Ramsay Abbassi of Murray & Roberts on the appeal of complex projects
The shift in construction activity towards infrastructure in the UAE leaves one major international contractor particularly well placed.
With a broad range of projects completed that has had a direct benefit for Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Murray & Roberts has gained a lot of ground in the market with most of the other GCC countries in its sights for expansion.
Ramsay Abbassi has been at the helm of the South African company’s regional construction operations for almost 13 of the 20 years he has been in Abu Dhabi.
He has seen economic cycles, a building boom and steep correction, an increasingly international marketplace alongside the time-honoured principles of working on the right projects and selecting the right people for best delivery.
Accessing markets the Murray & Roberts way includes the strategic position of its Abu Dhabi office: close to Maqta Bridge on the edge of the city, giving clients and counterparties an easy route when coming from Dubai, or quick access for the team to Dubai, where the company’s regional head office is located.
“Our last location was on the Corniche before the bridge opened, and most of our work was actually off-island, so there were problems going in and out of town,” Abbassi says in the sunlit villa office.
The speed of the UAE capital’s development and its links to surrounding islands has been transformational in the last decade, though Abbassi adds the emirate is just at the start, and may need to extend its 2030 economic development target.
“I think 2030 is looking more realistically at being 2040 or 2045, but they have the plans and the vision, and they know what they want to go towards,” he says.
The slowed rate of construction since 2008 might also be a factor in the schedule of building and infrastructure projects alike, and Abbassi has an original turn of phrase to describe the adjustments that may need to be made to reflect today’s demand and financing facilities.
“A lot of the developments were done on a seven-star level, when the reality is now that the money is not in the market so they have to see the viability and reassess the projects to be four-or five star.”
Though the company delivered the Burj Al Arab in Dubai in 1999, one of more than 30 projects completed in a joint venture with Al Habtoor Engineering, Murray & Roberts’ portfolio is dominated by infrastructure work, with a strong emphasis towards Abu Dhabi.
This has been key to Murray & Roberts’ regional success as the real-estate market in Dubai – heavily weighted towards private sector-led commercial ventures and an incomparable property boom – deteriorated.
By contrast, he points out, Abu Dhabi National Oil Company is developing its infrastructure and venturing into renewable energy, school and universities are under construction, and healthcare projects such as the Cleveland Clinic gain momentum.
It is all part of the drive to make the UAE more ‘self-sufficient’, with all the necessary social resources available to its people. But Abu Dhabi has certainly not been immune to the wider financial crisis, he says, and the halt to Aldar Properties’ development on Yas Island is an indicator of this. For Murray & Roberts, it seems, the more complex the project, the better, though it must also suit other internal criteria.
“The philosophy is not necessarily to chase volume – it is to chase projects that are complex, are iconic, where we add value, whereby we are not hunting a pack of people. This is more selective tendering.
That is why we are in the airport and infrastructure work. Otherwise you are just bidding against 20 countries, and we will not do that,” he said.
Its portfolio of finished and current projects in this vein is among the most impressive for a foreign company: Dubai International Airport’s Terminal 3 and Concourse 2, the Etihad Terminal in Abu Dhabi International Airport, Sheikh Zayed University, World Trade Centre Towers and the Sorbonne University.
“Government owned, or quasi government types of business,” as he calls them, have been a significant source of projects and revenue as the company suffered losses from private sector clients in Dubai.
While growing its reputation as a contractor in the region, Murray & Roberts has also been a useful partner.
The company’s long-standing link with Al Habtoor Engineering – now firmly Al Habtoor Leighton – is one of the most remarkable joint ventures in the region, and the backbone of many of the respective companies’ biggest projects, including the $820 contract for the design and construction of the Zayed University campus in Abu Dhabi.
The two companies started working together in 1994, when Murray & Roberts first entered the region, and sought a local firm that had an established network of service and material suppliers. The combined resources enhanced the ability to place the right person from either company in the right area of each project, he says.
The company has also worked in joint ventures with other big firms, such as Consolidated Contractors International Company, for the Khalifa Stadium in Qatar for the 2006 Asian Games, and with Nass Contracting for all bridge work on Bahrain’s sprawling mixed-use development, Durrat Al Bahrain.
Last year the company worked with Saudi Oger in KSA, a market that is attractive to Abbassi due to the scale of its own infrastructure plans.
The two companies submitted a tender to design and build Jeddah’s airport, and they are working on two projects in the Kingdom.
Abbassi emphasises that joint ventures only work when the two companies essentially act as one and can be fully complementary.
“You must not have an attitude of ‘us and them’. If you do, it is a recipe for failure. We generally work on a 50-50 share of risk ... JVs in the past fail when you have two massive organisations that do the same thing, have got nothing to offer to each other and then it just becomes that,” he says, pressing two fists together to indicate a clash. “It becomes opposites, and the JV fails.
“We have been lucky, I suppose, in that sense. [With Al Habtoor Leighton] we have shared a common understanding. We are almost one organisation.” Now for perhaps the biggest issue facing contractors big and small in the region: getting paid.
Abbassi points to the statements reported in the media by Arabtec, Al Habtoor Leighton and Al Jaber relating to chasing mounting invoices as an indicator of how critical the situation has become in the aftermath of a severe market downturn and a freeze in bank lending to developers.
The company’s structure and focus on state-backed infrastructure projects has left Murray & Roberts relatively insulated from the problems of outstanding payments, says Abbassi. “The only mouths we have to feed are [those of] our management,” he explains.
“Compared to a lot of people, we are a small unit, we can adjust quite quickly. We do not have enormous amount of labour or plants, which can be a huge drain. So that is a nice part of our business philosophy here.”
Nevertheless, the company has reduced its staff by about 25% since 2008, leaving it with around 300 employees regionally. The effect will hopefully leave the company “leaner and meaner” and even more competitive when up against rivals tendering for fewer projects that have also sought to boost efficiency, he says.
Saudi Arabia is a country in which the company is still learning, he says, though the scale of its plans is irresistible. “Whatever Abu Dhabi is doing, Saudi Arabia is doing fivefold,” he says in reference to the country’s infrastructure spending.
“Healthcare there will be enormous, and also airports will be enormous. They are building up tremendously so, yes ... the opportunities are great.”
But it presents a number of challenges; not only is it a new market, but the different social environment makes it less appealing for some members of the company.
“It is difficult for people with families as it is a different place,” he says. “You almost have to recruit from within ofrom people who have been in that area for some time,” says Abbassi.
After a tough year in which he says the company became “very good at bidding”, he seems determined to define further success without any superstitious overtones as to his 13th year in the job.
The strongest firms will survive, he says, and allows himself some optimism as to the resurgence in the market. “It has started slowly. I think the winds of change are with us; it is starting now to go forward.”
Abu Dhabi stalwart
Ramsay Abbassi’s time in Abu Dhabi outstrips that of Murray & Roberts, arriving in the emirate the day before National Day in 1991.
He has more than 30 years’ experience in the construction sector, leaving university with a Bachelor’s degree in Building, Management and Technical Training Programmes.
He began his career at Balfour Beatty Construction in London, where he worked on some prestigious projects, including on-site at Buckingham Palace and the BBC, as well as key infrastructure projects such as the Glengall bridge development and the design of the town centre in Bracknell.
“I have worked on massive jobs in London’s centre,” he says. “I have been fortunate in my career to work on some good jobs.” After 13 years he moved with Consolidated Contractors Company to Abu Dhabi, and by June 1993 was working for Laing Construction.
Here he worked on projects such as the Falcon Tower Building and ADCO headquarters. After five years he switched to Murray & Roberts the same year, according to Abbassi, that the company started trading in Abu Dhabi.
Other projects he has overseen since include the construction of the Marina Mall, the civil work on the Tecnimont Polyethylene project, the headquarters of the National Bank of Abu Dhabi and ADNOC, as well as an $490million deal to build the St Regis hotel and resort.