Bridging the infrastructure capacity gap

2 April 2024


The Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region faces a massive infrastructure gap, with estimates of the shortfall ranging from $75bn to $100bn annually. 

This translates to a cumulative need for $2-2.5tn in infrastructure investment alone by 2050. Bridging this funding gap will require a drastic increase in the level of investment.

In 2020, the World Bank stated that Mena countries needed to spend at least 8.2% of GDP to meet their infrastructure goals through to 2030. However, it had been averaging a spend of just 3% over the prior decade – mostly from public sector funds, alongside multilateral and bilateral debt financing. 

In the intervening years, the additional fiscal constraints imposed by the pandemic and global economic shocks, such as food price inflation, have further hindered regional public spending on infrastructure.

In 2023, the ICD-Refinitiv OIC Infrastructure Outlook valued the region’s outstanding funding gap for infrastructure development at $994bn. The gaps included a $685bn shortfall in investment in road infrastructure; a $111bn funding gap in the water sector; a $65bn gap in telecoms; $47bn in rail; $34bn in port infrastructure; $27bn in electricity network investment; and $25bn in airport infrastructure investment.

This funding gap has real, material impacts on economic prosperity and the prospects for economic growth. The shortfall in investment in road infrastructure, for example, is estimated to cost the Mena region a staggering 5.5% in GDP a year due to inefficiency and accidents, according to the World Bank.

A 2020 study in the Review of Middle East Economics and Finance found that manufacturing firms in the Mena region faced the most severe durations of power outages a month of any region, at 64 hours a month. The perceived value of the business losses due to these power outages was estimated to be around 4.8% of total sales.

Meeting the region’s annual investment needs could generate about 2 million direct jobs and 2.5 million direct, indirect and induced infrastructure-related jobs, according to the OECD. 

This is critical when half of the region’s population is under 24 years old, and 29% are not in employment, education or training, as per the OECD figures. 

Another very tangible infrastructure gap is water capacity. The current annual water shortage in the Mena region is about 42 cubic kilometres, but by 2050, this is projected to grow fivefold to 199 cubic kilometres a year under average climate scenarios and potentially up to 283 cubic kilometres a year under drier conditions. 

These examples highlight the need for substantial investments to bridge the infrastructure deficiencies, ensure the conditions for economic growth, and enhance overall sustainability in the Mena region.

To address the challenges, a comprehensive and multi-faceted approach is needed to incentivise the private sector to support regional infrastructure investments. This includes governments establishing clear policy directions and regulatory frameworks to attract private capital mobilisation.

This funding gap has real, material impacts on economic prosperity and the prospects for economic growth

Technological adaptation

In parallel with the need for governments to proactively improve the conditions for investment, the delivery of future infrastructure requirements also anticipates the adoption of emerging technology.

The goal of many countries to achieve net zero by 2050 also layers further complexity onto existing infrastructure challenges. Regional efforts such as the Middle East Green Initiative and the Circular Carbon Economy framework nevertheless demonstrate the region’s commitment to achieving its net-zero targets.

Reaching net zero will entail building infrastructure that is not just bigger and better, but smarter. At the Global Infrastructure Initiative Summit hosted by McKinsey in Dubai in February, disruptive thinking and technology were identified as vital to the industry’s evolution to meet the needs of a net-zero future. 

Industry leaders called for a nuts-and-bolts overhaul of the industry from the bottom up, with more sustainable alternatives to even centuries-old staples such as Portland cement and rebar. The digitalisation of the industry and the advent of machine-learning and AI also hold huge potential for cutting waste and designing more organic, efficient structures.

The summit highlighted that solving future infrastructure requirements will also likely necessitate overcoming technology hurdles and bringing costs down through research and development, much like the costs of solar power or reverse osmosis desalination have come down in the region. 

Alistair Green, a senior partner in McKinsey’s global infrastructure practice, pointed to the technologies that “are not at conviction, yet: the technology hasn’t even really been proven outside of the lab – like flow batteries, which are an alternative to lithium-ion batteries that can be used for grid-scale storage of long duration, energy storage. This is a technology problem that we’re actively investing in researching in order to bring the costs down.”

Strategy& and engineering consultancy Dar recently reported that sustainable construction technologies can potentially reduce lifecycle emissions from the Mena region’s $2tn construction pipeline through to 2035 by 50%-60% for planned projects. Simple changes can be highly effective, such as incorporating dynamic facades into building designs, which can deliver energy savings of up to 55% in hot countries.

The key is the level of innovation, not the level of technology. In the right application, a low-tech solution may be more efficient. If a low-tech solution is scalable, it is also likely to be more cost-efficient.

In the arid Ait Baamrane region of Morocco, a 2015 project by the NGO Dar Si Hmad has created the world’s largest operational fog-harvesting system, providing potable water using a system of shore-side nets that capture and condense the fog rolling in off the ocean. Launched after a decade of research, the system yields approximately 22 litres of water a day for each square metre of net. It demonstrates that infrastructure does not need to be expensive or complex to have a positive sustainability outcome.

The most pressing need for the Mena region is to improve the attractiveness of its infrastructure investment opportunities

Accessing finance

Without sufficient finance, the effectiveness of infrastructure development, including technological innovation within the sector, will be throttled. The most pressing need for the Mena region is to improve the attractiveness of its infrastructure investment opportunities.

Many governments, especially in the Gulf, have been focused on encouraging the private sector through better and wider public-private partnership (PPP) arrangements, with mixed results. Some countries have struggled to deliver PPP frameworks with sufficient commercial appeal and bankability, a problem usually linked to unattractive risk allocations on the private sector side.

Nevertheless, the mobilisation of PPPs and the creation of more transparent and efficient regulatory frameworks around them are routinely identified as vital for attracting and mobilising private capital.

The delivery of more sustainable infrastructure with a view to net-zero targets also brings the potential to tap into green finance, including green bonds and sharia-compliant sukuk. Projects targeted towards carbon neutrality open themselves up to more diverse avenues of potential finance, including international climate mitigation and adaptation funds.

Multilateral development banks, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, support initiatives like the Catalyst Mena Climate Fund 2, which works to mobilise private capital for infrastructure projects focused on renewable energy, sustainable utility schemes and green hydrogen capacity.

Governments in the region are also taking steps to mobilise climate finance by issuing green sovereign bonds and sukuk to fund clean transportation, waste management and green building schemes.

The UAE’s infrastructure development is guided by the Green Agenda 2030 policy framework. Under this aegis, UAE banks, including Mashreq Bank and First Abu Dhabi Bank, have pledged to mobilise $270bn in green financing by 2030 for environmentally impactful projects.

Infrastructure financing schemes are an important step towards drawing more private sector liquidity into the infrastructure industry, but it is also just a start compared to what will be required to deliver the region’s infrastructure needs.

Deep regional inequality also needs to be addressed. While countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE may currently be meeting the World Bank’s 8.2% of GDP infrastructure spending targets, the region’s hydrocarbon importers will likely need far more outside assistance.

For the region as a whole to thrive, countries will also need to work together and synergistically to deliver holistic infrastructure roadmaps. Just as the GCC is working together to deliver the Gulf Railway, the Levant and North Africa must work together to develop their shared infrastructure.

Only through cooperation and joint initiatives will the Mena region stand to bridge its infrastructure gap.

Gulf construction holds huge emissions savings potential
John Bambridge
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