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Staying power

Cover story Middle East

What is it really like to work in the Middle East? Bernadette Redfern looks at the pros and cons of living in the world's biggest building site.

Would you work in the Middle East?

The resounding answer from engineers is yes.

Although conflict is destabilising Lebanon, Israel and Iraq, engineers believe that the majority of the region remains a safe and attractive place to work (see survey in News).

UK companies have worked all over the Middle East, throughout the last century. As oil revenues continue to grow, the region is pumping cash into infrastructure investment like never before.

Figures produced by Middle East Economic Digest's project tracker MEED Projects reveal that the value of projects in the Gulf topped $1trillion (£526bn) this April and roughly half of these ($545bn) are construction schemes.

A recent survey by NCE reveals that UK construction companies are turning over more than £1bn in the region (NCE 23 March) and this figure is rising sharply. This means that UK companies are soaking up more and more work. 'Business is booming and the motor is Dubai, it is still ahead of the game and it's moving very quickly, but other parts are coming up behind it.

Abu Dhabi and Qatar are going to be very busy, ' says Parsons Brinckerhoff director Tim Judge.

'Abu Dhabi is the next growth area, ' agrees WSP director Tom Smith, 'and we are interested in Doha. In the medium term Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are potential markets, with Iran and Iraq being long-term possibilities.'

Both the nature of the projects being worked on and the countries keeping UK engineers busy are growing.

'Historically buildings, energy, water and project management have tended to be our strongest markets, says Mott MacDonald business development director Kevin Stovell.

'However, we're now fi nding that with the development of rail systems, expansion of airports and general transport infrastructure, transport infrastructure opportunities are opening up as well as projects in other sectors.'

Saudi Arabia is on the hit list of virtually all consultants in the region and it is not difficult to see why. MEED Projects estimates that there is a minimum of $50bn (£26.3bn) worth of infrastructure work underway. Projects include the enormous $28.5bn King Abdullah Economic City, a $5bn;

950km railway between Riyadh and Jeddah; a $3bn, 23km road bridge linking Ras Hameed to Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt; and the $1.5bn expansion of King Abdulaziz International Airport.

And, noting criticisms of unsustainable development and environmental negligence levelled at Dubai (NCE 21 April 2005), the Saudi government is rewriting its environmental legislation with the help of WSP.

'We are advising the government on environmental legislation and benchmarking it against global best practice, ' says Smith.

UK Trade & Investment is keen to encourage more UK companies into the region but take up is slow. Security concerns are deterring companies. 'The top-line issue in Saudi is what happens to the House of Saud. It has been in danger for the past five to 10 years and should it fall no one knows what will happen, ' says international security consultant C2i director Mark Cooper.

'You have to remember that 19 out of the 20 9/11 suicide bombers were Saudi nationals.

It is an important and complex country with inherent volatility. At the moment the security forces there are pretty successful.

Terrorists are killed and captured weekly, but westerners are still being targeted, ' he says. But despite the threat of terrorism and political instability there is a much bigger danger that engineers in the Middle East need to be aware of says Cooper Road trafc accidents are still the biggest cause of death and injury for people working overseas, ' he says. So if you are planning to work in the Middle East, fasten your seatbelt.

What to expect

Tax-free salaries, supersize construction projects, more responsibility, a fastpaced work environment, less bureaucracy, all year sun, cultural diversity and incredible opportunities are drawing in engineers to the Gulf.

If you are considering a career in the Middle East, find someone to advise you on the best opportunities.

Be determined and honest about what you want, says recruitment consultant BBT resourcing director Daniel Griggs.

'Go there first and have a look, take a holiday and see if you like it, ' advises EPC Global chief executive Tobias Read.

One thing is for certain, civil engineers will have no problem getting a job in the region should they decide to make the move.

Skills shortages is the biggest issue holding back the construction boom (NCE 23 March). 'We are struggling like everyone else, ' says Hyder Middle East director Rod Stewart.

'There is plenty of opportunity and the continuing growth in scale means that we are looking for people with strong project management skills.'

Scale is something Hyder is well aware of as designers on what will soon be the world's tallest building.

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