A view from the Gulf: we’ll all manage resources differently this time

Dubai based Tom Bower tells Infrastructure Intelligence that the Middle East market has matured but the huge portfolio of work underway means that challenges remain.

Tom Bower, WSP

From metro projects in every major city to buildings and infrastructure for international events such as the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar and the 2020 World Expo in Dubai, the Middle East is entering another construction boom.  

The past 12 months in particular have seen contract awards accelerate in markets such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE. “The world economy is also starting to look a lot better and what that will mean locally is a lot of pressure on resources,” says Tom Bower, managing director at consultant WSP and secretary for the ACE Middle East Group.

Despite this he is not expecting to do battle over people or pricing. “We think that this will drive more use of technology because we don’t want to get into a price battle to get people here, we can actually move work to where they are.”

He explains that while WSP has increased its regional resources to around 550 people from 350 two years ago, the company has focussed on enabling international collaboration through investment in technologies that support their position as a global business. This is even more important now that the firm has 15000 employees and operates in 350 countries, larger than ever since its acquisition in August 2012 by Canada’s Genivar.

“We feel that we are utilising technology more than others. You don’t need to put 500 people in Qatar to be working on projects such as the local roads & drainage programme, there are more sustainable ways of doing things,” says Bower explaining that having 20 people engaged on a call all viewing the same screen is now part of how the business works. 

“Some clients come up with very complex contracts that perhaps try and do a bit too much rather than working in the spirit of collaboration that we see in other markets” 

This enables the firm to have a team of 70 in Qatar with supporting expertise in the UAE and India. “Clients are becoming more mature and recognising that you don’t necessarily get value from lots of people being here. Engaging with quality consultants means they get value from the product not just lots of people” says Bower.

This is one of several lessons that the industry learned from the earlier boom which ran from 2006 to 2008.  Ramping up too quickly in response to soaring workloads left many firms overexposed and overstaffed when the market, particularly in the UAE, slumped in 2009 and 2010. Bower says that a legacy from this period is that consultants like WSP are now approaching things in a different way. “We have four themes running through the business at the moment; quality, technology, safety and sustainability.  From the perspective of the market five years ago these things were just not considered so it is a more mature market,” he says.

From both a quality and safety perspective international concern has been high over the conditions for labourers in Qatar in particular. Bower says that a lot of work is underway at a high level in the country to ensure that conditions improve.

Although today’s market is more mature there are still challenges for firms including terms and conditions of contracts. “Some clients come up with very complex contracts that perhaps try and do a bit too much rather than working in the spirit of collaboration that we see in other markets,” says Bower. He also notes that getting paid is not always easy with different markets having different challenges. “The reasons behind this vary from country to country. Qatari government agencies for example require the Ministry of Finance to pay all the bills so that can be a challenge. There is also a high degree of checking and rechecking and a lack of people who can sign things off.”

At the same time inflation is expected to begin creeping in to the industry with analysts predicting this could once again reach double figures in the not too distant future.

Despite the challenges Bower is excited about the regional potential and says that the multinational nature of the markets is a great fit for WSP as an international consultancy. He points to some exciting projects such as Qatar’s iconic Sharq Crossing, set to traverse Doha Bay with a series of bridges and tunnels and Dubai’s own version of the London Eye, but larger of course.  “There are some high profile projects around and quite a few of the schemes that were put on hold are coming back to life,” he says. The challenge for WSP and other firms will be to strike a balance between making the most of the opportunities and maintaining sustainable growth.

If you would like to contact Bernadette Ballantyne about this, or any other story, please email bernadette.ballantyne@infrastructure-intelligence.com:2016-1.