Monday, June 15, 2009

The hard face of Qatar

By Gregory M. White

The fancy glass towers and shopping malls of Doha were gone. Instead, intricate mazes of pipes pumped oil and gases into huge industrial structures, tied together by miles of power lines. Flares burned into the open air. Men behind barbed wire fences worked in the desert heat clad in bodysuits, goggles and helmets. This was the hard face of Qatar we did not see in Doha. This was where the country's real money is being made. 

We were 40 kilometres south of the capital, at Mesaieed Industrial City, a zone designed and controlled by the state-owned Qatar Petroleum. Its purpose is to provide a massive environment for the creation of petroleum products and construction goods, such as concrete and aluminum. Infrastructure investment in the project for 2007 to 2015 is predicted to total $7 billion. All of these production facilities align with the deep-water on-site port, which is home to shipping facilities, used both by corporations and the US military.  

“Its not only to produce oil…and gas, but to produce other products downstream,” said Dominic Carlone, acting manager of QP’s business and investment group.

Examples of these downstream products include polyethylene, the key component in the creation of plastic products such as bags and water bottles. While the presumed strength of Qatar’s industry is in energy production, its cheap access to energy allows these products to be made at significant cost advantages.

The industrial zone's roads are largely empty, its streets dusty with nothingness, Mesaieed appears as a ghost town until you enter its industrial heart. It is a restricted airspace, and no photographs are allowed. However, a picture would show a darkened skyline of towers, not unlike the minarets that dot the region, but topped by exhaust flares. Workers hide from the harsh sun under trees scattered throughout the complex, eating their lunches and taking naps. Officials estimated up to 10,000 workers are employed in the industrial area.   

The complex exhibits a litany of visible petroleum products; storage silos are labeled for the different products gained from the refinery process. These include methane, propane, and butane but also steel and aluminum. Plants that produce the liquid gas products cost up to $500 million each, our tour guide explained, and use 100 million cubic feet of gas per day in production. 

With four currently operational, there are still plans for more in the future. The other raw materials for steel and aluminum production are shipped in from countries like Australia, Brazil, and China where energy costs are high. 505,000 tons of aluminum per year are produced in the industrial area. Foreign companies such as Norsk Hydro ASA as well as QP produce in Mesaieed and ship to global markets from the same location. “It doesn’t matter who wants to invest so long as it fits with what we want,” said Carlone.  

These production facilities coexist with a community of people and the homes they inhabit. The design and placement of these homes is the decision of Qatar Petroleum. As a managed community, QP has decided to make Mesaieed more openly planned than other similar towns in Qatar. Without the gated communities of Doha and with the perceived free movement of the imported work force, Mesaieed should have a much more Western feel. But this isn’t indicated in its reality, which is as bleak throughout its residential area as its industrial.  

Representatives who spoke with us were keen to emphasize their commitment to maintaining a high level of ecological safety and an environmentally friendly operation. Mesaieed’s convenient proximity to the Arabian Gulf allows for hydro cooling in massive amounts, with 40,000 to 50,000 cubic meters per hour being used in the industrial area. QP acknowledged the threats to air quality, the underground aquifer, and wildlife in the Arabian Gulf from the facilities. QP publishes the air quality statistics online hourly and pursues extensive testing of the aquifer to see leaks from tanks before they have an impact on the local environment. They also mandate that production facilities have a limited impact on water temperature from cooling in order to protect wildlife.  

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