TBY talks to Mohammed Al Rais, Senior Vice President & Managing Director of Hill International (Middle East), on diversifying its projects during downturns, its projects in Dubai, and upcoming prospects.

Mohammed Al Rais
Mohammed Al Rais is Senior Vice President & Managing Director of Hill International (Middle East). He has over 35 years of experience in the management of construction projects throughout the Middle East, North Africa, the UK, and Canada. He was previously Vice President, acting as Hill’s regional manager for its Abu Dhabi operations. He is fluent in both Arabic and English, and has extensive experience working with both the public and private sectors. Al Rais earned a BS in city and regional planning from the University of Engineering and Technology in Pakistan and obtained an MS in project management from the University of Reading in the UK.

How was Hill International's growth achieved during the economic downturn?

At the outset of the economic downturn, we were well diversified and well positioned to tender for regional megaprojects. Recently, we worked on the Muscat and Salalah airports; have partnered with another company on the Midfield Terminal Airport in Abu Dhabi; and exclusively manage construction of the Bahrain Airport. We began working on rail projects such as the Green Line and the Losail tram in Qatar, in addition to three rail lines with a local partner in Riyadh. We also expanded into the health sector with 13 hospitals in Saudi Arabia, one in Kuwait, and another in Abu Dhabi. Whereas previously we mostly worked with private SME companies, there has been a significant regional push for large government-sponsored megaprojects, which forced us to reconsider our focus. By adapting to the market trends and diversifying our portfolio in the region, we were able to healthily grow in a period of economic uncertainty.

How do regional conflicts affect operations in the Middle East?

The conflicts and instability in Yemen and Syria, and before that in Libya and Iraq, have an obvious and direct effect on our projects in the Middle East. While conflicts have undoubtedly had their effect on the markets of the Middle East, the drop in oil prices in the last few years and the recent recovery of those prices also had an effect. However, I am hoping for the conflicts to find resolution by the end of 2017. We still have a presence in some of these countries and hope to be able to assist in the rebuilding process that inevitably takes place.

Can you describe your operations in Dubai and trends in the region?

One of our foundational partnerships is our 15-year agreement with ADNOC, which is tendered and renewed every three years. We do various projects with it, ranging from consulting services to project management. We are also managing other massive projects such as the Etihad Towers, the Hilton, the Nation Towers, the Sky Towers, and the Sun Towers on Reem Island. We are also working on 36 tower projects in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and have been in these locations for over seven years. One of our most exciting projects in the region is the KFD rail project in Saudi Arabia worth USD7.7 billion. In Dubai, the rest of the region followed; we have seen both clients and the market become more sophisticated and demand a new structured approach to professionalism and quality products. Dubai set this regional trend by insisting upon quality and efficiency at the beginning of the development boom and every individual project. Now, there is an emergence of local, highly educated engineers who know exactly what and how things need to be done and are executing their vision precisely. This is helpful for us because when the client understands what needs to be delivered, the processes and procedures are far easier and smoother to implement.

How will 2017 look for Hill International?

Our prospects are exciting and positive in 2018 and beyond. Megaprojects like the World Cup in Qatar and Expo 2020 in Dubai offer a great deal of potential. We foresee Saudi Arabia offering social projects such as hospitals and public housing as well as a renewed push for PPP projects. We also expect Oman to begin larger developments with direct private sector involvement. Currently, we focus on working with clients who require a high level of specificity on larger projects. If one is building their own house and know how they want it, then they do not need a partner. But if one is building a city, even if they have clear vision, they need partners. Current and future market booms require various infrastructure projects such as roads, hospitals, high-rise housing, and rail lines. As quality is the new currency, governments are looking more for partnership with the private sector to ensure efficiency and expertise.