High Profile

RW Armstrong treats all its projects as high profile

Mona Salem.
Mona Salem.
RW Armstrong is providing  full design, architectural, structural, civil and project management for the Abu Dhabi Equetsrian Club.
RW Armstrong is providing full design, architectural, structural, civil and project management for the Abu Dhabi Equetsrian Club.
The Gate District: Shams Abu Dhabi was RW Armstrong?s first project in the emirate.
The Gate District: Shams Abu Dhabi was RW Armstrong?s first project in the emirate.

From the Presidential Palace to the first blue-collar worker city in Abu Dhabi, RW Armstrong treats all its projects as high profile.

After five years spearheading RW Armstrong’s Abu Dhabi operation, Mona Salem has been appointed vice president.

This was recognition for her role in steering the international engineering and design consultancy through recession, and for building up a prestigious portfolio of projects across the UAE and supporting operations throughout MENA.

“The most exciting thing for me was not the recognition personally,” she says modestly, “but more the recognition of the entire team. The truth is I have never felt like I have needed a title to do what I have needed to do.”

Speaking about how she chose her career, Salem explains that she knew she had wanted to be an engineer from the age of two. “My father was an engineer and there were a lot of other engineers in my family, so I grew up surrounded by the profession. To me, there was no question in my mind what I wanted to be since I was very young.”

But surely being a woman in a male-dominated industry must have been a challenge? “My dad told me a long time ago not to define ourselves by gender, but rather by your actions and what you accomplish, so I never pay much attention to that,” she says.

“I tend to focus on what I can deliver and what I can contribute, and I find that people are quite receptive. I had heard before I came to work here that being a woman in construction could be an issue in the Middle East, but actually I have not found that, especially not in the UAE.

In fact, I would say it is about the same as in the US. People are the same everywhere. If you just focus on your job, people respect you and it does not become a problem.”

Her biggest issue, in fact, is less about being a woman in construction and more about balancing a family life with a career. “Of all the challenges I have, technical issues, finance and other problems, the biggest challenge is getting that balance between having a career and being a mother. But I have learnt that it is about compromise.”

Responsibility and big decisions are, however, never easy, irrespective of confidence and gender. For Salem, her biggest decision since working for the company has been to move to the UAE, having settled permanently in the US some years earlier after an upbringing between America and Egypt.

“I loved my career in the US, and I had established social roots there. It was very difficult to leave and start from scratch. But at that time RW Armstrong was starting its global operations. They knew about my Middle Eastern background, and they had talked to me about coming here. So I took a leap of faith.”

As expected, 2006 was a difficult year for all those working in the fledgling Abu Dhabi operation of RW Armstrong. While the company had no regional contacts and limited local knowledge, part of the operation also involved launching a brand new service offering.

“When we started out we were not a known firm. We were not known locally and we were not known in the building design services market period. And we only had a small team on the ground here, so we all worked really, really hard. We worked seven days a week, 365 days that year. I do not remember any of us having any time off, but it was very exciting.”

Asked about the branch’s biggest achievement to date, Salem says it is most certainly the operation’s growth.

“We went from having one contract with one client to 28 contracts with nearly 20 different clients. That is something I am very proud of.”

The firm managed this, she explains, by approaching the market with caution.

“Our owners had a very good vision when they started looking at the Middle East in 2005. At the time they thought about Dubai obviously, as everyone was going to Dubai, but they decided on Abu Dhabi; they realised it was going to be the next big thing.

“Also because we were not known in the market our approach was to try and build trust. We did this by teaming with some great partners who had the history, who were known locally and who understood the local business market, such as Hyder, Ian Banham and Architectonica.

And we started out slow, providing part of the services and then expanding as our name grew,” says Salem.

Current projects include mostly prestigious developments, ranging from the Presidential Palace in Abu Dhabi and the Masdar headquarters in Masdar City to the Al Waha mixed-use development in Libya and the Pyramids Heights business park and residential township in Egypt.

“The Abu Dhabi Presidential Palace project is one of our key projects. It is very exciting to be involved in this, because it is going to change the landscape of Abu Dhabi.”

According to Salem, the company regards all its work as high-profile. “Even projects like Modern Residential City,” she says, “which is a quasi-governmental, blue-collar accommodation project for 25,000 residents in Musaffah, Abu Dhabi, is prestigious because it is one of the first residential worker cities designed to modern standards.”

As for more recent wins, Salem says the company has landed projects in new markets as well as new sectors. In addition to two new projects in Saudi Arabia, one of which is the Canary Park luxury residential community in Al Khobar, the branch has also won work in the industrial sector, namely Abu Dhabi Investment House.

“The industrial sector will be one of our main focuses this year. Abu Dhabi is going to see a lot of industrial projects coming on-line, and that is going to be a nice line of new business for us.

We are also trying to enter the oil and gas sector, because this is solid and stable. If you have these anchor clients and base markets, it helps you weather some of the storms.”

Evidently, the firm’s strategy is like that of many companies in the post-recession period one based on diversification and expansion into emerging markets.

Thus while it is already working across MENA, with projects in Morocco, Libya and Tunisia, its plan involves expanding into other markets as and when they become available.

“During the recession we faced challenges; 2010 was particularly hard in terms of projects getting delayed. Cash flow was an issue and resource levelling was an issue because you could not very well shrink your organisation only to win another project and have to expand it again.

So as a firm we focused on diversifying our client base and expanding into new markets. We focused quite a bit on Saudi Arabia, and successfully completed this work out of the UAE office.

We also supported our Libya operation significantly, as there continues to be significant growth there. This year we will be totally focused on Qatar.”

And then, of course, there is Egypt. “We are, along with the entire world, watching what is happening there. I think it is premature to make any decisions as to what you will do with your operations.

Egypt is a great country – the position, the geography, the manpower that is there – all make it a good place to do business. I would say this is just a blip on the radar, and I think eventually things will settle.

Once they do, construction companies and engineering firms should be prepared to assist with reconstruction. There is bound to be change regardless of what the outcome is, and with that change I predict there will be a lot of focus on infrastructure improvement. As for us, we are going to be ready and available to be part of that rebuilding effort.”.


Mona Salem:
Engineer, VP and country manager

Mona Salem is vice president and country manager of RW Armstrong’s Middle Eastern headquarters in Abu Dhabi, UAE, and is responsible for managing the firm’s global building services discipline.

In these roles she oversees the delivery of multi-billion dollar design, programme management, construction management and building services projects throughout the MENA region.

Salem has 20 years’ operational, management and engineering consulting and design experience in both the public and private sectors. She has lived in both the Middle East and the US, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering from Alexandria University in Egypt, and then returning to the US to begin her professional career.

Prior to joining RW Armstrong, Salem served in a variety of capacities—from chief operating officer to deputy director/chief engineer—at the Department of Public Works in Indianapolis, Indiana, the twelfth-largest city in the US.

While working at RW Armstrong, Salem has led the operation from one project with one client to 28 contracts with 20 clients. She has helped the branch build up a prestigious portfolio of projects, while maintaining support for other regional offices.

In addition, Salem is a member of the Society of Women Engineers and has served on the AmCham Abu Dhabi membership election board. She is also active in Injazat Al-Arab, where her goal is to encourage girls and young women to pursue careers in engineering and in science.

Salem, who is an American citizen, currently resides in Abu Dhabi with her husband and daughter. In her spare time, she practices tae kwon do (she is a first-dan black belt), and enjoys literature, jogging, cycling and spending time with her family at the beach.

Royal Project
Presidential Palace

The new Presidential Palace in Abu Dhabi will be a landmark project that will help to emphasise the emirate’s role as a leader within the UAE and the GCC.

The Palace will house the offices of HH The President, HH The Vice President, HH The Crown Prince and Ministers.

It will serve an important role as the primary governmental facility for receiving visiting dignitaries.

The new Presidential Palace will be located on the Ras al Akhdar peninsula, adjacent to the Emirates Palace Hotel.

The development will encompass about 150ha, and will include the Palace itself as well as ancillary buildings. It will have a built-up area in excess of 160,000m2, and will contain several VIP wings, a Ministers wing and several majlis and dining halls.

The common area will utilise an additional 5,614m2, and will include a main entrance hall, main hall, fountain courtyard, media hall and a press centre.

The ancillary buildings, which will cover 23,000m2, will include a public majlis, mosque, staff and military accommodation, a services compound and various gatehouses and watchtowers. The project also includes 2,000m of 6m seawall, 4million cubic metres of dredging and 2,500m of revetment.

The development must allow for traditional and modern design to exist in harmony, and to ultimately be a source of pride for the entire UAE.

RW Armstrong is the project manager for this prestigious project. It is managing the lead consultant, corodinating the designers and contractors, determining the optimum construction strategy and schedule, selecting the procurement strategy for the construction, issuing and assessing tenders, and ensuring that all design and construction work is on schedule.

RW Armstrong is also responsible for executing a project-management level design review of all aspects, from architectural to structural, civil, MEP and marine.

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