By Menekse Tokyay, SETimes
Qatar is investing heavily in Bulgaria, including in a highway to facilitate trade links between markets in the EU, the Balkans, Turkey and the Middle East.
Bulgaria, Turkey and Qatar have agreed to start a joint four-year project to build a highway through Bulgaria, boosting Bulgaria's neglected road infrastructure while expanding Turkish and Qatari stakes in the EU's poorest country.
The city of Ruse, located on the border with Romania, will be connected to Svilengrad near the border of Greece and Turkey via a 300km highway. The estimated cost of the project is 777m euros, and will be implemented under a public-private partnership.
"The Ruse-Svilengrad highway is the first ever joint project initiated on a government to government basis involving the three countries: Qatar, Turkey and Bulgaria," Vessela Tcherneva, the spokesperson of the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told SETimes.
"The road will be part of the pan-European corridor IX and will complete the so-called Black Sea ring road. The highway is expected to be of a great value connecting Europe with Istanbul and onwards with the Middle East," she added.
Parallel to the May 24th agreement on highway construction, separate memoranda of understanding were also signed in the agriculture, tourism, mining, real estate and health sectors. Qatari Prime Minister Hamad Bin Jasim Bin Jabr Al Thani said his oil and gas rich country would invest $200m (162m euros) in Bulgaria's Central Bank to show the seriousness of Qatar's intention to invest in Bulgaria.
Last March, Turkey and Bulgaria signed a total of 17 agreements during a visit by a Bulgarian cabinet delegation headed by Prime Minister Boyko Borisov.
Turkey has substantial investment and trade interests in Bulgaria, while tiny Qatar -- which punches above its weight in the international arena -- has been investing heavily throughout the world to expand its economic and political influence.
"Qatar is concerned about its food security and is ready to invest in the Bulgarian agricultural sector. Qatar Airways recently started operating flights to Bulgaria. Obviously, we witness a comprehensive, yet not very well elaborated, Qatar interest in Bulgaria, probably as one of the entry points to the region and to the EU," Plamen Ralchev, assistant professor at the University of National and World Economy in Sofia, told SETimes.
"Therefore, the intangible, strategic repercussions of this investment interest may well outnumber its tangible financial returns," he added.
Muzaffer Kutlay, a Balkan expert at the International Strategic Research
Organisation, an Ankara-based think tank, underlined that the sovereign-debt crisis in the eurozone -- which buys nearly 60% of Bulgarian exports --has directly curbed economic growth in Bulgaria. To overcome economic stagnation, Bulgaria needs new investments.
"The EU does not promise so much to Bulgaria, leading the latter to turn her face to the most immediate Eastern neighbour, which is Turkey," she told SETimes. She said that Turkey has competent companies working in the infrastructure and construction sectors, which is considered as an important asset.
Now that Qatar is expanding investment in the Balkans, Kutlay says that Turkey acted as an "informal broker" to attract Gulf capital to Bulgaria by using its friendly relations with Qatar.
Over the past decade, total trade volume between Turkey and Bulgaria has jumped nearly six fold, hitting about 3 billion euros in 2011. Bulgaria is a key entry point for Turkish goods to the EU, the Balkans and Eastern Europe, making an efficient transportation corridor through Bulgaria a top economic priority.
Bulgaria and Qatar are also evaluating trade and investment opportunities in liquefied natural gas to help relieve Bulgaria's dependence on Russian gas.