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Face to face: Vafa Valapour, UWI

by James Morgan on Oct 23, 2016

Vafa Valapour is a principal at United World Infrastructure.
Vafa Valapour is a principal at United World Infrastructure.

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Few would deny that international expertise has benefitted the GCC’s construction sector, but this observation is fast becoming an industry cliché. Granted, multinational construction outfits continue to add significant value to this region – as is the case in any other – but the Gulf has also succeeded in cultivating its own pool of local talent.

Although not widely publicised, skills and knowledge gained in the GCC are being leveraged to facilitate development in other regions. United World Infrastructure (UWI), for example, which has offices in Dubai and Washington DC, has spent more than a decade investing in, designing, building, and operating new communities in frontier markets around the world.

A principal at UWI, Vafa Valapour has lived in the UAE for the past 18 years. He spends much of his time globetrotting, exploring fresh geographies that could complement his company’s future activities, and supporting those in which UWI is already facilitating development.

“Today, the majority of people live in cities,” Valapour begins. “According to United Nations (UN) estimates, an additional 1.2 billion people will move to cities during the next 15 years, and this level of urbanisation poses a host of challenges. Within this context, my colleagues and I focus on the infrastructure that these people are going to need. What are the problems that cities will face, in terms of technical issues, over-population, and stress on infrastructure?

“UWI invests in proprietary capital, in collaboration with other private and public sector companies. We oversee that investment, and we have the capability to develop urban plans and manage city services.”

UWI is a privately owned corporation, but it has a clear and vested interest in the long-term success of the cities that it develops. Valapour explains: “When it comes to the financial components of infrastructure development, the first people to whom UWI is beholden are the residents of our communities. Certainly, as you’re developing a new city, your primary consideration is whether residents will use its infrastructure.

“Secondly, it is important to identify the right partners at an early stage. A whole generation of investors participate in projects of this magnitude. These may include sovereign wealth funds, private sector offices, multinational corporations, and so on. No city can be built by one investor.

“Finally, one must consider the small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that are present in the market; these are the local businesses that need to participate and become rooted in the community.”

Essentially, to serve the communities in which it invests – and to remain financially viable – UWI must take a long-term approach to development.

“Wherever the location, we must overcome the challenges of change,” says Valapour. “At the beginning, we investigate what infrastructure roll-out will look like in a particular area. Once that infrastructure has been developed, we look at the jobs that it can support; the catalysts that can be brought in. We must also consider these communities from a policy perspective. How do we serve the wellbeing of residents through infrastructure? What are the requirements of the communities’ families? What do the children want?”

As for target markets, Valapour and his team look to identify those that strike the right balance between the value that UWI can add for the local community, and the longer-term returns on its investment.

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