Mubarak Al Ahbabi: the UAE’s BIM visionary

Why those who embraced building information modelling early are reaping the benefits

PHOTO: Dr Mubarak Al Ahbabi: “BIM is the key to achieving the goals that the government is now planning – the strategic plans. Emiratis, and even non-Emiratis, have to be trained and ready for this.” Credit:

In most walks of life, being an early adopter of technology puts you ahead of the curve. While the competition is still figuring out yesterday’s technology, the early adopter is already learning how to use tomorrow’s. In industries where the margins of success are razor-thin, this ability to embrace change can give companies that crucial leg up on their rivals.

When it comes to construction, this is even more pertinent. In a local industry as cut-throat as it is traditional, being an early adopter of technology is difficult, but also hugely rewarding. The proof of this is in the success of major contractors and consultants. The ones who took the initiative to embrace building information modelling (BIM) early on are now reaping the benefits as some UAE government establishments are pushing its implementation throughout the construction industry.

Despite this, there is a slightly worrying trend developing in the regional construction industry, with the early adopters within the industry coming from middle management or base-level users. While that is well and good, there also needs to be better adoption and acceptance from higher up. If the leaders of construction don’t adopt and understand BIM technology, then there is a very real risk that the region will be left behind. This doesn’t just apply to contractors and consultants, but also to government bodies and developers who will be awarding contracts to the industry.

No one recognises this more clearly than Dr Mubarak Al Ahbabi, chairman of the Department of Presidential Affairs, and that is why Big Project ME sat down for an exclusive interview with the man who aims to shape the future of the UAE’s construction industry.

OPINION: BIM on the revolution in construction

As the chairman of the department that has to be at the forefront of technology and performance improvement, Dr Mubarak is a major contributor the performance of industry. Clearly, then, he is a man to be reckoned with. As impressive and varied as his résumé is, the reason he has agreed to an interview is because of his role as chairman of the newly formed Institute of Sustainability and BIM. As chairman of the institute, Dr Mubarak believes that he is answering a calling to spread the message of BIM. Not only does he hope to educate the leaders of the industry, but he also aims to bring those in government and local municipalities on board to work together and create a common agenda for BIM.

“First of all, you know this institute is not for profit, but, because of the career I’ve had, [I wanted] to give back to my country, the UAE. So this idea came to me; we have a very good relationship with the market and with public sector organisations, so I found that the institute is the best idea to train engineers and other professionals to understand BIM.

“We give them enough knowledge to start on future projects that will be based on BIM, by holding workshops and inviting our colleagues from the UK, the US and from Singapore to come and give lectures. This will keep going and will feed these engineers with huge amounts of information, which will be in line with the developments we have here in the UAE,” Dr Mubarak explains.

Having earned his doctorate in Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) and BIM, the chairman is supremely qualified to extol the benefits of BIM adoption in the region. With the UAE’s economy continuing to go from strength to strength, he is adamant that his institute is coming at a time when the construction industry needs it the most.

“This government needs BIM. In 2015, we’re expecting the UAE’s economic growth, only in construction, to be about $50 billion. Using BIM will save, at a minimum, 10% to 15% of this budget, if we apply it correctly.

“BIM is the key to achieving the goals that the government is now planning – the strategic plans. Emiratis, and non-Emiratis, they have to be trained and be ready for this. It’s only when they have enough knowledge in BIM, they will be able to achieve this savings. They will be able to achieve an understanding of what is required from their supply chain when they come and work for them. So this is what we’re trying to teach them.”

This desire to spread the word of BIM isn’t something that has come to Dr Mubarak recently. Having first encountered the technology back in 2001, he has been a long-time advocate, as he has seen its benefits first-hand.

“In 2001, a big task was given to me. I had to deliver a huge project within three years. That project was the Emirates Palace. If we had followed the traditional procedures, it would have taken a minimum of five years to deliver the project. So I formed a specialised client committee to provide a strong client leadership. That team’s main job was to create a collaborative environment between the project stakeholders and to over-ride the routine and make sure that there were no clashes between the stakeholders,” he recollects.

Consisting of a small group of highly professional and highly experienced people, chaired by Dr Mubarak, the team was tasked with analysing the project and creating a culture within the project that encouraged the sharing of information. This collaborative effort resulted in the completion of the massive 260,000sqm high-end, iconic and multi-faceted hospitality project within three years, at a time when ordinary villas were taking between three and four years to be completed.

Without realising it, Dr Mubarak had asked his team to mimic the IPD and BIM process, teaching him a valuable lesson. “When I learnt about BIM, [I realised] it was exactly what I had done. We shared ideas and information at the same table, there were no clashes and we managed to over-ride so many routine systems,” he points out, adding that this experience inspired him to begin his doctorate, which of course was centred on IPD and BIM.

During his PhD, Dr Mubarak began the implementation of IPD and BIM on a smaller scale as test cases for the viability of the collaborative approach and technology.

“Three years ago, I tested BIM on three projects – the Landmark Tower, the Post Office and Meena Towers. The Post Office, from zero, was based on BIM [from concept design to facility management]. Imagine, the pricing of all the tenders was very close! When you open tenders that are done in the traditional way, you could see one at $100 million, another at $300 million. That’s because there’s incomplete and inconsistent designs with lack of information. Using BIM, you provide all bidders with equal information generated from highly coordinated design. There will be no clashes at the construction stage, and all stakeholders will understand [their role] very well.”

OPINION: BIM on the revolution in construction

This test phase also had a profound impact on Dr Mubarak, as it showed him just how unready the industry was for the BIM revolution, already well underway in Europe, Britain and the US.

“The start was very hard! But most of the contractors and consultants, they were happy to learn more about this approach. Because they realised they had to have it, sooner or later. So they were very happy to have a client like us, who started their own projects using BIM. Not only that, we have our own facilities management division, so when we hand over the project, it would have an effect on the operations systems later on,” he says.

Having seen the enthusiastic response to the implementation of BIM on these projects, the decision to establish an institute was an easy one. Working with long-time colleagues and confidants Dr Marwan Jabakhanji, a regional construction expert, and Professor Mustafa Alshawi, director of Imarti Engineering Consultants, Dr Mubarak began taking the steps that led to the establishment of the Institute of Sustainability and BIM, which is scheduled to open this summer.

While it targets local government and municipalities, there has already been considerable interest from outside the UAE, with the chairman revealing that there have been enquiries from as far afield as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

“This institute is the first of its type in the region. I think it will be a hub for BIM in the region. By building a good relationship with institutions, industries and governments, we will develop good links and build strong bridges to share ideas,” he explains.

“They have been contacting Dr Mustafa, and they’re very keen to learn more about it. The people who are working with me [to set up the institute] are very well-known. Dr Marwan was at the UAE University, and Dr Mustafa is a very experienced BIM expert who has contributed to this concept from its early stages in the 1990s in the UK. Dr Marwan’s and my links in the country are very strong, so we are people who have had good experience and we want to disseminate it to the wider community.

“Professor Mustafa has also received an enquiry from a public sector client in Dubai who is [interested in taking part], but for now, I’m focused on large client organisations and municipalities. They’ve shown that they’re very much interested in learning more about the institute.

“As time goes by, we hope that we become the number one institute in conducting research in this field and in training people about what BIM is and how best to implement it. They can then feel the benefit of BIM when they first test it on their projects,” he adds.

Crucial to this will be the education of executives and senior level management. Dr Mubarak is quick to acknowledge that this is something the institute will have to address.

“We need to make executives aware, because if you teach just the lower ranks, then the higher ranks will have a difficult time to understand and approve it. That is, whenever the lower ranks go to the higher-ups [to talk about BIM], they will face a problem. So the CEOs, the higher ranks, have to be aware of BIM and its business benefits,” he asserts.

With his team already working on bringing international experts into the fold, the next step is partnering with international organisations to give the institute the credibility it needs to survive. As a result, Dr Mubarak says that extensive negotiations are underway to tie up partnerships with the likes of CIOB and other certifying bodies.

A collaboration with Penn State University in the US has already been agreed in principle, which will allow the institute to issue BIM Manager Certification to its attendees, enabling them to effectively lead and manage BIM projects. In contrast to other certificates available in the UK, this will be more focused on management and processes, rather than just the technology.

In addition, Dr Mubarak says that talks are underway with the likes of Autodesk and Bentley to provide support to the institute. Initially, the focus will be on providing the software and the licences for the systems, but ultimately he hopes that the software providers will work with the institute during the training process.

For now, though, the biggest challenge remains getting the institute up and running. Whatever the future holds for the institute, Dr Mubarak insists that its core focus must never waver.

“To be honest with you, I haven’t even thought about that [future plans], because really, to achieve the first goal of getting people and to train them on BIM, that is a great achievement. I’m sure that there are other things that we have to do and think about, but we’ll never stop paying back this great government and sharing our knowledge with others – not just the Emiratis, but also the others, and to continue supporting the construction field,” he asserts.

Finally, as the interview comes to a close, Dr Mubarak sums up the most important lesson he’s learnt on this long road towards bringing the Institute of Sustainability and BIM to fruition. Referring to his quotes earlier in the interview, he returns to the theme of leadership.

“I’ve been around construction for 23 years, and the most important lesson I’ve learnt is that leaders should be abreast of existing knowledge, so as to be able to lead. Because what happens if a leader has a lack of information? Or if he/she’s behind in technology? Then he/she cannot lead effectively.

“Anybody who is responsible or in charge, he should be very well trained, so that he understands the innovative methods of delivery for projects, and to over-ride the traditional practices. He/she should build trust with his/her team and share the risks. Take responsibility, learn more and never be scared of failure,” he concludes.

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