Font Size

- Aa +

Sat 26 Jun 2010 04:00 AM

Font Size

- Aa +

Location, location, location

As a global provider of structural engineering services, WSP are soon to be a key player in the ME construction market. The company's brand new managing director for the region, Tom Bower, talks exclusively to CW about his plans.

Location, location, location
Location, location, location
The Al Bustan Complex in Abu Dhabi, where the company provided structural engineering design and supervision services for five towers.

As a global provider of structural engineering services, WSP are soon to be a key player in the ME construction market. The company's brand new managing director for the region, Tom Bower, talks exclusively to CW about his plans.

In the ten years that WSP has had an office in the GCC region, the company's executives have worked hard to establish themselves in an unknown and competitive market. Faced with a two year long recession just eight years into its new project, the firm might be seen as somewhat unfortunate. But far from being finished with the Middle East location, WSP are just getting started.

Indeed, as the rest of the industry brushes off the final stresses of the economic downturn, WSP are optimistically preparing for a strong grasp of the GCC market in the next few years. And with a view to becoming a major player in the region's construction industry, the firm has appointed a brand new managing director, whose ambitious plans for the future are based on a pervasive upturn.

Incidentally, Tom Bower is not one of those fierce, all-knowing types. His experience and optimism, coupled with an eye for opportunity, is what makes him interesting. Speaking about his new role in line with WSP's plans for the region,  he says: "The group overall is very positive about future business here in the Middle East, whether it be in the UAE or in other locations. We are very much committed to the UAE location and the wider Middle East region."

Currently, the majority of WSP projects are based in Abu Dhabi. Among them is the Masdar project, where WSP's ability to advise on sustainanability has been a key driving force behind the project's success. "We've been working on the Masdar project in Abu Dhabi to advise the teams on sustainability there," Bower explains. "We are also involved in completing the design, where both our UK business and Middle East business have been working jointly. We have a number of projects on Saadiyat Island as well."

But perhaps WSP's biggest project at the moment, and certainly one of their biggest challenges, is the high profile Abu Dhabi Presidential Palace development. Bower exemplifies its importance by comparing it to the Houses of Parliament in the UK: "The Presidential Palace is a very high profile project, and probably one of the most premier buildings in Abu Dhabi. The finish is to an incredibly high spec, as you can imagine, as its going to be where the Sheikh Khalifa does his meetings and greetings for the whole of the UAE - it's like the houses of the parliament for the UAE, it's that level of building."

Dubai projects, on the other hand, are thinner on the ground. With fewer and fewer high rise towers, which just so happens to be WSP's specialty, there is little for the company to do in the city, except wait. "We have few projects in Dubai at the moment. We are finishing off several projects that have been going on for some time, but there aren't many." WSP is one of several firms to refer to a drought in the city's developments. Does this mean the Dubai story is over? "I think Dubai is quiet at the moment, but I don't think the Dubai story is over," Bower argues. "If Dubai continues to be a future place for people to live in the Middle East region, then it's going to thrive. It is our belief that it will at some point over the next few years pick back up again."

On the basis of WSP's pipelined projects, it would certainly seem that way, the company's portfolio of bids including projects in Sharjah, Fujairah, and of course, Abu Dhabi. "There continues to be a huge amount of opportunities in the UAE, and for that reason we are bidding for a lot of projects here. Certainly we see the Abu Dhabi market as positive, and in Sharjah we're bidding for a number of infrastructure projects."
As it happens, infrastructure projects are  a relatively new area of interest for WSP. "Traditionally WSP has not been as strong as some of our competitors on the infrastructure side, but it's a strategy that we've had for a couple of years now, and we've actually gone from strength to strength, from having no one in infrastructure at all two or three years ago, to now having 100 people and winning some very good contracts."

Growth, it seems, is one WSP's strong points, though it remains to be determined how this regional branch of the company has managed to grow so successfully after being faced with one of the worst global downturns of the decade during its infancy. Late payments, at least, must have affected the company.

"We get paid by a number of different sources, but of course, we are part of that payment chain and we are currently in a similar position to everybody else in the industry. It has affected our liquidity locally, but WSP's group strategy has been to diversify its business geographically, so that's allowed the group to actually remain very strong through this period of turmoil, and has assisted our Middle East business, which is important because we continue to see the Middle East as a location of opportunities."

But with cash-strapped Nakheel among the company's clients, questions about whether the firm has been paid and whether it is among those who have accepted the developer's proposed payment terms, are inevitable. "I can't really comment on that particular issue, except to say that we are one of a number of suppliers in the same boat," he says, confirming that the company hopes to be in a similar situation to Halcrow and Arabtec soon, both of whom have made agreements with Nakheel recently.

Another means of coping during the recession and competing with local firms has involved bringing in expertise from WSP's satellite offices around the globe. "There is a lot of competition for every opportunity that we get involved with, and we have to try and convince clients that WSP should be chosen by referring to our global coverage and specialist expertise." Specifically, he refers to skills in high rise building, sustainability, fire-safety and stadium building.

Interestingly, one of the biggest stadiums in the world, the 65-000 capacity Khalifa Bin Zayed National Stadium, is being planned for Dubai, though currently it remains in the early stages of tendering. Rumor has it that two firms are bidding for the structural engineering works. Bower is unable to confirm whether WSP are among them, but says: "Our American business is one of the premier stadium engineers in the world, so we tend to be invited to bid for any stadiums that are due to be constructed and have been involved in every big stadium there is."

Separately, WSP's skills in fire safety preparation are also significant, especially given the high risks of fire in the GCC during the summer months. "The team specialise in fire safety systems in terms of putting out a fire, detecting a fire and also designing a building. The latter takes into account the capacity of the floor of a building, and involves working out how people would leave a building and how quickly they could leave, when doing the building design. There is quite a lot of legislation on this issue over here, and a number of specifications that we have to comply with." Perhaps WSP's ability to mediate the risks of fire in the region could open up a new specialist market for the firm?

"At this stage WSP is still trying to understanding the opportunities in each country and we haven't finished that yet. But it is a core part of our Middle East strategy to diversify our business." Watch this space...