DUBAI: IN AN EMIRATES STATE OF MIND
The setting was perfect. The idyllic, rustic and yet modern environs of the Bab Al Shams Resort and Spa provided the perfect location to have a relaxed tete-a-tete on the changing face of Dubai. We sat down with two stalwarts of the industry Mr Jamil Jadallah, MD/CEO/Partner of National Engineering Bureau and Mr Amer Bin Ahmed, CEO of Knauf Middle East-Africa-Asia, to have a free-wheeling discussion on Dubai, how it has changed in the last three decades and what the city has come to mean to them today on both, professional and personal levels.
Q1: SINCE BOTH OF YOU HAVE BEEN IN THE INDUSTRY FOR QUITE SOME TIME, WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENCES TODAY COMPARED TO THE TIME YOU STARTED?
Jamil: There has been a lot of change. Let me take the start of the boom times in Dubai around 2004 and 2005. At the time the most important thing for clients was: “When will the project start? And when will it be finished? I have sales targets to meet and I have to deliver as soon as possible”. Things now are very different. Clients and developers now are heavily involved in the design of the buildings. They go deeply into the initial drawings because now they are concentrating on the efficiency of the building. Today, before the start of a project they do a lot of feasibility studies to be sure the project is viable, constructable and profitable. Only if the project is all these things then they will move into the actual design stage. Then the design has to be highly efficient and economical. Earlier, they were not much concerned about the cost but now cost is a big focus area but without any compromise on the quality of a project. How can we achieve the highest quality at the lowest cost? Developers are now aware that we can achieve this through value engineering. Good engineering is how to make good buildings and at the same time economical buildings. That’s why now developers are actually seeing a competition between architects and consultants on how to achieve the best at the lowest cost. But this competition is healthy and it is taking things in the right direction.
Authorities are also now much stricter than before. A lot of new regulations with regard to green building and energy efficiency are also now coming in. These may add to the overall cost of construction of the building in the short term but the long-term savings in operational costs are indeed substantial.
These are the changes I have seen in Dubai in my three decades of experience here and these changes are to the advantage of the final property owners and end users.
Amer: These are very valid points for the construction industry. For us in the building materials industry too many things have changed in the past two decades. When we were growing up what we saw was only brick and block in Dubai’s construction. However since 2004, the start of the boom period, the construction methodologies have changed a lot. New light-weight construction methods and sustainable construction techniques have brought a host of new materials into the industry that are eco-friendly, durable, and cost- and energy-efficient. Earlier, building construction codes were not clearly defined. But today, thanks to the path of modernisation and standardisation adopted by the Government and Dubai Municipality, the International Building Code is strictly implemented. Fire safety regulations are also now more stringent. There is a big change in people’s thinking; acceptance of modern techniques is much higher than before. Earlier, developers and contractors were not familiar with drywall construction techniques. However, today, if you benchmark against the United States or Europe there is a very high ratio of drywall construction in the UAE. Until now these new techniques have largely been implemented in the commercial sector but now we are also seeing drywall construction in the residential sectors of the market. Finally, the cost of drywall construction has fallen dramatically in recent times making it even more attractive.
Competition in the market has also increased compared to the earlier days. And competition is good because it makes you stronger!
Jamil: Indeed, Dubai provides a healthy environment for competition and gives you every opportunity to constantly improve.
Q2: THE DUBAI SKYLINE IS GETTING TALLER AND TALLER. BUILDING PLANS ARE GETTING MORE AND MORE AMBITIOUS. HOW MUCH HIGHER AND FURTHER DO YOU THINK WE CAN GO?
Amer: It is the vision of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Makhtoum that we have to be Number One. And to be Number One we have to do our best – not just better – at all times. We have to be ready to face the competition. One clear example is the Burj Khalifa. At the time of its conception nobody thought we could actually make such a tall building in the middle of the desert. And today, it is a living example of what can be achieved if we put in our best efforts. Then we have Dubai World Central one of the world’s largest airports. And the Palm Islands, which are dubbed the eighth wonder of the world. So I think I cannot define a limit on how far or how high we can go. Also, we are fully supported by the government like nowhere else in the world. Not just in construction but in all areas like tourism, hospitality, healthcare, and banking. That’s why Dubai is considered the gateway to the Middle East. It is the place where you come to learn and then take that learning to be implemented in other parts of the region. We are well on the path to being the best in world.
Jamil: Dubai, if you compare it to other cities in the world it contains a good number of tall buildings. Also, when you look at the recent edition of “The 100 Tallest Buildings in the World” it’s not just Dubai but other cities in the UAE too that also have many entries in the book. For us as National Engineering Bureau we have three buildings in that list. Dubai is an open market. The Government is always supporting everybody to improve and to do good things. So it provides a fertile ground for any developer to build as high and as big as he finds it feasible to do so. And the government is very responsive. Rules and regulations always change to keep up with the times. As His Highness Sheikh Mohammed has often said, sky is the limit.
Amer: Take the example of Burj Khalifa again; for this project we supplied the German D112 ceiling systems for almost the complete tower including the drywall systems for the entire Armani Hotel. Supplying the materials for this project was the most challenging part since all our products came from different Knauf plants around the world.
Harry: To add to what you have just said, Dubai is maturing and it’s not just a question of making buildings very tall to be number one, we are also number one in sustainability in technology and social development.
Q3: WHAT ROLE DO YOU FEEL ARABIC TRADITIONS PLAY IN THE CONSTRUCTION OF ARAB FUTURE CITIES? Jamil: Construction in every period of history has fulfilled the primary requirements of that time to meet the lifestyles of the time. There is an Arab style we see reflected in today’s buildings as well and these are merged with modern architectural techniques reflecting the lifestyle and the requirements of today.
Amer: Today, we are seeing the integration of current socio-economic standards with building design. We are moving away from traditional brick and block construction to steel and drywall but yet we retain the aesthetics of traditional designs in our modern buildings that provide for better performance standards.
Q4: WHAT DO YOU FIND UNIQUE ABOUT DUBAI COMPARED TO ANY OTHER CITY IN THE WORLD? Amer: Dubai is one of the greatest cities in the world. We have people with over 160 different nationalities living here. They are living together in peace, in a safe and secure environment for their families. Where else in the word would you find this? With all these advantages Dubai has now become a “second home” for many. Already there are many second and third generation immigrants living here who believe in the city and all the facilities it provides. Take for example education; a decade ago there was a great shortage but today we have a number of different options here for our kids to get world class education. Then there is the level of customer service in hospitality and tourism which is better than anywhere else in the world. The level of service in the UAE is immensely encouraging tourism and business travel. In 2020 the city is planning to host over 20 million tourists and I have no doubt we will do it – and do it very successfully.
Jamil: I would second that. Dubai is a modern cosmopolitan city where you will find all the latest facilities and find them conveniently. As Amer said, the City hosts more than 160 nationalities and all them manage to find whatever they may be looking for in terms of food, clothing, living space and culture. Another focus of the administration in Dubai is the happiness of the people. The public and the private sectors are always doing things to make the lives of the people here more comfortable and relaxed. The city can provide whatever you are looking for according to your financial capacity. Many buildings are like mini cities thanks to the diversity of the people living there. The real beauty of the city is that all these different people with different cultures and languages are living here in peace and understanding. My own kids, who were all born and raised in Dubai, find that this is their true home. Whenever we travel to other places and even my home country they want to come back here because this is where they are happy and comfortable. That is the difference between Dubai and other cities where people come to work. Thanks to the efforts of the administration and the people living here Dubai is now become a “second home” to many, many people.
Q5: IN FACT YOU HAVE PARTLY ANSWERED MY NEXT QUESTION… IS HAPPINESS A CORE COMPONENT OF A FUTURE CITY? IF SO, THEN HOW?
Jamil: I will answer that with some questions of my own: What is the value of your life if you are not happy? Should we spend our whole lives only worrying, crying and thinking? Life is limited and how do we spend this limited period of time? Should we spend it happy, relaxed and enjoying life or should we spend it having only headaches and fighting with each other? We design our buildings keeping people’s happiness in mind. I really appreciate the Government’s forming of a Ministry of Happiness. As a construction engineering company the core of all our work is to make happy working and living spaces where people can enjoy not just the basic utilities but also all facilities like clubs, safe children’s play areas, medical facilities and other day-to-day amenities. And we must also provide the latest technologies in communications and fire safety to make a well-connected, safe and secure environment for all.
Amer: I think happiness is a journey. It is a work in progress. It’s like providing a customer oriented service. How do you satisfy your “customer” whether it’s your family, your friends, your work colleagues or the authorities and meet their different demands from time to time. Yes, the new Ministry of Happiness is a very good starting point in a country with so many people from diverse backgrounds, each with their own concepts about happiness. The ministry will create a common forum that people can go to if their looking for guidance whether in personal or professional matters.
Jamil: Take the example of restaurants. How do they attract customers? They do that by making their customers happy and relaxed by giving them exactly what they want. From small examples and efforts like these we have drawn inspiration to make Happiness part of UAE’s National Vision today. And this way Dubai can attract the best among the best by always offering the best of the best. So Happiness plays a crucial role in the rapid and long-term development of the cities of the region.
Amer: In fact, often when I travel I come across situations where certain services and products that are easily available in Dubai are very hard to come by in other cities because of their closed markets and bureaucracy. So when I come to my home Dubai I often think to myself: “Smile you are in the Land of Opportunity.”
Jamil: Dubai is now setting the global benchmark in the ease of living and accessibility of services to its people. To give you an example of Happiness I experienced recently in Dubai: One day while driving I committed a mistake and broke a traffic rule and was stopped by a policeman. I stopped my car, got out and started to walk towards him. But he promptly greeted me very politely and respectfully requested me to stay back in my car saying that he will come to me. Despite my having been at fault, the respect and courtesy I received from that policeman then brings a smile on my face to this day!
Q6: HOW DO YOU VIEW TODAY’S GENERATION OF EMIRATIS AND ARABS? HOW CAN THEY PLAY A BIGGER ROLE IN BUILDING FUTURE CITIES?
Jamil: We have always welcomed Emiratis in our workforce. Not because they are Emiratis. It is because they are highly educated, open-minded, and most importantly, they are well-travelled and modern-thinking. They have seen the world and now they are trying to implement the best of what they have seen and experienced elsewhere, in their own country. It is my privilege and pleasure to work with them and in contrast to many other professionals here, they are sincere and loyal to their company and respectful towards their country. So moving forward I am sure they will have a lot to contribute towards greater development of Arab cities and the MENA region as a whole.
Amer: Human development involves capital investment and we have seen a lot of investment made in this area by the authorities. And this is the future. There is a highly talented pool of Emiratis available in the workforce today and they are very competitive. Which is a good thing as it increases overall efficiency of the economy. Now they are present in every sector of the economy doing outstanding jobs. The education levels today are much higher than in the past. Today Emiratis are planning space missions. Masdar is another example. It is creating one of the most sustainable cities in the world. We need to enthusiastically participate in such initiatives to encourage Emiratis to contribute more toward nation building.
Jamil: The UAE’s nuclear programme is another excellent example of the pioneering spirit of the UAE’s people.
Q7: LASTLY, I WOULD LIKE ASK YOU ABOUT BUILDING MATERIALS. COMPARED TO THE EARLY DAYS WHAT PERCENTAGE OF CONSTRUCTION MATERIALS ARE MANUFACTURED WITHIN THE COUNTRY TODAY? AND HOW MUCH MORE DO YOU SEE THEM BEING PRODUCED LOCALLY IN THE FUTURE?
Amer: Today, I am heading the largest drywall manufacturing company in the region. From here we service the entire Gulf region, India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. In the future, the UAE will be a manufacturing and service hub for a number of industries. We see a huge market potential. For us the next step is setting up of training schools; we need to locally develop people’s technical skills. Awareness of the latest products and manufacturing techniques is also very important. Our model of standardised tailor made solutions, customer training and awareness has been very successful so far and we aim to implement the same in other region of the Middle East.
Jamil: A lot of products are manufactured locally today. For civil works and interiors, all the products like cement, bars, aggregates, pipes and ceramics are all made within the country. And it is very good, high-quality material that is among the best in the world. So in the coming future I see almost all construction products being manufactured locally. And not just for local consumption but for exports as well. In the construction field they say the standards in the UAE are the best in the world. So when they buy the material from here they are assured of its quality. Lot of engineering software companies are also coming here now to test and launch their products because of the size projects and range of products being used in on-going projects here. This way they can get real time feedback (not so readily available elsewhere) from the local engineers to improve upon their software.
Amer: Compared to other countries energy cost and labour is cheaper and you have accessibility of technology, skilled workforces and an efficient supply train. All this is available in close proximity to your business and this is what most companies are looking for. So the future looks very bright for the whole UAE manufacturing industry.