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Lack of clear vision is holding back the UK economy

Antony Oliver

Breakfast with Tony Douglas, chief executive of Abu Dhabi Ports Company and former boss of the £4.3bn Heathrow Terminal Five project, always provides food for thought.

My meeting with him this week was no exception. It left me ranting and raving more than ever about the time and effort we waste in the UK jumping through crazy short term political infrastructure hoops.

Douglas has, just completed the $7.4bn (£4.6bn) project to build Kalifa Port phase 1 and Zone A KIZAD industrial area in Abu Dhabi. He was in London last week to spread the word that, as of 1 September, the facility has been open for business as key to the Gulf State’s post-oil economic growth agenda.

The project is, in many ways, a remarkable story. Not least when it comes to speed of delivery. Douglas has been in post for two and a half years and, with the project only really properly up and running for four years, has pretty much owned this vast delivery programme throughout.

Yet as he quickly points out, success wasn’t just down to good planning, programme management or construction techniques. And it wasn’t even down to the fixed in stone deadline - although that certainly helped.

The key, explained Douglas, was vision. Long term vision about the major drivers for the nation’s economy of the next 30 years and critically, what infrastructure, skills and businesses will be needed today to nurture this growth in the short and medium term.

Kalifa Port and KIZAD industrial zone are central to that vision as the Emirate’s biggest infrastructure investments.

Up to date technology

It boasts a port facility capable of handling the world’s biggest container ships and bulk carriers with the most up-to-date technology to speed up turn-around times.

But crucially this facility is dedicated to serving the massive 270 square kilometre industrial zone which clusters heavy industry activities such as aluminium refining and manufacturing, steelwork, plastics and chemical industries.

By investment in the port and transport networks alongside cheap power supplies and by clustering the industries together to drive efficiency, the vision is that in 30 years’ time this oil-rich desert will be transformed into the heart of global industry.

There are no guarantees that this will pan out, of course. And with only 25% of the comparatively small KIZAD phase A presold there is a great deal more to do before it can be considered a success. But it is a vision.

It is a vision that I hope UK politicians take note of as an example of state infrastructure investment as a driver for economic growth and an alternative to the current do-nothing policy and decision vacuum.

While the UK coalition certainly doesn’t have Abu Dhabi’s level of public cash available to invest, there is no excuse for lack of state vision. And that, for me, remains the really telling UK failure right now.

  • Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor

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