It is the biggest airport project in the world and the largest upcoming construction scheme in Dubai. With a price tag of $33bn, the expansion of Al-Maktoum International dwarfs the $9bn of investment that has been earmarked for the 2020 Expo.

The level of investment required reflects the importance of the project to Dubai’s economic future. Other cities, notably Istanbul, are building a new breed of superhub airports that will have the capacity to handle more than 100 million passengers a year, and if Dubai does not develop quickly, there is a danger it will be left behind.

The first phase of the scheme, which is expected to open in about 2025, will bring much-needed relief to Dubai International airport. It is now the busiest airport in the world for international passengers and is unable to expand due to its constrained location in the downtown area of the emirate.

The airport will also catalyse development at the recently renamed Dubai South, which comprises the Expo 2020 site, Al-Maktoum International airport and an aviation hub, as well as residential, commercial and logistics areas. Altogether the development covers 145 square kilometres.

More immediately, the investment will also be welcomed by the emirate’s construction industry, which has grown increasingly hungry for work over the past 18 months as the volume of awards has slowed. In 2014, there were a total of $15.5bn of construction awards valued at more than $50m in Dubai. In 2015, this number had fallen by nearly a quarter to $11.9bn.

As activity slows, developing large-scale schemes becomes more attractive for clients looking for cheaper construction costs. It is basic mathematics, but if costs fall by 10 per cent on a $33bn project, then the savings are worth $3.3bn.

After a slow 2015, work is proceeding on two fronts this year. For construction work, contractors are preparing to submit bids on 29 February for the enabling works. Stating the obvious, the rest of the scheme cannot proceed until the earth-moving works for the runways, concourses and terminal building are complete.

The other front is the design. Consultancies have submitted revised offers for the design and supervision of the terminal building and other landside facilities.

At least two groups have participated in the tender. They are a UK team of Atkins and Mott MacDonald, as well as a consortium including Lebanon’s Dar al-Handasah (Shair & Partners).

The UK is expected to play a leading role. UK Export Finance offered Dubai $2bn for airport projects in 2014, and it is understood the UK bids are being supported by the $2bn of UK Export Finance that has been offered by London. Meanwhile Dar al-Handasah has been the consultant of choice for all of Dubai’s recent airport schemes and has a UK connection due to its 2012 acquisition of cost consultancy Currie & Brown.

As the enabling works proceed this year, the first infrastructure and building packages should be ready to start moving forward in 2017.

The contractors bidding for the expansion of the existing terminal will be aware that whichever firm wins that contract will be in a prime position to take on more work on the rest of the development. The race to work on Dubai’s largest project has finally started.