The region's contractors look to be facing bigger and bigger challenges in their projects' preparatory stages.
If one thing is for certain, there's no shortage of earth-moving projects in the UAE and throughout the GCC. With every bigger and more ambitious development on the cards comes a bigger patch of desert that first needs to be prepared. There is a seemingly endless supply of sand to be pushed.
In general, despite the volume of work being done and sand being moved, the earth-moving sector in the GCC is immature compared to the rest of the world. The region tends towards using a higher number of medium-sized machines, including lots of dozers and crawler excavators, rather than the larger type of loaders and haulers seen in Europe, the US and Australia.
This reliance on smaller equipment is partly because most of the works done in the UAE are largely "greenfield projects", according to Mladen Marendic, master planner for Cansult Maunsell. Most of the land being used has never been previously developed, so much of the groundwork amounts to simply moving sand, for which mid-sized equipment is ideal.
"In the Middle East there is a high demand for medium and heavy graders, 20 to 80-tonne crawler excavators, 8 to 9-tonne backhoe loaders, 10 to 30-tonne wheel loaders and, of course, dozers," says Nils-Gosta Nilsson, international product manager for Volvo Construction Equipment.
"In Europe and Oceana, the trend is toward a combination of excavators and articulated haulers," continued Nilsson. "The difference in ground conditions results in less dozers than in the Middle East. In Scandinavia, the dozer market is almost dead. While in the Middle East, the articulated hauler concept is not yet fully accepted."
However, the equipment in use does change slightly depending on the Emirate. While Dubai and Sharjah use only the smaller machines, the UAE does have some large-scale heavy-duty equipment in operation. "As far as excavators are concerned," says Sudhir Tripathi, general construction industry manager at Al-Bahar, the region's Caterpillar dealer, "we've sold the biggest excavator in the Caterpillar line up here in the region."
In general, Ras Al-Khaimah is the centre of all the heavy earth-moving works in the UAE because of its supply of rock. Almost all of the rock used for construction in the Emirate is mined or quarried in Ras Al-Khaimah and therefore the use of larger machines is entirely justified.
While dealers report that excavator sales have been growing in size as well as number, trucks and wheel loader sales remain in the mid-size range. And, so far, the contractors' choice of the smaller-sized machines in the Emirates other than Ras al-Khaimah makes sense. The desert environment means the job requirements are largely just shifting sand, so it has been possible to complete larger projects just by using a higher quantity of smaller machines.
However, with Dubai's ever bigger and more ambitious projects in the pipeline, such as the proposed Arabian Canal and Jebel Ali airport, the Emirate may well need to up its game in the field of earth-moving.
The proposed Arabian Canal will be the biggest earth-moving project in the world so far, and the largest civil engineering project in Dubai's history. It is likely that the waterway will flow inland from Dubai Waterfront and around Jebel Ali before turning back towards Dubai Marina.
It is estimated the canal will be around 75km long, creating about 100 million m2 of waterfront real estate. It is thought it will be 75m wide and six metres deep, making it capable of accommodating 25m-long boats with 300-tonne capacity.
The project will involve digging and moving an estimated 4000 million m3 of earth, around 27 times more material than was required for the Palm Jumeirah.
In light of these facts and figures, speculation throughout the industry is that the earth-moving requirements of the project are beyond the current capabilities of the equipment in the region. It is a job that may well require the drafting in of the large-scale excavators and perhaps even mining machines.
"Such large-scale projects as the Arabian Canal would most likely require specialised equipment designed for a very specific task, due to the rapid pace of development and sheer size of the projects," says Marendic.
"Large projects are always of national and international interest," says Arif Chishti, divisional manager of construction equipment division at Famco, the region's Volvo suppliers. "They are closely monitored by various bodies and almost always contractors have to meet very tight schedules while optimising project cost. This demands that the most rugged construction equipment must be deployed."
However, although it would at first seem that bringing in new, larger equipment is the likely solution, there is a chance that this might not be possible.
"Mining equipment in countries such as the US and Australia is usually above 100 tonnes, and excavators are usually up to 450 tonnes in operating weight," says Nilsson. "Those loaders and haulers require hard conditions underfoot. This is not the case on many sites in the Middle East."
Furthermore, to bring in the bigger equipment may be off-putting to local operators in terms of cost and logistics. The machines would require transporting, which is an expensive job in itself. "It is very common that those machines have to stay at the same site during their entire service life," says Nilsson. "It's just too costly to split them up into smaller pieces that can be transported from one site to another."
There is also the ongoing problem of untrained workers in the region. While the basic principle of operating a machine remains the same regardless of size, the bigger machines are much more expensive to repair, maintain and replace. Therefore contractors would prefer to use the cheaper, most simple machines in greater number, minimising the chance of costly repairs and having an integral part of machinery out of operation and halting work.
"The way in which equipment is supported locally is of extreme importance," says Chishti. "Inadequate support will result in expensive down time, and will result in consequential problems at a work site."
Another, and perhaps the only, solution to completing these large-scale projects might be the tactic already employed of simply increasing the numbers of smaller machines. "You can't necessarily say it will require the biggest lot of Cat machines," says Tripathi. "Maybe we need to do bigger numbers rather than bigger machines.
"When we come closer to the project and we know exactly how many million cubes of sand need to be moved and the timeline, then we can make decisions. It will be bigger numbers or bigger machines, or both."
While Marendic believes that the traditional equipment may be sufficient, "if in appropriate numbers".
Although the contracting details and logistics of the proposed canal have yet to be announced, some things remain certain.
Providing the property around the canal is attractive enough to the large investors and land is bought from the masterplan, with the promise of it being developed, then the project will be finished, regardless of the challenges it brings. If the infrastructure isn't completed on time, those who have bought the tracts for development can back out, which is an unthinkable situation.
Like many previous projects in Dubai, the contractors will overcome the odds and get the job done. Whether the solution is a larger number of smaller machines or shipping in the larger machines, these ever-more ambitious projects can only be good news for the region's heavy-industry suppliers.