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Sun 27 Mar 2011 03:03 PM

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Quiet giant

In almost 40 years, Mohammad Sadiyyah has helped drive Khatib & Alami to be one of the most successful consultancies in the Middle East, with little fanfare. Recently appointed to the board as area general manager, he explains what it takes to stay ahead

Quiet giant

Mohammed Sadiyyah admits that Khatib & Alami may have a
marketing problem. The consultancy, more frequently known as K&A, has
become so embedded in the fabric of the Middle East
through its breadth of projects and decades in the business that pointing out
all the iconic developments it has been involved with still provokes surprise
in the industry. This track record includes a number of towers along the Gulf’s
most eye-catching stretch of urban highway.

“If you look at Sheikh Zayed Road and start from the
righthand side, you find the Fairmont Hotel, then API Tower — we built those
about ten years ago,” explains Sadiyyah. “Then down the road you find
Rostamani, the first two towers — we called them towers because they were then,
at 18-storeys.”

The Rostamani towers were completed around 1980, when only a
few buildings adorned the emirate’s central road. It is an example of K&A’s
long-standing presence in the UAE and surrounding markets, even as attention on
the company has been captured by newer, noisier construction companies and
developers entering the market in the boom years and crowding the city.

But the trade-off for low levels of self-promotion is a
portfolio and pedigree that all consultants would envy: a project history from
Oman to Morocco; repeat business from governments and private developers alike;
design, consultancy and supervision successes across houses, towers,
infrastructure, hospitals, rail and airports; and — perhaps most enviable — it
has, for many years, been one of the most trusted service providers of Saudi
Aramco, the ambitious state-owned oil giant.

K&A has a history of growing fast, moving into new areas
around the Middle East and executing the new types of projects in the half
century plus since the company’s formation in 1959 in Lebanon.
Founded as Consolidated Engineering Company by Mounir El Khatib and partners —
who were later to be replaced by Dr. Zuheir Alami as sole partner to El Khatib
— by 1968 the company had expanded to working in Saudi Arabia, the emirates
(prior to unification), and Bahrain and Oman.

By 2000 it had added all the Arab states, as well as Turkmenistan, Belgium
and the US
to its list of countries. But interestingly, and perhaps fortunately, Libya had been
largely off the company’s radar. Sadiyyah explains that K&A had been
weighing up opening an office in the oil-rich state before the civil turmoil in
the country shelved such considerations.
Despite infrastructure and hospitality projects in Algeria and Morocco,
he explains, the company had only tendered for one project in Libya, and had
provided a handful of prequalification documents for others as the historically
insular country gradually opened itself.

“The Libyan market
did not open up until recently, so it is more in a way a virgin market where a
lot of infrastructure and public sector projects need to be executed,” he says
in the company’s typically low-key office in Sharjah.

“Maybe two or so years ago it started to open up and you
noticed many consultants going into Libya and, of course, contractors.”

Sadiyyah adds that the country is nevertheless at a
disadvantage to Gulf states such as the UAE
and Qatar
that are “much more aware of business”, have an international mix of
construction companies and are the canvas for the latest generation of towers
and infrastructure.

“People in the GCC, they visit each other, so they see the
projects, the mega projects, the infrastructure being built. So one way or
another they are taught about the business here. The Emiratis, the Omanis —
they mingle together, they spend vacations, they go to seminars and Cityscape;
they have the opportunity to see all types of projects being designed, being

“Even after they are completed, if they are hotels, they
stay in these hotels, they can experience the infrastructure ... all of these
become some sort of a vision, then reality, and then they experience it. The
Libyan market was, in a way, closed up.”

K&A is able to cover so many markets through having
three design centres, in Beirut, the UAE and
Khobar in Saudi Arabia.
The first two cover all non-oil design, and were the origins of some of its
most creative and efficient work that went into skyscrapers, government
buildings, roads and rail. The Khobar office has a focus on oil projects, all
focused on serving its prestigious client.

“We have been with Aramco for many years,” says Sadiyyah, who is a
mechanical engineer by training, but was recently promoted to the board and
current job title from design director. “Aramco has general engineering
contracts where they sign and renew it with consultants every year. So we are
one of very few consultants whose contract is being renewed, and they work with
us on the basis of hours 100,000 hours, 200,000 hours depending on the year. So
that type of work is different to the other design work we do in other offices:
it is catered to Aramco standards and way of working.”

He emphasises that the specific design team in Khobar meant
that the company was not distracted from serving the company, even as markets
such as Dubai
were heating up in the last decade.

In fact, the reverse happened. “Some time ago the Jeddah office formed units
in Jeddah to do Aramco projects, so we had a dedicated team to do Aramco

Saudi Arabia,
he says, is the biggest market right now, followed by Abu
Dhabi and Qatar
— a familiar conclusion among consultants, and three markets in which it won
contracts last year, along with Iraq.
In the intensifying competition for the Kingdom’s infrastructure project work,
the company has two stand-out mandates: consultancy to the contractor on the
Haramain high-speed rail project between Makkah and Madinah via Jeddah, and the
Makkah light rail that opened last year.

The two deals see K&A work as part of design-build
contracts, as opposed to the traditional consultant-client format. These
“contractor-driven projects” have become increasingly prevalent in the Middle East; both contractors and consultants have told
Construction Week so, and K&A has adapted itself accordingly. What are the
key differences with a design-build contract? “It is more difficult,” begins
Sadiyyah, assessing in his mind K&A’s sizeable portfolio. “The contractor
has committed himself with the price and with time, so we are driven by his
contract budget and his time[frame], and we always follow. When we are
consultant on a normal project we set the timetable with the client, we discuss
the projects and then we tender it. We drive the project. With design-build it
is more contractor-driven.”

He points out that design-build contracts are best suited to
public-private partnership projects, especially in the wake of severe economic
pressure as, he says, “contractors fix their price, it is more competitive, and
in some cases they may contribute to the financing of the project”. Time and
overall cost can also be reduced. With housing or hospitality, by contrast,
“there is the architectural touch, there’s the design you have to maintain, the
authority has to remain with the consultant, architect and client, not the other
way round”.

Though Sadiyyah admits he prefers working in the traditional
structure with the client, he says the company has positioned itself to be
competitive for involvement with design-build contracts,  another example of adapting to the present

Changes are also apparent in the building sector that has
produced K&A’s most iconic projects: tall towers. Though very few new tower
projects in Dubai have launched in the last
year, with only a handful nearing completion, the appetite for height continues
in Abu Dhabi and is starting to emerge in Saudi Arabia.
Jeddah’s Corniche is one area that is likely to see a number of towers
developed, particularly given the breakthrough by Damac Properties to sell
units off-plan in the country and start construction of its Jawharah Tower
last year. Sadiyyah, whose current tower projects include the Infinity Tower
in Dubai Marina, is bullish on the future of tall towers throughout the region.

“The shift [for towers] will be in Jeddah, Riyadh
and Doha,” he says emphatically, adding that the
company is overseeing work on Gate District towers 3-8 on Abu
Dhabi’s Reem
Island. “This will
continue, and what has been done in Dubai,
I think, has been repeated or copied in these cities.

“High-rise, tall towers, are still coming up; we are
negotiating with a client in Saudi
Arabia for a tower that will be 400m high.
So such cities will have a, let me say, a ‘zone’ of tall buildings, though
probably not as many as in Dubai.
Dubai, I read
recently, in terms of tall towers will exceed any city in the world in five
years’ time.”

But why does Saudi
Arabia want tall buildings? Sadiyyah points
out that it is linked to the cost of infrastructure in the country’s linear
urban landscape. “If you concentrate in one region and have high-rise, you
confine your infrastructure, your power, water, storage, roads. When you expand
with low-rise, you cover a big area, and then you have to service that.”
Prestige is another factor. Sadiyyah points out that the Empire
State Building
in New York,
opened in 1931, was at the time competing in the height stakes with the
Chrysler building. The hunger for height then spread to Chicago
and further west before the trend caught on in Malaysia,
Hong Kong, Taipei and, in the last decade, Dubai.

“It is prestigious to see a very tall building that can
become a landmark for everyone to refer to. And it proved to be successful. In
this downturn, look at Burj Khalifa – it is a success.”

Success, however quietly, is still forefront in the
company’s mind. Sadiyyah says K&A has strategic African nations in its
sights as areas of potential growth for the company, listing Angola in
particular for its potential oil projects.

But as a thoroughly Arab company, he still sees
significant opportunity in the region. This includes Iraq,
and at the close of the interview he almost casually mentions that the company
is overseeing the master planning for the reconstruction of Baghdad.

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