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Drawing a line in the sand

Comment

Britain's consultants and contractors are having a whale of a time in Dubai.

Construction spending there is predicted to top £50bn over the next few years and revenues from some of the extraordinary infrastructure projects under way are already adding to the boardroom feelgood factor.

Apart from the almost fantasy Palm Islands - which are being dredged from the Gulf to expand Dubai's waterfront - there is an astonishing list of schemes that leave you open-mouthed at the chutzpah of Dubai's leaders.

Hundreds of futuristic high rise buildings, theme parks, golf courses, new lakes and a 75km long canal are on the books. There is also investment for a new fi nancial centre, an expanded international airport expecting 100M passengers a year, colossal container ports and dry docks, even whole new cities.

Half the fun for UK companies working there is that they can give full vent to the gung-ho, 'yeah, we can do anything' approach to the world of construction that has been curtailed by regulation, rather than funding, in Europe lately.

You would have trouble getting anyone to admit this on the record, but Dubai's attitude to things like environmental sustainability has been interpreted as rather less onerous than we are used to here. 'Environment's not really an issue, ' say the often not-soold Middle East hands, usually with a grin.

Is this a problem- After all it is Dubai's money and Dubai's choice. If its leaders want to burn gigawatts of electricity desalinating sea water in order to keep the golf courses verdant who are we to criticise?

And can we really say a word about dredging billions of cubic metres of rock and sand from the Gulf when we are doing the same in the North Sea?

Anyone remember Ilisu Dam in Turkey- The sudden worldwide environmental backlash against its construction led to international contractors Balfour Beatty, Impregilo and Skanska quitting the project in 2001.

The environmental lobby has yet to really get its teeth into the Gulf, but that does not mean it won't.

News that London 2012 Olympic masterplanner EDAW is considering pulling out of the coastal development opposite the Palm Jebel Ali project, because it is unhappy with some aspects of the scheme, indicates that environment is moving up the agenda for some Western companies.

The UK's consultants and contractors have put enormous effort into marketing themselves to clients and the City as environmentally conscious and aware. They have built up big business divisions on the back of their environmental expertise.

If they appear to be tearing up the script in Dubai, then they run the risk of looking light on principles, giving the punters what they want to see in one place, but dropping the façade elsewhere.

Which will not be good for business.

This is not necessarily what is happening, of course. But it would be good to hear the environmental justification and more about the protection and mitigation measures being applied to Dubai's fantastic vision by UK companies.

Long term it might be vital they have it fully to hand in order to fend off any concerted criticism.

Jackie Whitelaw is NCE's managing editor

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