Big Project ME flies into Oman to see how Hill International is rescuing the troubled Muscat International Airport project. Jonathon Savill and Gavin Davids report
Over the last decade or so the GCC construction industry has narrowed to focus to fixate on the major markets of the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, relegating the rest of the Gulf countries to bit part players in the tapestry of the Middle Eastern market.
While the attention of the construction world has remained on the major players, intelligent construction firms have been keeping an eye on other emerging markets in the region, waiting for the right time to make their move.
None of these so called ‘secondary markets’ are as important as the Sultanate of Oman, the GCC’s second largest country by land size and the third largest by population. Recognising this fact, the Sultan of Oman, HH Qaboos bin Said Al Said and his government have begun pushing through a number of vital infrastructure projects that will help the country’s steady growth over the coming years, if not decades.
One such project is the $5.2 billion expansion and modernisation of the Muscat and Salalah International Airports. Considered one of the biggest construction projects in the history of the Sultanate, the two expansions will see passenger handling capacities jump to 12 million and 2 million respectively.
The projects were originally tendered to Cowi-Larsen, but in September of 2012, the Omani Tender Board abruptly announced that it would not be renewing its contract with the Danish construction consultant, and would instead be putting it out for tender.
It was here that Hill International entered into the picture, beating rival firms Dar Al Handasah and AECOM Middle East to the $108.5 million, two-year engineering consultancy contract.
As such, the US-based international consultant has quite the job on its hands, a fact acknowledged by Adel Merhi, project director of the Muscat International and Salalah Airport projects, and vice president at Hill International.
“This is the most strategic project in the country, I believe” he tells Big Project ME during a tour of the project site. “(In fact) this is one of the biggest projects that Hill has undertaken, possibly the biggest. Not in terms of the volume of work, but in the complexity of the project and the challenges that come with it.”
“We came on board in early January 2013. The previous engineer and designer were managing this project. There was some fallout between the engineer and the client and they are no longer here. Part of the problem was that there were delays on the project and also cost overruns.”
“We came over and mobilised close to 320 people in a very short period, and contributed towards streamlining the processes and resolving a lot of problems with interfaces.
“We also resolved a lot of technical issues and while we’re still facing a lot of problems, we’re trying to manage them in the best way possible,” he tells Big Project ME during the tour.
Clearly then, there’s a lot of work to be done, but it’s a challenge the Hill team is relishing, says Darioush Aryanpad, the Engineering and Interface director on the massive project.
“Imagine a train that’s derailed and going downhill, that’s what we jumped in to and tried to (bring under) control and put in order. We then take it from there, that’s the challenge we’re facing,” he says.
“You’re not brought into a project like this as a consultant, as we were, when there are no challenges. Our task was to come and deal with the challenges and solve the issues. There are always challenges and there are always things for us to do. It’s a very complex project.”
Part of the complexity of the project is that there are so many ‘packages’ to cover. These packages cover various facets of the airport’s construction schedule, from building a new terminal, to a new runway that will link up with the existing one, to building a new air traffic control tower. Furthermore, facilities and operational systems will also need to be built, including passenger boarding bridges, baggage handling systems and cargo and maintenance hubs.
“Here in Muscat, we have various packages and each package has various milestone dates, so you can see within one package, maybe there are some milestones finishing earlier than other packages,” says Merhi, as he outlines the challenges facing Hill International.
“In total, there are two phases, Phase 1 and Phase 2. Phase 1 is the runway completion, and Phase 2 is the overall completion.”
“The problem to start with, is that the project itself is massive. There are many packages, many programmes and on top of it, we inherited a lot of problems on the job. We inherited many problems and luckily, so far, we’ve done very well in putting out the fires on a few packages. We still have problems on other packages, but we’re steadily moving forward and will overcome them,” he adds.
Although the project isn’t as large as airports like Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the Omani government is far more ambitious in terms of the way it is releasing its construction packages, say the men overseeing the project.
“In comparison to other regional airports; hardly any of them have been as ambitious as this one when it comes to releasing so many of the various packages, as one,” says Merhi.
“In almost every other airport, things are done phase by phase by phase. If you look at the various components and put them in a sum, probably it’s not as comparable in size to other airports, but if you look at the challenge of putting it all together at once and sending it out, I would suggest that very few airports deal with such an ambitious programme in such a short time frame and this airport has to be compared with very few in the world,” he asserts.
With construction scheduled to be completed in 2014, the challenge of hitting that date is immense. But that doesn’t mean that the consultant isn’t well prepared for what’s in store for it over the next two years.
“Is the project on schedule?” muses Aryanpad, when asked if Hill will be able to meet the scheduled finish date.
“Not based on the previous schedule, but we’re making sure that it will be, once we set a new timeframe. We’ll make sure that this is the schedule that will meet the target,” he insists.
“A logical and rational time-planning is in order, we’re putting it in place and we’re following it from here on. We’ve got all the mechanisms to basically materialise this time-scale that we have, in the best possible way,” he adds.
Merhi points out that there are 25,000 workers on the project, a huge number. Although the majority of them work during the day, the main contractor for the terminal building, a joint-venture between Bechtel-ENKA-Bahwan Engineering Company, has been working night shifts to complete the building on schedule.
“The construction of the runway, will be finished by the end of the year. Then there will be some certification process with ORAT, Operational Readiness and Testing, and that will take probably another four months,” he says.
“There are different dates floating in the market, and some of them have been announced by the minister, there are different interpretations of what those dates exactly mean,” he warns, adding that the different projects on site are at different phases, but maintains that the project will be completed on time and on schedule, despite all the challenges that are in place for the consultant.
“Hill International was appointed for its ability to deal with issues of this magnitude and projects of this size, and given the conditions (this project) is at. It’s not a surprise, but there are things that are unforeseen and they come back and get thrown at you, and you just have to deal with it,” he says emphatically, leaving no doubts about his company’s ability to pull of one of the most impressive rescue jobs in its history.