry - the international construction and finance communities remain wary.

"Everyone is talking about it, but not everybody is ready to push the button because of the apparent risk," said Mike Wing, the regional director with Capita Symonds, a project consultancy.

As it rebuilds following the departure of US troops, analysts say Iraq is in line to develop as the world's fastest-growing economy, fuelled by its oil exports.

"Next year is a crucial year in determining whether this vision will gain momentum, or whether the political obstacles that stand in the way will prove too great," said the Citi analyst Farouk Soussa in a recent report.

* With Bloomberg News