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Happy as sand boys

Markets - How much is the Middle East really booming? Bernadette Redfern surveyed UK consultants in the region to nd out.

Tight margins, increasing competition and scarce resources are not slowing down the rollercoaster ride that is the Middle East construction industry. According to NCE's annual survey of the UK's top 30 consultants, more money than ever is being made in the region.

Last year the 16 rms at work in the region amassed a grand total of £305M in fees.

Firms such as Halcrow, Parsons Brinckerhoff, Hyder, Mouchel Parkman and WSP have doubled their turnover during the past 12 months (see table), and consultant Arup celebrated the reopening of its Dubai ofce in 2005 with a £15M turnover - double that forecast.

But it is far from easy money.

The working environment is challenging with engineers admitting to working long hours in difficult circumstances.

However, the exciting nature of the projects, the increased responsibility and - of course - the tax-free salaries are keeping staff in the region.

One young water engineer who recently moved to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) told NCE: 'The difference is that you are building drainage into cities instead of estates and clients want it built as soon as the design starts.

'And everything always changes. You get the road design and do the drainage design, but then the roads change. That is the biggest challenge - dealing with all of the changes and still meeting the deadline. That is about the one thing that doesn't change.' That is something that Capita Symonds learned to its cost last year when it pulled out of the Dubai Metro project following changes to the route and number of stations on the scheme. 'The project scope changed quite a bit in terms of requirements for depots and stations, but there was little provision for change in the contract. It proved too difficult for Capita to do the work for a xed fee, ' a source told NCE at the time (NCE 1 May 2006).

Capita Symonds decided that the risk was too great, but as a result its turnover over the short term has been hit hard. Although figures were not available for the survey, the firm's Consultant's File return states that overseas turnover has dipped from £34.1M in 2006 to £16.9M this year.

Capita's loss was Atkins' gain as the firm moved in on the job, something that helped boost turnover from £45.5M in 2005/06 to £50M in the first six months of 2006/07.

Atkins makes most of its money in the region in building design and highways with the majority of the work carried out in the UAE. Despite the pressure on recruitment it has managed to attract over 500 new staff to the Gulf since last year. 'It has been an exceptional year partly due to the Metro project, ' says Atkins regional managing director Tim Askew.

At first glance the gures conjure up the idea that consultants in the region are mopping up every bit of work they can get their hands on, but the boom is actually having the opposite effect. 'We have to be selective, ' explains Mott MacDonald director Kevin Stovell. The firm had a turnover of £52.5M in the region last year, an increase of £13.2M on last year, and staff numbers grew by 16% to 950.

'It is getting more difcult to get expatriate and western staff to work in the region. We are also experiencing difculty nding office space for new staff.' Although predictions that the Middle East bubble is set to burst are rife, all the evidence points to the contrary. Firms large and small are making the most of the region's determination to invest in infrastructure.

company 2005 2006 Turnover Turnover Staff

Atkins 28.6 45.5 1,720? Halcrow 30 62.8 1261 Mott MacDonald 39 52.5 950 Hyder 24 35.4 1134 Parsons Brinckerhoff 12.5 30 390 Mace 12 17.5 350 Arup - 15 25 WSP 5.2 10 330 MWH 12.1 8.9 240 Pell Frischmann 13.5 6.1* 53 Mouchel Parkman 2.1 7.5 151 Buro Happold 6 89 Scott Wilson N/A 6 120 Turner & Townsend 0.6 2 20 Waterman 1.6 2 68

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