Meeting Hill’s Climber

Gavin Davids talks to Mohammed Al Rais, SVP and managing director of Hill International ME

Mohammed Al Rais outlines Hill International’s plans for the coming year during a conversation with Big Project.

Back in 1977, Dubai was not much more than a sleepy little trading town, with business and construction focused around the Creek. It would have been impossible to imagine back then what the emirate would eventually become.

The same could be said for the likes of Oman, Doha, Abu Dhabi and even Saudi Arabia: countries and cities that were unrecognisable compared to their present state.

It was into this environment that Mohammed Al Rais came to the region, looking to establish himself in the nascent construction industry. With more than 35 years of accumulated know-how behind him, Al Rais is perfectly positioned to comment on the stupendous growth that the GCC region has undergone since those distant days.

As a senior vice president and managing director with Hill International (Middle East), Al Rais is tasked with overseeing the Middle Eastern operations of the firm’s Project Management Group. As part of this, he is required to formulate and guide the strategic direction of the company’s operations in the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Oman. In addition, he oversees operations in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.

Having recently won a contract in excess of $110mn from the Omani government for the Muscat and Salalah International Airports, Al Rais says Hill International is eyeing the market in the Sultanate as it looks to get a leg up on the competition.

“The Omani government has embarked on a very ambitious programme. There’s a lot of infrastructure, a lot of roads, the issue of the rail as well, there’s also ports. There’s a very aggressive programme for development, which is set by the Sultan and the Omani government. What we are looking for is to be part of that,” he explains.

Although Hill International is the engineer for the Muscat and Salalah airports, it was only appointed after the Sultanate decided to cancel its contract with Cowi-Larsen after December 2012. Work on the projects began on 1 January, 2013 for Hill International.

However, Al Rais says that those two projects will prove to be the exception to the rule, as the focus will remain on project and contract Management.

“We will target the PM-CM scope of services, not like the Oman airports, where we agreed to become the engineer and manage all the issues. It will be a PM-CM role that we’re looking for with the Ministry of Transport, and hopefully our role will expand. This is what we’re aiming for in our entry into Oman,” he says confidently.

This focus on the Sultanate is no coincidence, Al Rais says, as the company has identified it as a market it would like to enter into before competitors get wind of the opportunities there.

“We’ve focused on Saudi Arabia for the past few years, but our next focus was always going to be Oman, and we’ve been doing so for the last eight months. To be able to get into the Omani market is a fantastic opportunity for us.”

“For us (as a company), we move very carefully and steadily. We study what we’re getting into and we don’t take a haphazard approach to countries or projects. We do our analysis, risk mitigation as far as what projects we’re going into, where we’re walking into. We select our clients like our clients select their PM-CM. It’s not a matter of just jumping into anything. We’re very selective in what we approach and that has proved very successful (for us),” he explains.

“There’s no sense in getting into trouble projects were you eventually don’t get paid or get stopped, (something we’ve seen throughout the Gulf). It was for a very short period, but it did happen. So for us, it’s very important that we select our clients and then we move. At least we can start supporting from day one then.”

This attitude is what will stand Hill International in good stead as it moves into new markets, Al Rais says. While the immediate focus is on Saudi Arabia and then Oman, he says that the company aims to expand its project management operations, with opportunities in Bahrain, Abu Dhabi and most excitingly, in Iraq.

“In Iraq, we’re going ahead with five new projects. We’re going into universities with the Ministry of Higher Education and the Ministry of Youth. We’ve just started another 30,000 seat stadium in Baghdad. So there’s a lot of work going on there, but we haven’t really pushed it so far. We’re solidifying Saudi, we’re opening up Oman and the next step will hopefully be in Dubai as well,” he says.

One crucial element of the work Hill does in these markets is helping to bring them up to speed with the best practices and procedures that are in effect in the industry. While it may be a slow and challenging process, it’s ultimately a rewarding experience for the company and their clients in government.

“We already have a contract with one ministry in Saudi Arabia. We’re in negotiations with another ministry in Iraq as we speak, to actually set up processes, procedures and contracts, standardisation of contracts and standardisation of procedures, so people will be able to work. It’s been very slow, definitely, but it’s happening now.”

He asserts: “It’s a matter of training them; it’s a matter of putting a process and system in place, so that at least the bureaucracy and the old way of doing things become more streamlined.”

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