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Taking the lead

Murray & Roberts head of Middle East operations Nigel Harvey says the UAE construction industry can learn from South Africa?s approach to project management, staff training and funding. Melanie Mingas reports

Murray & Robert, Nigel Harvey

For Nigel Harvey, Dubai’s changing landscape isn’t simply about the scrapers shaping the horizon. As leader of Murray & Robert’s (M&R) Middle East operations, he has “been through times when the business was pumping, to digressive times when jobs are being cancelled.”

Yet he says that it’s the attitudes of those in the industry ultimately steering its pace; attitudes he credits for the company’s reputation to deliver not only on schedule, but often ahead.

“South Africans have fundamentally changed the landscape here in Dubai. We like to say we have a ‘get on and do it’ kind of ethic. Let’s find the reasons why rather than why not to.

“We have 30 different nationalities within the business; it’s a consequence of trading in the region, because you work out where you get your skills from.” Lessons from South Africa

Paying tribute to the standards of education in M&R’s home country, South Africa, Harvey says that the strong architectural and engineering practices the company has brought to the region cater well to the dynamic nature of the Middle East, which creates opportunities that “don’t necessarily exist back home.”

Those opportunities have included the Burj Al Arab, Zayed University and two terminals at Dubai International Airport, which M&R completed with local partners Al Habtoor Group and Takenaka Corporation.

He explained: “On the engineering front, we like to be a very proactive contractor; always thinking ahead as to where some of the complications could arise and what we are going to do to address those.”

According to Harvey, it’s an outlook which could help Dubai’s recovery. Investing in the planning stages, paying attention to potential challenges that may arise and seeking solutions to such challenges early on, will accelerate the industry once more.

“Besides the infrastructure in the commercial building environment that we participate in, there is unlikely to be much taking place in Dubai in the short term. There is no doubt that Dubai still has an attraction; it’s a fantastic brand name and will always attract people. But it’s an overheated market and will take some time to settle.”

In addition to market conditions, the company has also had to overcome complications with subcontractors, particularly in the complex trades.

Citing mechanics, electrics, plumbing and facade work as problem areas, Harvey say shortfalls in standards and expectations in these trades has also delayed projects.

Meeting expectations

“Having the right people to do those trades is critical and what we have tried to do as a business is nurture skills internally to help manage the shortfalls in many of the sub trades.”

Similar problems have occurred in codifying standards, particularly concerning health and safety. As one of five founding members of the Buildsafe UAE consortium, M&R has helped shape the current regulations and imprint these ethics on the sub contractors with whom they collaborate.

“When I got here initially the systems weren’t that well defined, giving people from all over the world chance to do what they wanted, rather than what the procedure said.”

Having instilled the company’s own standards, Harvey says that the policies and procedures M&R now works under are clearly understood and implemented, removing the freedom for subcontractors to “do exactly what they want to do.”

“It’s a big issue that we try to take seriously. We try to do all we can to create an environment with zero harm.”

Despite the setbacks and reports last year that the company had “lost” a number of Middle East contracts, M&R is thriving; securing new projects and expanding into new territory.

Like others, it has repositioned as the market has dictated, however, working with educated personnel rather than supply chains, means it does not need to re-size to be able to re-structure.

It is this model which allows the company to secure new work in the face of reduced opportunity.

Opportunity seeker

Tipping Saudi Arabia as the next big market, Harvey says: “Most of our people hold degrees and diplomas, that’s our business model and in new territory we partner with local players who know the environment.

In Saudi Arabia we have tied up with Oger, which asked us to join it because of our experience on Dubai International Airport.”

“We’re involved in two projects with Saudi Oger; one is an iconic building that it is certainly going to look impressive when it’s finished, but it’s all still quite a long way away. The second project is part of the infrastructure at Jeddah Airport.” M&R continues to engage in projects in the UAE, particularly in Abu Dhabi.

These include a new head office for the Tourism Development Investment Company (TDIC), the recently completed airport terminal, a bid for the Mafraq hospital with the Abu Dhabi Department of Health, and a tender on the emirate’s very own Louvre project. It is also working on the St. Regis Hotel and Resort, on Saadiyat Island.

Drawing on the company’s experience of high-speed rail projects in

South Africa, Harvey also has the Abu Dhabi Metro in sight.

“There are big opportunities in the development of the UAE rail network and, in particular, the Abu Dhabi Metro, but they are still a way off. In the meantime there is lots of oil and gas-related work in Abu Dhabi, so there are still plenty of opportunities there.”

However, he says there is a worry that such projects may struggle to attract adequate funding in the current conditions. Drawing on the experience of engineering South African toll roads and the Gautrain, Harvey says public-private partnerships (PPP) could succeed where other methods of finance fail.

“Public-private partnerships are a good concept and a good model where, in a relatively short time, you can put together some major capital projects.

It works well when there is cheap international funding.”

For the time being, his message to the industry is clear; close relationships with good communication will overcome any difficulties.

“The industry is still slightly disjointed when it comes to relationships between clients, engineers and architects; there is more we can do to work together to achieve a successful solution. Companies in all sectors must remain close to the client and know what the needs and requirements are.

“Having the right management onboard and the right people in the right places is key, especially in dealing with major capital projects. Having the systems in place to manage your projects well is fundamental.”

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