Ambitious projects rebrand engineering

20 May 2024
High-profile projects in the region have allowed companies to grow and attract talent, says Parsons Corporation's Pierre Santoni

 

Over the past two decades, the Middle East has undergone a significant transformation driven by rapid urbanisation, economic diversification and geopolitical dynamics. The region has emerged as a global hub for trade, investment and innovation, with infrastructure playing a central role in facilitating this growth.

According to Pierre Santoni, president of Europe, Middle East and Africa for Parsons Corporation, ongoing infrastructure investment has created a market that continues to offer strong growth opportunities for the construction industry.

“Parsons is one of the oldest firms operating in the Middle East, which is a growing and well-funded market, with a team that is executing at a high level and our company has continued to make investments to drive growth in the business,” he says.

“We had an outstanding fourth quarter and full year in 2023 with record results for total revenue, organic revenue growth, adjusted Ebitda and operating cash flow, as well as major contract awards in countries such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar.”

Changing focus

The region’s transformation has led to an adjustment in priorities as pressure on existing infrastructure mounts, he notes.

In the UAE, the focus in the early 2000s was primarily on developing landmarks and megaprojects that showcased the region’s ambition and prosperity. This era saw the construction of iconic structures such as the Palm Jumeirah, Burj Khalifa and, more recently, Etihad Rail, symbolising the country’s aggressive development plans.

Over recent years, there has been a shift towards more sustainable and resilient infrastructure development, with the UAE government prioritising investments in transportation, utilities and smart city initiatives to enhance residents' quality of life and improve mobility and infrastructure.

“The demographic trends, including rapid population growth and urbanisation, are placing strain on existing infrastructure networks, necessitating investments in expansion and modernisation,” says Santoni.

Robust infrastructure is required to support the regional government’s economic diversification efforts, which are driving investment and growth in sectors such as tourism, technology and renewable energy. This includes the development of new highways, ports and transportation systems to facilitate trade and tourism.

“The UAE has outlined a stable investment programme that includes the development of large transportation and construction schemes,” says Santoni. “We are working with the Abu Dhabi government on Plan Capital 2040 and it promises tremendous growth opportunities for Parsons.”

Dubai also offers opportunities for growth due to the property market boom and the government’s plans for new infrastructure projects. 

“Government spending in Dubai has accelerated post-Covid. There is a renewed optimism in the market through large-scale infrastructure projects and major real estate schemes,” Santoni adds.

“Parsons is working closely with some of the major real estate developers in Dubai, such as Emaar and Dubai Properties.”

Santoni says that although the market has a strong pipeline of upcoming projects, there will also be a focus on improving the infrastructure that already exists.

“There is a lot of focus on improving the existing infrastructure; hence, we have added operations and maintenance services into our portfolio.”

Beyond the UAE

The UAE is just part of Parsons’ work in the GCC. It also has a significant presence elsewhere in the GCC, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The company has been operating in Saudi Arabia for over 65 years and is working on a wide range of major programmes in the country, including The Line at Neom, Riyadh Sports Boulevard, King Salman International Park and Diriyah Gate, among others.

Santoni says, “Saudi Arabia is the fastest growing market globally and is a key market for us. The Vision 2030 projects are a driving force for much of our business in the kingdom and we expect robust growth in coming years.”

“We are investing significantly in enhancing our engineering capabilities catering to the Saudi market,” he adds.

The firm has also played a key role in delivering major infrastructure development schemes in Qatar, including for the 2022 World Cup. After a strong decade during the build-up to the event, Parsons worked on several other major schemes in the country, such as the Doha Metro, Qatar Rail, Seef Lusail, Hamad International airport expansion and Pearl Qatar.

Santoni expects Qatar’s growth to be more reserved over the next few years as the country develops a new long-term strategic development plan.

Attracting talent

With so many projects proceeding, the challenge for engineering companies such as Parsons is attracting talent.

“We have done a lot over the years to make Parsons an employer of choice for Saudi and UAE nationals, and we’re making significant investments in training and retention programmes to continue offering outstanding career opportunities,” says Santoni.

Construction now has to compete with other industries such as technology and IT, which are often considered more exciting places to work. 

Santoni says that this may change in the future as the world realises that there is an infrastructure gap that needs bridging with new and exciting projects, especially in the Middle East region. 

“Many people have left the industry over the past few decades, but with the planned infrastructure projects, engineering is starting to look cool again.”

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