Investment in education is booming in the Middle East and North Africa. Figures from regional projects tracker MEED Projects show that $36.3bn is currently being spent on higher education schemes in the region. Saudi Arabia alone is investing $19bn in university facilities. Other states with major education-related construction programmes include Libya, the UAE, Jordan and Kuwait.

The majority of the clients are public sector bodies keen to invest their annual budgets to avoid losing out in future allocations. “It is an exciting time for education projects in the region,” says Rod Mason, a director at UK consultant Buro Happold. “Abu Dhabi has recently announced huge projects and we are working on schemes in Libya.”

New facilities

Libya is pressing ahead with some of the region’s most ambitious further education projects. Alongside the construction of $3.2bn worth of new facilities for the Al-Fateh University in Tripoli, the Organisation for Development of Administrative Centres (Odac) is developing a plan for 25 new college campuses across the country. US consultant Hill International is managing both projects.

“In early 2008, we were invited to pitch for the project management of 27 new campuses and we were successful in winning the job at the end of January 2008,” says Eric Butterworth, project director at Hill, who is running the scheme from the consultant’s London office, along with managers Andrew Hinkins and Omar Massoud. The projects are being constructed on a design-and-build basis.

In 2007, the UK’s BDP Architects was awarded a contract to design 10 sites, the  Argus Keppie alliance – a consortium of Buro Happold, Arup, Davis Langdon and Keppie Design, all of the UK – won a further 12 sites and the US’ RMJM Architects won two. Spain’s Idiom is also designing a campus.

“It is such a big programme of work,” says Butterworth. “I do not think anyone appreciated just how big a task it was in the first instance.”

The first thing Hill International did was to re-appraise the project designs. It recommended the client bring in advisers on education, information and communications technology (ICT) and furniture and fittings. This meant that the design brief had to be expanded.

Key fact

  • The Middle East and North Africa region currently has over $36bn of major university projects planned or under way

Source: MEED Projects

“Construction has not yet started but we do now have an ICT adviser on board,” says Butterworth. “Our design approach was very much about providing a palette of materials and concepts to be mixed and matched as the campus projects roll out.”

Andrew Hinkins, a project manager at Hill International responsible for half of the sites, acknowledges that the design of educational facilities is complex.

“There are strict acoustic and daylight requirements,” he says. “The climate also adds to the problem. Libya has three climatic regions, the Mediterranean coast in the northwest, the eastern mountainous area and the southwestern desert. Some buildings predominantly need heating and some need cooling; it is a challenge for designers.”

To date, 18 sites have been handed over to 13 firms, including China’s Changjiang Geotechnical Engineering Corporation, Italy’s Impregilo and Constructa, Kuwait’s Gulf Construction, Turkey’s Akdeniz and BTK, South Korea’s Cosmo and Spain’s Bruesa Construccion.

In Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, $19bn is being invested in building universities on 16 sites. The largest is the Princess Noura bint Abdulrahman University for Women in Riyadh, which is being designed for 26,000 students. Costing about $11.5bn, the campus is the largest single investment in educational facilities in the region. Construction is being undertaken under three contracts managed by Saudi Binladin Group, Saudi Oger and El-Seif Engineering & Contracting Company.

The new university will join 20 other government-owned higher education centres, many of which are being upgraded to compete with private institutions, such as the recently opened $2.6bn King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (Kaust) in Jeddah. 

Awaiting approval

However, some of the projects are progressing more slowly than anticipated. An officer at King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals says that plans to build an additional 200 staff villas are awaiting approval from a planning committee at Riyadh’s Higher Education Ministry. The contract award was originally expected in mid 2009.

Projects are also progressing in Abu Dhabi, where government-owned investment body Mubadala Development Company is building four universities – the UAE University in Al-Ain, the new Zayed University, the Paris-Sor-bonne University and New York University.

The first to get under way was the Al-Ain campus, which began in April 2006 when Mubadala signed a 28-year concession agreement with the UAE University.

Al-Hikma, a special-purpose management vehicle created and owned by Mubadala, is responsible for the development of the project on a build, own, operate and transfer basis. Contractor Oger Abu Dhabi was awarded the work in December 2006 and is undertaking the scheme in four phases. In total, 294,000 square metres of facilities will accommodate 15,000 students.

Next to start was the Paris-Sorbonne University on Al-Reem Island. In December 2007, Mubadala signed a 25-year concession agreement with Adec to develop the new campus. It is being built by a joint venture of the UAE’s Al-Habtoor with South Africa’s Murray Roberts Construction and work began in May 2008. In November, despite challenging economic conditions, Mubadala announced that it had secured $830m of financing to build the new Zayed University near Abu Dhabi airport. Construction of the campus is valued at AED2.98bn ($813m). The university will have capacity for 6,000 students and should be completed by July 2011.

The fourth university project planned for the UAE, the main campus for the New York University on Saadiyat Island, went out to tender in December 2009. Construction is scheduled to be completed by February 2014.

The UAE and Qatar have had much success in attracting international institutions to their educational projects.

This is a move that other states are looking to replicate. Tripoli, having already invested millions of dollars in the expansion of Tripoli’s Al-Fateh University, is understood to be negotiating international partnerships for the Libyan institutions and similar plans are being pursued in Saudi Arabia. Designers say it is therefore critical that clients build facilities to the highest standards.

“What we are seeing is that clients’ design expectations are high to start off with but can sometimes be compromised,” says Mason. Making cuts to projects might save money in the short term but could make facilities less attractive to students and compromise functionality. He adds: “Good design is important, but it requires good clients. Higher education clients in the region must hold on to their high design ambitions.”