Building British standards in boom town

The Dubai construction industry has long been a UK-friendly market. And with the recent focus on British-led improvements in safety standards and accreditation, UK construction companies have never had a higher profile. Zoe Naylor gets the lowdown from Rashid Khawaja, trade and investment officer at the British Embassy in Dubai.

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By  Zoe Naylor Published  February 25, 2006

|~|110int200.gif|~|Khawaja says that British products are popular in the industry.|~|Are UK firms fully aware of the construction opportunities in Dubai?

Every second company that walks through our doors is construction-related. When we talk about construction here we talk about it as a wider sector that covers everything associated with construction, including, for example, fire
protection.

We have had a tremendous increase in terms of our trade visits to Dubai, and a good majority of UK companies that form the delegations are from the construction sector. I think Dubai has been marketed very well back in the UK — especially since the property market has opened up here.

How do you promote Dubai as a business destination for UK construction firms?

In terms of the construction sector, The Big 5 is our main event — last year we had around 60 UK companies exhibiting — and that’s only those who came under UKTI sponsorship i.e. it doesn’t include those firms who took stands with their local partners. And at the last Intersec show in Dubai (fire and security show) we had around 50 British companies — the biggest group we’ve ever had.

Dubai has become a true regional hub for British companies. We have a very vibrant British Business Group (BBG), whose member companies are British firms located here in Dubai. A few years back there were 400 members; there’s now over 700 and it’s rising, such is the interest shown by British companies in Dubai alone.

Where do UK companies tend to set up when they establish a working presence here?

As more and more British companies set up a base here in Dubai, their preferred location appears to be in the free zone areas such as Media City, Internet City, the Airport Free Zone and JAFZ. One of the main reasons for this is so they can be majority owned [i.e. they’re not subject to the rule that stipulates that a foreign company set up in Dubai outside of a free zone must be 51% owned by a local company].

The initial costs may be higher, but most companies these days seem to be taking a longer-term view of the
market. Others dealing in products would be looking for local representation in terms of agency representation and distribution agreements.

Who are the main UK players here in terms of the construction sector?

We have all the leading construction names here — Al Naboodah Laing O’Rourke, Al Futtaim Carillion, Dutco Balfour Beatty Group, Atkins, Halcrow etc. All of these are members of the BBG in Dubai, and seem to be involved in most of the major developments in town, which is very positive.

Are there any emerging sectors in which UK firms are taking the lead?

There are a variety of companies looking to start up in Dubai, but the service sector is really picking up. More and more companies such as those working in the areas of regulations and standards are coming in. The vast number of upmarket developments that are taking place here mean more awareness is creeping in to the market, and that’s where the UK has a big role to play.

As well as the big construction players there are a good number of UK consultants and architects based over
here. That’s where the specifications come in to play. If this is more BS-led [British Standards-led], then it opens the door for UK companies to get involved in projects.

It’s a complete cycle: You have to have the consultants and the contractors working on a project, as well as those involved in the specifications.

Does this mean that we are likely to see British firms making an impact on fire regulations and building codes?

There is a lack of umbrella standardisation in terms of buildings regulations in Dubai when it comes to fire safety — some buildings are built to US standards, some to UK standards. This lack of standardisation is good news for British firms. The likes of Warrington Fire and BSI are working very closely with the civil defence authorities here in Dubai and at the head office in Abu Dhabi.

There have been talks of setting up a regulatory body which would have a consultative role helping out civil defence in setting standards and carrying out inspections on its behalf.
There may also be delegations from this region that will be taken to exhibitions in the UK; for example, I took a group of Dubai police and civil defence officials to the IFSEC exhibition in Birmingham in the UK last year. These sorts of events go a long way to assisting the local authorities here, both in terms of setting their standards and assessing products.

At the recent Intersec exhibition in Dubai, we had seminars held by top-ranking UK officials from police and security professionals, on how to effectively take control under crisis situations. We also had similar high profile visitors from the UK fire sector, who are in discussions with the relevant authorities here on how to take things forward. We have the Fire Service College talking to the Abu Dhabi Development Authority with regard to setting up some kind of local institution, or perhaps upgrading the existing fire academy in Abu Dhabi and maybe in Dubai as well.

What about the testing of fire-related building products?

Talks are underway on setting up a fire-testing laboratory for fire products and materials to be tested here instead of being sent back to the UK. This would have a huge impact, not only on this market, but also in all of the markets around the UAE. It’s yet to be seen where we’ll end up with this project, but we’re well placed to undertake it.

What do you see as the competitive advantage of the UK companies doing business here?

I think each country has its own trends — the Italians are strong in the interior design market and the Germans are focusing quite a lot on the healthcare-side.

Generally speaking, if you talk about all of the sectors, UK products and services are considered to be expensive (around 15-20% more expensive), but if one is looking for quality, then UK products are given preference. They’re also considered to be reliable.

Another big advantage is the high number of British firms that are already based here — it’s always been a UK-friendly market, and I think it’s considered to be a very favourable market in terms of accepting British products and services.

For many contractors, the first consideration is price — they will look for the cheapest products, and they do consider British products to be more expensive.

But I believe the market is becoming more and more quality-driven, and that’s where UK companies can contribute in the coming years.||**||

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