The Korean firm may have departed from the region unnoticed, but its Middle East career was distinguished in several ways. ‘We were the first Korean contractor to be awarded a civils job in the region. This opened the doors for several others to follow,’ says Jong Hur, Samwhan’s vice-president. ‘We were driven by a pioneering spirit of being the first. It is part of our company policy to take on challenges and venture into new areas.’
Further evidence of Samwhan’s pioneering spirit was visible in 1978, when the Korean contractor was awarded its first project in Yemen: an $83 million contract to build a 204-kilometre dual-carriageway from the Saudi border to Hodaidah. The Korean firm won the contract at a time when there were no diplomatic relations between Seoul and Sanaa. ‘It did not come as a hurdle. We were invited by the client [Highway Authority of Yemen] and we informed Seoul of our intention to bid. We managed to win in a closely contested bidding round,’ Hur says.
As a new entrant, Samwhan had to overcome several other hurdles. ‘It was a totally different culture and work atmosphere. We imported labour from South Korea and very often our staff found it difficult to work in the heat. With day temperatures rising to 50°C, we worked in the night with lamps,’ Hur says.
With such experience, taking challenges head-on has not surprisingly continued to be its policy. ‘We did not come to the region to lose. We were very confident we would succeed, as we had the advantage of endless supplies of manpower and equipment, which we brought with us.’ The results were predictable.
During its 24-year presence in the Middle East, Samwhan was awarded more than 70 civils and industrial contracts worth a total of about $3,000 million. From the headquarters buildings for the Saudi National Guard and the General Organisation for Social Insurance (GOSI) in Riyadh to the 27-storey office tower and six-level car park for The National Commercial Bank in Jeddah, the Korean contractor left its mark on the kingdom (see table).
Maintaining good relations with clients is an important tool for any contractor. And Samwhan knows it all too well. Its experience in carrying out schemes for the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) in South Korea came in handy in the Middle East. More than $1,425 million – or about 50 per cent – of its total contracts in Saudi Arabia were placed by USACE. They included the construction of warehouses, access roads, administration buildings, accommodation complexes and related facilities at various locations.
Along with maintaining close links with clients, Samwhan’s ability to deliver projects within budget and ahead of schedule also opened doors. ‘Our work for the beautification of Jeddah city was noticed by the mayor and in the late 1970s we were awarded contracts worth [a total of] $100 million on a negotiated basis. This was a big contract value at that time,’ he says.
While Saudi Arabia was very much at the heart of the Korean firm’s Middle East business, it also concentrated on neighbouring Yemen and Jordan, carrying out several projects. Along with civil and infrastructure projects, Samwhan diversified into the oil and gas, power and water and healthcare sectors. Its biggest project