Khaldoun Tabari smiles when asked what it is like to be involved in one of the most challenging sectors of a booming construction industry. 'A lot of people are asking me that at the moment,' the chief executive officer (CEO) of Drake & Scull International in Dubai says. It is hardly surprising. With construction activity scaling new heights and clients pressing for quality and speedy project delivery, leading mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) contractors such as Drake & Scull are much sought after.
The UK's Drake & Scull has worked in the region for more than 35 years. Its imprint can be found on some of the Middle East's most prestigious building projects, which range from the Jumeirah Beach hotel in Dubai and the West Bay complex in Doha to the Grand Mosque in Muscat and Egypt's Smart Village. But the old timer is now looking to move with the times. MEP contractors have one of the toughest jobs in construction. Although they are normally responsible for the largest proportion of any building project, traditionally they have played second fiddle to main contractors. 'The fact is that the further you go down the construction chain, the more the problems are magnified. The sequencing of work is such that it is inevitable that most pressure is applied on the subcontractor,' Tabari says. 'That is the same the world over, but in the Middle East it is particularly acute as there is very little protection for subcontractors. The main contractor can talk to the client, the subcontractor can't even if the main contractor is not doing his job.' Choosy Despite these concerns, the explosion in building work across the Gulf has brought some relief for the likes of Drake & Scull. Opportunities have expanded significantly, allowing the company to be far more selective in what they bid and who they quote to. Of equal importance has been the growing trend by clients on large-scale developments to bring on board project managers and nominate subcontractors themselves. 'For us, there are fewer problems from this approach than when a project is being run by a main contractor, who is the sole voice on site. If you are nominated by the client, you can approach him directly. You have the right of recourse,' Tabari says. Being a nominated subcontract, as well as one of the most prestigious ever tendered, it is no surprise that Drake & Scull has submitted a bid in consortium with Dubai-based Thermo and India's Blue Star for the MEP package on Burj Dubai, the world's tallest tower. 'On projects such as the Burj, it is all about planning, planning and planning. We have brought in expertise from Asia and Europe: we put in a project manager from day one,' says Tabari. The other target for Drake & Scull these days is design and build contracts. With 200 qualified engineers and project managers at its regional base in Dubai, it has the capability to handle large-scale turnkey projects on its own. An area where the firm has managed to carve out a particular niche is in the emerging district cooling market, which now makes up a major share of its workload: it is currently working in Dubai on a 60,000-tonne chilled water plant and distribution system for the Jumeirah Beach residence and a 50,000-tonne unit on the Dubai Festival City development. Going in-house The experience gained on district cooling projects has led the company to expand its horizons. It has recently formed Drake & Scull Industrial & Power, to provide engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) services to main contractors operating in the regional power, water and sewerage fields. The new division will draw on Drake & Scull's MEP experience and on the civil construction resources of its subsidiary, TCC. 'Everyone talks a lot about outsourcing these days, but we are bucking the trend,' Tabari says. 'When you have the
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