Basic infrastructure for Dubai, Abu Dhabi and neighbouring oil rich states is virtually
complete. Roads, harbours and airports, water, energy and sewerage systems, all have been designed and constructed over a few frantic decades. Millions of kilometres of irrigation pipes now carry treated sewage to parks, golf courses and landscaped motorway interchanges all along the coast of the Arabian Gulf. With the greening of the desert have come other icons of a developed society - giant shopping malls, conference centres, and tourist hotels.
This shift poses new challenges for British consultants working in the region - most of whom established their reputations building the infrastructure. 'Now we're moving on to developed society projects like dealing with toxic wastes and industrial effluents - and landmark buildings,' says Hyder Consulting Middle East managing director Harvey Binnie.
'There is alsoconsiderable local interest in the infrastructure management skills we can now offer.'
Hyder, under one name or another, has been active in the Middle East since the 1930s and has had a permanent office in the region for more than 25 years. Currently it trades under the name Acer Freeman Fox International, pending completion of local legal procedures to change to its new name. Binnie admits to misgivings over the re-branding, citing the real importance of continuity and brand loyalty in the region, but he is convinced of the potential long term benefits.
'As Acer Freeman Fox we are best known for roads and water projects -as Hyder we'll be able to project ourselves as a completely different animal,' he concludes. An intensive marketing exercise designed to emphasise the continuity of the practice is currently in progress. The fact that Hyder in Arabic means 'lion' or 'strong' does help, says Binnie. In Welsh it translates as 'confidence'.
Expertise acquired after the takeover by Welsh Water could be particularly vital to Hyder's long term future in the region. Says Binnie: 'Recently there have been lots of conferences in the region on privatisation.
'The states in the area have no immediate need to sell off the family silver to raise money, but they are very interested in greater efficiency and the reduction of subsidies.'
First to take the privatisation road has been Abu Dhabi, which recently put up for tender a three year contract to run its sewage treatment works and pumping stations. Hyder is bidding, naturally, given that it has designed nearly pounds1.25bn worth of sewerage and pumping stations for the emirate over the last 20 years. 'All new power stations in Abu Dhabi will be procured by the DBFO route in future,' Binnie reports. 'So far only Abu Dhabi and Oman have taken any real steps in this direction, but the outlook is promising.'
Other major changes are in the offing. Bahrain has recently relaxed the requirement for locally-registered companies to have 51% local ownership, with the intention of encouraging inward investment. A similar move is being considered elsewhere, although in Dubai's Jebel Ali Free Trade Zone 100% foreign ownership already exists. 'And in the longer run it is even possible that expatriates will be able to buy and develop land,' Binnie speculates.
In the longer term as well, he points out, the multi-billion pound infrastructure developed over the last quarter century will need maintenance. However this is procured, British skills and expertise will be in demand. Currently the practice has two main offices in the UAE, with 200 staff in Abu Dhabi and 180 at the regional headquarters in Dubai. Smaller offices can be found in Al Ain, Dohar and Bahrain. In all, the 430 staff of the Middle Eastern operation make up around 12% of Hyder's worldwide operation, and contribute pounds16M of annual turnover.
Binnie says the policy is to offer a full range of services from each main office - 'our clients like experts on the spot'. Environmental impact assessments are an increasing part of the workload, he reports.
'We're still getting plenty of infrastructure work, though much of it is upgrading rather than new build. But there was 100mm of rain last January - so now we're involved in a secondary phase of surface water drainage in Dubai.'
This mix of projects keeps Binnie in a bullish mood about the future. Although there seems to be no fallout from the chaos in Russia and South East Asia, like many in the region, Binnie is keeping a careful eye on political developments in Iran and Iraq, for signs that the local market could deteriorate.