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Rwanda: Qatar Airways acquires 60% of the new Kigali airport

By Rémy Darras
Posted on Wednesday, 11 December 2019 10:08

President Paul Kagame and Sheikh Tamim ben Hamad Al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar, at the Qitcom conference in Doha in October. @ Rwandan presidency

Less than a week after Rwanda signed a partnership with Paris-Saint-Germain (PSG), Qatar Airways has become the owner of the new Bugesera airport, still under construction. An investment in RwandAir is also under discussion.

Qatar’s African investment strategy is accelerating.

The Rwandan government and Qatar Airways signed an investment partnership on 9 December, whereby the airline will take 60% of the new Bugesera airport (east of Kigali), a project worth nearly $1.3bn, initially scheduled for completion in 2020.

  • The announcement comes just five days after that of the partnership between PSG, owned by Qatar, and the Rwandan government. PSG fans will be exhorted to “Visit Rwanda” via PSG’s training kit and billboards at the Parc des Princes in Paris.

The airport partnership has three components: construction, ownership and operation of the infrastructure. Qatari officials went to Kigali to discuss the project in March. Last year, the government suspended the work begun in 2016 by the Portuguese company Mota-Engil to resize the project, which was initially valued at $818m.

An air route from Doha to Kigali

While Kigali welcomed 977,631 passengers in 2018, the new terminal has greater ambitions. It will be designed to accommodate up to 7 million passengers per year (well above the 4.5 million planned with the previous Portuguese partner) and 14 million by 2032.

  • “We hope that our future airport hub will boost tourism, allowing us to increase our revenues from $150m to $800m in seven years. Bugesera will be a key employer, the aviation sector will need to employ many people to serve the maintenance, cargo, and our company RwandAir” said Clare Akamanzi, executive director of the Rwanda Development Board (RDB).

Read: Qatar’s quest for Africa influence

Bugesera airport is likely to be only a part of the air alliance that is being formed between Kigali and Doha. An investment in RwandAir is also under discussion. When asked about the project in November, RwandAir executive director Yvonne Makolo refused to comment.

The alliance looks good on paper. With losses of nearly $50m each year since its creation in 2003, RwandAir would see a solid technical and financial partner able to support its development and hub strategy.

Bypassing the Saudi blockade

On the Qatari side, a future rapprochement would allow Qatar Airways to bypass the embargo that forces all its flights to Africa to avoid Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt.

The new Kigali airport could thus attract everyday air traffic from African countries to Doha, where Qatar Airways’ aircraft could fly under RwandAir flight numbers. Inversely, those of Rwandair could be code-shared with Qatar Airways.

All this without fear of flying over Saudi Arabia.

Read: Qatar-Saudi Arabia: a diplomatic battle waged in East Africa 

This will allow RwandAir to increase its range and Qatar Airways to reduce flight times to West and Central Africa… and possibly catch up with Emirates and Ethiopian Airlines on the continent.

  • “Qatar Airways’ entry into the airport and the company is a project emanating from the Qatari state. Qatar Airways is only there because it is executing the will of the state,” comments a source close to the deal.

Indeed, the rapprochement between Rwanda and Qatar Airways has wider aims.

In particular, it will give Doha access to Rwandan arable land, to diversify its sources of supply and to buy Rwandan agricultural products and transport them by air. Qatar currently depends heavily on Turkey and Iran, two capricious partners.

This article first appeared in Jeune Afrique.

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