Middle East Mania

For now, the Persian Gulf states' coffers are overflowing with oil money. But some of these powerhouses—in particular, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain—are planning for a future not depended on oil revenue. There are unprecedented building and construction programs to improve and expand the region's infrastructure.

By Barbara Horwitz-Bennett, Contributing Editor February 1, 2007

For now, the Persian Gulf states’ coffers are overflowing with oil money. But some of these powerhouses—in particular, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain—are planning for a future not depended on oil revenue. There are unprecedented building and construction programs to improve and expand the region’s infrastructure.

These nations are striving to establish themselves as international centers of tourism, finance, education, culture and recreation. Eager to make a big splash on the world scene, they are erecting signature architecture with cutting-edge systems for energy management, lighting, HVAC, electrical and life safety.

From the Burj Dubai—expected to become the world’s tallest skyscraper upon completion, reaching a half mile into the sky—to Ski Dubai, the region’s largest indoor ski slope, to the 300 man-made Dubain islands, built in the shape of the world, the developers have spared no expense all located in United Arab Emirates.

“The whole [Gulf region] is hot, and Dubai itself is just going nuts,” observes Randy Tucker, P.E., executive vice president and chief strategy officer for RJA Group, Houston Tucker’s firm contributed to the design of the Burj Dubai, along with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), Chicago. “There are cranes as far as the eye can see, it’s just incredible.” In fact, it is estimated that 25% of the world’s supply of construction cranes are deployed in Dubai.

No other place is more popular than Dubai, concurs CEO Rick Lincicome, AIA, with Minneapolis-based Ellerbe Becket. “I’ve never seen so much going on in one city. It’s like New York is being rebuilt.”

System pride

As for the M/E/P systems in these buildings, state-of-the-art technology is a matter of national pride. “Everyone wants to show off the latest technologies in their buildings,” explains Issam Elsahilli, principal, Interface Engineering, Portland, Ore., whose firm recently completed work on the retail and art district in Dubai’s Global Village, a tourism-oriented entertainment complex. Interface engineers are working with Perkins & Will Dallas, on the design of six high-rise towers on an Abu Dhabi island.

Fire-protection firm Schirmer Engineering, Atlanta, is also very active in the Gulf region. In Dubai, the firm is working on the Atlantis resort on the Palm Islands, the Versace Tower and the Dubai Maria Mall. They also are involved in Qatar, on the design of a new terminal building for Doha Airport and are working on the Doha Convention Center Tower along with Turner Construction.

Schirmer’s director of international practices, Martin Kealy, CEng, confirms the tendency to go with the latest and greatest in building systems. “Clients will buy the best technologies and the best designers. They’re not interested in local firms—they want top-name architects and the best that money can buy,” he says.

But lest one gets the wrong impression that developers here are only concerned with superficial ostentation, energy efficiency and sustainability are top priorities—despite the region’s rich sources of energy. Middle East developers are tuned into the fact that savvy investors want sustainability, says George Efstathiou, RIBA, managing partner with SOM.

Furthermore, Gulf region developers are placing more emphasis on life cycle and reliability. “The long-term outlook they take on their facilities is very refreshing,” notes James Warren, vice president of engineering, Americas, EYP Mission Critical Facilities, New York.

“We don’t give these countries enough credit with regard to understanding the [state of the] world’s resources and issues of global warming and climate change. They are very aware of it,” adds Ashok Raiji, P.E., principal, Arup, New York. On Arup’s Middle East docket at present is the Abu Dhabi airport and a convention center and high-rise tower in Doha. In addition, the firm recently completed a stadium in Qatar, just in time for the Asian Games.

When Raiji says “we,” he is, talking about North Americans. When one looks at what’s going on in various building market sectors in the Gulf region, it’s clear that the standard is far ahead of what one might imagine. A close look suggests that everything is up-to-date in Qatar, Bharain and the UAE, with much in common with the developed West. But there are local differences that must be taken into account.

Similarities and differences

First, the similarities: In the healthcare sector, for example, where quality is a priority, everything is designed to United States or United Kingdom standards, with a particular focus on hospitality to accommodate a family-oriented Middle East culture. This trend, in fact, has been taking hold in the United States as well in recent years, where healthcare institutions are also looking to make their facilities more patient- and family-friendly as well.

One sector, however, where there are significant differences is in the commercial office market. Generally speaking, in the Middle East, office buildings don’t require large floor plates to accommodate big law, financial or accounting firms, as is the case in the United States. Consequently, office space is commonly wrapped into a mixed-use project, according to Efstathiou, whose firm is lending its architectural expertise to such a project—the Rollex Tower and Infinity Tower, featuring a 90

For HVAC systems in particular, while not unique to this region but a major concern here, is the issure of extreme climate, with its oppressive summer heat and sandstorms. “HVAC systems have to be more reliable and have higher capacities, as any breakdown can result in pretty bad indoor conditions in the middle of the summer,” Raiji says. “In addition, sand with high humidity levels can cause problems during construction, because it cakes onto the building surfaces. Good filtration systems with the mechanical equipment are required, and appropriate building finishes must be selected.”

But beyond the unique concerns for western M/E/P system designers in the Mideast, there are the overall issues of project delivery in a foreign land (see “Project Delivery—Middle East Style, p.52). Actually, engineers working in the Gulf region report that cultural differences, in terms of establishing positive working relationships with developers, are rather minor. “Most of the people we’re dealing with are ex-pats or have been schooled in the U.S., so there isn’t a huge gap there at all,” claims Efstathiou.

But there is the problem of skill shortages. One big issue that must be reckoned with is that the region’s small population is by no means sufficient to generate the level of skill and manpower required to design and build the astounding number of facilities and developments on the planning table.

As a result, ex-pats have been streaming to the area, and now make up between 60% and 80% of the population in Dubai. For example, a few years back there were just a couple U.S. design firms in the city and today there are 20. Furthermore, some ex-pat firms have grown from five to 200 people. “Architectural firms are coming from Australia and Asian—and are starting to come in on the contractor side,” observes Linicome.

But even so, due to the high volume of work being done in the Gulf, there is still a shortage of firms. Consequently, when a high-profile project goes through a bidding process, a developer is lucky if one out of eight contracting firms respond, even when the bidding fee is waived. “Essentially, the demand is putting an enormous strain on the AEC community,” adds Linicome. One way firms are attempting to deal with the strain is by outsourcing certain services overseas, such as document production, adds Elsahili.

Destination Dubai

What’s attracting professionals to this quickly developing region? According to EYP MCF’s Warren, the answer is: “Money, it’s as simple as that.” By offering attractive salaries, appealing tax benefits, housing and transportation, not to mention nice weather, many qualified ex-pats have been taking advantage of the opportunity to spend some time near the Persian Gulf.

At the same, Dubai’s rapid growth—the country’s gross domestic product essentially quadrupled from 1990 to 2004, according to the Dubai Department of Economic Development—has created major inflation. Consequently, the cost of living, specifically housing, has made it increasingly more difficult for both firms and ex-pats to justify the economics of living and working in Dubai, although it is hoped that a recent rental cap of 7% will help curb the housing market.

In addition, a survey recently released by GulfTalent.com states that more attractive opportunities in China and India are beginning to lure folks away from the Gulf, creating acute worker shortages in some areas within the UAE, Qatar, Saudia Arabia and Kuwait.

But despite all this, Dubai, at large, is certainly capturing the attention of international businessmen and tourists. As a tax-free zone, Dubai is essentially establishing itself as a major hub between Europe and the Far East.

And on the tourist side, “The hotels are constantly booked and many people, especially Europeans, are buying second [vacation] homes where they can come to escape the winter,” observes Elsahili. Also, projects such as the Hydropolis—an underwater hotel—and Dubailand are Disneylands of the Mideast that have already attracted significant international attention.

“By 2010, it is anticipated that the city’s unique architecture and attractions will draw 15 million hotel guests every year, and by 2017, Dubai’s population of 1.1 million is expected to nearly quadruple to 4 million,” says James A. Bychowski, vice president — marketing at Schirmer Engineering’s headquarters in Deerfield, Ill. In the first quarter of 2006 alone, Dubai spent $770 million on completed facilities, literally adding hundreds of buildings to its skyline, explains Bychowski.

“It didn’t seem like it would work. Why would anyone want to go to a place where it’s 140

In a nutshell, the Gulf region building boom is expected to continue for some time as developers struggle to find designers and contractors to build their projects. While much is going on in many different locations, Raiji observes, a general trend of Dubai focuses mostly on tourism and logistics, i.e., warehouses, distribution; Doha looking to establish itself as a center of higher education and sports recreation; and Abu Dhabi’s honing in on finance and cultural arts. But whatever the case may be, these cities are making their marks, transforming themselves into world-class destinations.

Project Follow-up and Commissioning

While the Gulf states are greatly benefiting from western design and construction expertise, what’s going to happen when the foreign professionals move on? In other words, who will maintain and repair their building systems?

According to Martin Kealy, CEng, director of international practices, Schirmer Engineering, Atlanta, it’s a potential issue: “I believe that owners of larger building are planning for this, by making sure that they go with equipment of international standards, but smaller building owners will probably have a problem,” he observes.

Consequently, it behooves developers to take a long-term look when choosing building systems and planning for future maintenance and repair.

Project Delivery—Middle East Style

One major difference between construction projects in the Middle East and the United States is in the overall project delivery process. In the former, contractors typically are less experienced. A job that would take one person to execute in the West is performed by two to three people on a Middle Eastern job site, explains James Warren, vice president of engineering, Americas, EYP Mission Critical Facilities, New York.

Similarly, contractors rely much more on the expertise of architects and engineers. “Documents have to be written at a much higher level of detail as the project will be built exactly the way we draw it,” explains Warren.

This approach fits in well with the region’s system of structured documentation and contract control, modeled after the British, which lends itself to a more rigid management system and a higher level of quality control, according to CEO Rick Lincicome, AIA, with Ellerbe Becket.

Yet another reason why the Middle Eastern project delivery process can proceed at a smooth and rapid clip is the fact that everything is controlled by the royal families, so approvals don’t have to go through bureaucratic processes. At the same time, observes Ashok Raiji, P.E., principal, Arup, New York, because these royal families are so short on time, presentations must be very brief and to the point.

One example of where such a monarchical system enables large-scale changes is a recent decision on the part of Dubai’s ruling family to change the weekend from Thursday and Friday, to Friday and Saturday, to better accommodate the expatriates’ working patterns and lifestyles, according to Martin Kealy, CEng, director of international practices with Schirmer Engineering, Deerfield, Ill.

Furthermore, the powers that be in Dubai are much more tolerant of western culture, which has further enabled the city to grow and prosper at such a pace. “Dubai and the United Arab Emirates have a global mentality. They’re accommodating and open-minded,” says RJA’s Tucker.