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Middle East's welcome boom

Halcrow's Middle East director John Heck talks to Bernadette Redfern about working in one of the world's fastest growing construction markets.

Regional economies in the Middle East are booming thanks to high oil prices combined with fast population growth and a big increase in private investment.

Economic and social expansion is pumping serious amounts of money into construction.

This means that consultant Halcrow's regional managing director for the Middle East, John Heck, is a very busy man.

He is so busy, in fact, that he has been trying to fit in a golf lesson for the past 15 years.

'It was announced last week that six new golf courses are to be built in Dubai, I vowed to have lessons and I haven't got round to it yet, ' he smiles.

Heck first moved to the United Arab Emirates in 1975. 'Halcrow was calling for staff in the UAE so I got my atlas out, ' he says.

By this time he had been working in the industry for seven years - Heck graduated from Manchester University in 1968 and had already spent time working on the construction of Tripoli Port in Libya.

Heck's Middle Eastern career began with some impressive infrastructure projects - like the Dubai dry dock and new roads into the Hatta Mountains, which have supplied much of the aggregate used locally.

He then spent five years in Saudi Arabia and was back in the UAE in 1985, just in time for a three year recession. 'In 1986 there were only 12 staff in the Emirates, but in 1988 the industry picked up everywhere and we expanded the office. We now have 670 staff working in the Middle East, ' he says proudly.

The sheer diversity of construction activity in the Middle East makes life exciting for engineers, says Heck.

'There is still a lot of basic engineering to be done across the region - for example highways and dam projects. In Qatar there are plenty of construction and building projects, in Dubai there is lots of master planning and development to do and in Syria there is a huge amount of work in the water sector. There is also great potential in Libya, Iran and Kuwait.'

As regional director for the Middle East, Heck's remit encompasses Iraq. 'We have to work very carefully in Iraq with security protection.' The kidnap and killing of engineers has raised the stakes recently. 'The situation is changing all the time and we are watching it carefully, ' he says.

In June, 30 Halcrow engineers left Basra having designed and managed a number of reconstruction projects, but the company still has six specialists working in Iraq's green zone, a heavily guarded area of closed-off streets in central Baghdad where the US occupying authorities live and work. The six engineers are providing programme management expertise to the reconstruction efforts.

'Money is not the prime mover for working in Iraq. Engineers have a genuine wish to help with reconstruction and to do something to help the people of the country, ' he says.

Heck feels that trust between client and consultant is critical for success in the Middle East.

After 29 years in the region, he should know.

'Companies should keep people in this culture, they need people to be here for longer to build up trust with the Arab people, ' he says.

For now Heck is happy with his lifestyle, consisting of morning visits to clients, afternoons doing paperwork and consulting with Halcrow's own staff and finally, when there is no alternative, checking his emails. 'I prefer to speak to people, ' he says.

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