Halcrow: Hitting fifty in the Middle East

25 October 2002

When a cricketer hits his 50th run he doesn't dwell on the achievement for too long. He prepares to bat on for the full century. Likewise with the UK's engineering consultant Halcrow Group. Having celebrated in early October its golden jubilee of working in the Gulf, it is now looking forward to scoring more successes in the region's projects market.

Halcrow has played a significant part in the development of the region's major civil infrastructure, since it opened its first regional office in 1952 in Kuwait. Today, the Middle East accounts for 10 per cent of the group's turnover, which last year totalled £160 million, and is by far its biggest overseas market. Although it has established a foothold in every Gulf country, its relationship with the UAE has proved the most fruitful.

'When we first came to the Gulf in the 1950s, there was no oil in the emirates,' says John Heck, regional managing director. 'There was very little work available either. We initially came to help dredge the entrance of the creek in Dubai, which was silting up. Sheikh Rashid had a vision to open up Dubai and we naturally drew closer to the emirate over time. Halcrow has been building this relationship ever since.'

Today, a drive round Dubai reveals the strength of those ties. Since opening up the creek, a turning point in the economic fortunes of the once sleepy pearl trading town, Halcrow has plotted much of the urban growth in the emirate. 'People take it for granted, but 40 years ago there was literally nothing here. They have condensed 150 years of development into a very short space of time,' says Heck.

Most of Halcrow's biggest regional references were gained in Dubai following the oil price boom of 1973. It played a significant role in bridging the creek, acting as consultant for the excavation of the Shindagah tunnel, the expansion of the Maktoum bridge and the construction of another crossing at Garhoud. This work continues today. Halcrow is carrying out traffic studies on the Garhoud corridor, which may entail adding a second bridge to run alongside the existing crossing.

But the firm has not limited the benefit of its expertise to just one client. Sharjah, the northern emirates and, to a lesser extent, Abu Dhabi have all turned to the firm at some point for vital masterplanning and engineering work. Having such a strong reputation in the market continues to pay handsome dividends.

This was evident in the 1960s, when Halcrow carried out essential water utilisation studies in the arid hinterland. 'Sheikh Saqr still remembers the water masterplan we produced for Ras al-Khaimah in 1967,' says Heck. Halcrow has since gone on to engineer the emirate's seaport and international airport, and is about to embark on a project to design a new highway that will improve transport links with Sharjah and Dubai.

Over the years the firm has understandably built a strong rapport with its major clients. Nowhere is this understanding more evident than in Sharjah. Halcrow has worked closely with the municipality on a host of major civil infrastructure schemes, ranging from urban planning to the design of its seaports and airport. Very little built in the emirate over the past 50 years does not carry Halcrow's stamp on it.

'In Sharjah it is very much a case of being able to respond to the client on demand,' says Heck. For instance, the firm was called on in mid-October to update designs it produced in 1996 for the expansion of the emirate's container terminal at Khorfakkan. It was also called in at short notice to design buildings that run along the route of Al-Qasbah canal, which opened in 2000.

Wherever Halcrow has worked in the Middle East, marine engineering has filled its order book. Since its original office in Kuwait carried out initial studies for the development of Shuwaikh port in the 1950s, the firm has designed ports from Libya to Iran, and the world's largest man-made port at Jebel Ali, in Dubai. But with so much of the region's major marine infrastructure in place, will the sector continue to keep Halcrow's 300-strong regional office busy in the future?

Heck thinks so. 'Marine works are still very important to us,' he says. 'Ports infrastructure is, however, a maturing market in the Gulf. The late 1970s was a boom time for marine construction and we worked on the vast majority of big commercial harbours in the region: Jebel Ali, Dubai dry dock, Mina Khalid, Mina Saqr, Khorfakkan, Jubail, Jeddah Islamic Port and Port Sultan Qaboos were all Halcrow projects.'

Major marine projects on the firm's books today include: a study for the expansion of the oil and condensate export terminal at Ruwais for Abu Dhabi Oil Refining Company (Takreer); the relocation of Jadaf shipyard on Dubai creek; the development of Sohar industrial port in Oman; and the design of additional manufacturing facilities at Abu Dhabi Ship Building's Mussafah yard. The company has produced a number of coastal masterplans in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt. It is also working on a study to develop the coastline between Jebel Ali and Abu Dhabi.

If marine work starts to decline, the firm's experience in designing airports - a booming sector in the Gulf - should pay dividends. Halcrow has played a leading role in the development of several regional airports and this is an area of expertise that Heck is keen to develop further. He says: 'We have a reasonable track record on airports but this is something we want to build on in the future.'

The firm is part of the design team working on the Seeb International Airport expansion in Oman. It is also acting as consultant for the project to enlarge the hangar facilities for the royal flight at Seeb. In the UAE, it has had a hand in the development of airports in Dubai, Sharjah, Ras al-Khaimah and Abu Dhabi, where it is working on the Emiri apron expansion and second runway projects.

While many of its compatriots that came to the region in the 1950s have faded away or been bought out, Halcrow has managed to remain independent and fend off newcomers on its turf. 'Yes, competition for engineering services started to intensify in the late 1980s, especially from US and Indian firms. But many UK consultants, like ourselves, are still very strong. Clients in the Gulf have grown more sophisticated. They know what they want and demand high standards. You can't just come in and offer them anything,' says Heck.

Over the past 50 years, people's lives in the region have changed dramatically. Halcrow has been part of that change and many of its projects will continue to have a profound effect on standards of living for many generations to come. For the Middle East and for Halcrow, facing another 50 years of development is the next big challenge.

Andy Critchlow

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