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Infrastructure blog

What steps can the Middle East and North Africa take to enable better infrastructure?

18 March 2024

ICE country representatives discussed how Middle East and North African governments can improve their strategic infrastructure planning.

What steps can the Middle East and North Africa take to enable better infrastructure?
A meeting focused on strengths and weaknesses in strategic infrastructure planning in the region. Image credit: Shutterstock

When planned strategically, infrastructure projects can deliver the greatest possible benefits for people and the planet.

But positive change takes time. This was one of the key points raised at the latest ICE Middle East and North Africa (MENA) strategy meeting.

The ICE-led Enabling Better Infrastructure (EBI) programme helps governments strategically plan and prioritise infrastructure that meets their country’s current and future needs.

The strategy meeting – the first pilot of the latest EBI guidance – featured a structured discussion about each country’s strengths and weaknesses and where the guidance could help.

A range of perspectives

Representatives from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE joined the meeting, offering a rich range of perspectives.

These insights highlighted many differences in infrastructure governance across the MENA region. There were, however, some common threads.

Quick decision-making is prevalent – but what are the consequences?

Many countries across the region shared examples of governments making infrastructure decisions quickly.

This can allow them to be agile in their response to emerging national needs, as well as limit costs.

But it can also affect neighbouring nations, who may need to reconsider their own projects as potentially conflicting or competing infrastructure systems spring up nearby.

Quick decision-making also raises questions about longevity. The project might be relevant now, but will it still be in the future? Do plans account for maintenance and renewal?

Participants considered whether a regional plan could help better coordinate decision-making between countries.

Not all countries have a national vision

The first of EBI’s eight principles involves defining a clear national vision. Based on a nation’s long-term ambitions, this builds political and social consensus on objectives and how to achieve them.

Many countries in the region have published a national vision:

Others don’t have a formal national vision. But, looking deeper, many non-stated visions exist.

Most governments are seeking to manage the effects of climate change and reduce dependency on oil. And some are using the UN Sustainable Development Goals to identify national priorities.

Formally articulating these ambitions can be the next step for these nations to develop a credible, long-term infrastructure strategy.

The institutions are there, but do they work?

In most countries, there are already national development planning institutions that can help with this process.

But some may require strengthening.

Countries could, for instance, benefit from a body that owns strategic infrastructure planning across the whole government, rather than different departments operating in silos.

The gap between strategy, implementation, and operation

This linked to observations that many countries had many strategies, but that implementation and operation were often disconnected from these.

The topic of decision-making came up again. Quick decisions – perhaps made for political reasons – can result in rapid progress, but not always the best outcomes.

The large number of existing plans and strategies also focus heavily on development, and not enough on maintenance and renewal.

Strong institutions can help close these strategic gaps.

But, there remain barriers to such institutions operating effectively – including corruption and a lack of flexibility and transparency in stakeholder engagement.

This, in turn, raised the important question: if change is needed, who makes the case for it?

Transformation takes time

Discussion turned to the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) as an example of institutions driving change.

The NIC first formed in 2015, and became an official agency of the HM Treasury in 2017.

Seven years on, strategic infrastructure planning in the UK is still improving.

Governments embarking upon the process shouldn’t be discouraged that change won’t happen overnight – but every step in the right direction is a positive one.

Next steps

The EBI programme seeks to build a robust understanding of different governments’ approaches and the lessons others can learn.

The insights gained from this meeting, and the first practical demonstration of the new EBI gap analysis tool, will inform the guidance we share in parts of the world.

Additions the EBI team are considering include assurances that the strategic planning process takes time and guidelines on what to prioritise in the early stages.

Future guidance will also consider who can make the case for institutional change, and how.

The EBI programme works with senior government officials around the world to help them strengthen their strategic infrastructure planning.

Through this work, we’ll continue to demonstrate the programme’s impact and value, as well as build the collaborative network to share insight and best practice among government officials around the world.

Find out more about the EBI programme.

  • Ben Gosling, speechwriter and policy content manager at ICE