Construction supports new industries

12 October 2022
Interview: Riad Bsaibes, president and CEO of Amana Investments

The construction sector’s role in delivering facilities for new industries was placed in the spotlight in September when UAE Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum toured the recently opened Emirates Crop One (ECO 1) facility near Al-Maktoum International airport at Dubai World Central.

Crop One Holdings and Emirates Flight Catering (EKFC) developed the $40m vertical farm, which trades its produce under the Bustanica brand.

UAE-headquartered Amana Contracting delivered the construction work. The farm will contribute to the UAE’s food security by producing more than 1 million kilogrammes of high-quality leafy greens with 95 per cent less water than conventional farming.

The 330,000 square-foot vertical farm uses machine learning, artificial intelligence and advanced methods to produce over 1 million kgs of chemical-free produce. Credit: EKFC

New industries

For Amana, the project is the latest example of how the company is working in new market segments that are created as the region’s economy diversifies, develops and responds to global challenges.

“The Covid-19 pandemic taught the world that supply chains can be disrupted easily,” says Riad Bsaibes, president and CEO of Amana Investments. “The result is more focus on resilience, stockpiling and adding in-country capabilities.

“With the conflict in Ukraine, the importance of food security has risen even further up the agenda, and we see more and more of that work in the future.”

Amana is familiar with agri-tech. “Bustanica is not the first project we have done in agri-tech. We have also done an advanced greenhouse with Pure Harvest, a UAE-based startup with well over $100m in funding,” says Bsaibes.

Given that the Middle East's harsh environment does not support traditional agriculture, the UAE and much of the Gulf are reliant on technology to improve food security. 

“We live in a desert. So typical agriculture is not going to survive here. It has to be advanced agriculture, and that is agri-tech,” says Bsaibes.

By conserving 95 per cent of the water and 60-70 per cent of the electricity required, the facility has a much smaller carbon footprint, and as it is onshore, "you don’t have to worry about importing the produce”, he says.

With the conflict in Ukraine, the importance of food security has risen even further up the agenda, and we see more and more of that work in the future
Riad Bsaibes, Amana Investments

Hi-tech farms are not large-scale construction projects, but they are technically challenging. For the Bustanica project, Amana used building information modelling (BIM) to develop the workshop drawings and executed the mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) work using offsite construction.

“The MEP is more sophisticated than the usual industrial projects,” says Bsaibes. “Technically, it is still a box, but you have to coordinate a lot with the requirements of the other providers. That is what we like about it – it takes a lot of design capabilities, which we have in-house, and that is one of our strengths.”

Reflecting these strengths and the growing importance of new sectors such as agri-tech, Group Amana announced a new brand identity in July, along with a new organisation structure based on three verticals: construct, manufacture and enhance.

“When the brand was launched in 1993, we were really a contractor of steel buildings. Over time we built up our civil capabilities, then MEP. We became a general contractor, and then a design and build contractor. Over the past 15 years, we have [introduced] a lot more modular construction, solar and energy efficiency into our business,” says Bsaibes.

Modern construction methods such as modular are gaining traction in the region. Amana has invested in modular construction plants in Saudi Arabia to supply projects including Neom and the Red Sea Project.    

Green views

The environment will become increasingly important for the construction sector in the future.

“If you look at the major banks and funds in the US and Europe, they are deploying more and more capital towards the green economy,” says Bsaibes. “They see offices with a lower carbon footprint, or that are LEED certified, commanding a higher rent than other grade A offices, because the tenants are multinationals and demand a lower carbon footprint for their supply chain and operations.

“We see that coming. We have the tools in-house, and we tell the world, yes, we can work on that as well – not just on steel buildings.”

Amana’s ability to look into the future is enhanced by its investments in the US.

“We have invested in two funds in the US that focus on construction technology and the digitalisation of construction, with the aim of having a heads-up and view into what’s happening there. We would rather disrupt than be disrupted,” says Bsaibes.

“We have structured ourselves in a way that allows us to better engage with and invest in startups in the construction technology sector and prop-tech.”

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