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Face to Face: Eng. Hessa Ahmed Al Malek

UAE Roads Department director oversees major infrastructure works

Eng. Hessa Ahmed Al Malek, director of the Roads Department at the Ministry of Public Works.
Eng. Hessa Ahmed Al Malek, director of the Roads Department at the Ministry of Public Works.

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CW speaks to Eng. Hessa Ahmed Al Malek, director of the Roads Department at the Ministry of Public Works, who has overseen $544m worth of infrastructure projects over the last five years.

The office of Eng. Al Malek at the Ministry of Public Works overlooks Al Nahda station on the Green Line of Dubai Metro, a fitting symbol of the holistic infrastructure development she advocates. She may be in charge of roads, but her ambit extends much further than the tarmac.

This is evidenced by her qualifications, as she holds a Master’s in Urban Planning from the American University of Sharjah and a Bachelor’s in Architecture from the UAE University.

“It is very strange. Everyone thinks that roads are only for civil engineers,” muses Eng. Al Malek. Upon completing her Bachelor’s in 2000, she worked at the building department in Ras Al Khaimah, where she oversaw a mammoth project for the development of the rural areas within the UAE.

“I was the only employee with a degree in urban planning at the Ministry, and actually I am the first woman in the UAE who holds a degree in urban planning.”

Eng. Al Malek’s exemplary performance on this project brought her to the attention of both her GM and the Minister of Public Works. “They liked the way I succeeded with the project and dealt with road planning.” As a result she was put in charge of the design section.

“It is good to have technical knowledge, but it is also how to deal with people and project management.” This pragmatic flair for both management and design saw Eng. Al Malek catapulted to her incumbent position, the youngest director ever, with seven years’ experience as opposed to “all the others who had more than 20.”

The transition sounds easier than it was. “Actually, it has been a challenge,” says Eng. Al Malek. The appointment of an external female candidate ruffled the feathers of the all-male Roads Department, to the extent that “some good engineers resigned and left the Ministry.”

However, the Minister of Public Works was adamant about the appointment, “because I know she will succeed, and because of this trust I did my best to succeed.” Eng. Al Malek explains she has adopted the approach of dealing with her colleagues “as brothers and friends more than as manager and employees, which is why I now have very good support from them.”

How does Eng. Al Malek reconcile her interest in architecture with road planning? “You know, to be an architect, you deal with people’s needs more, because we design facilities for people’s specific needs, such as housing, healthcare and education.

"When I was studying for my Master’s I started thinking about the community needs more than individual or family needs. Maybe that gave me more of a vision of road design. Most of our roads were designed previously in terms of existing needs, as in we have to connect two cities together, so we provide two lanes in each direction, which is sufficient for now, but they do not have a bigger vision or view of the upcoming urban development in that area.”

This means that while two roads serve the needs of today, maybe three or four are needed in future – and it is anticipating such future growth that interests Eng. Al Malek the most. “I started connecting the land-use plans for cities. We also have a masterplan for the entire UAE, which influences all of our projects.”

What this entails on the part of the Roads Department is a cohesive approach to infrastructure development: “We conduct a comprehensive study prior to design and construction; we try and engage all stakeholders from the emirate in question, the developers and even the public.”

Hence designing and building a road is no longer a simple issue of getting from one point to another, but also involves integrating social and infrastructure aspects. “Yes, it is a huge undertaking. It was not the trend here. Europe or any other area conducts stakeholder sessions as a matter of course,” notes Eng. Al Malek. However, the Roads Department is becoming more flexible and responsive to community needs.

“You know, last month we stopped constructing a haul bridge because the people thought it would ruin their area, so we sat with them to determine the problem and attempt to mitigate their concerns. It is not like constructing a road in Dubai, for example.

"Once we construct a Federal road, it means it will go through different areas of the Emirates. Each Emirate has its own vision and needs. Not only that, but once we work with the rural areas, we are dealing with a different mentality, and we have to cater to the specific needs of those people.

“Sometimes they ask us for more than what we are able to do, like constructing more bridges, tunnels. However, through our studies we can show there is no pressing need, so we explain to them how the process works and what our future plans are,” says Eng. Al Malek.

The rural portion of the UAE is situated largely between Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah. “In the past, there were no services in this area, and many villages without even a connecting road to the Federal or main road, while the main infrastructure like schools, houses and clinics was of a poor quality.

"That is why H.H. Sheikh Khalifa came up with the idea of the rural area development programme, and he asked us to conduct a comprehensive study, as there was little information at the time.”

Information such as population numbers was critical for the compilation of a statistical database. “There was no quality information, like the level of health and even the number of schools. We really faced a major problem to collect this information in such areas. It is not only about collecting the pure information; we were also faced with topographical and geographical limitations.”

Despite these hurdles, Eng. Al Malek says the entire survey was completed and the first plan compiled within six months. “We carried out repeat visits to ensure the collated information was reliable. We cannot build a school and clinic in every village, which is why we came up with the idea of a civic centre.”

The locations of these civic centres are determined by a range of criteria, such as the distances between villages and the available infrastructure.

“It is not something we will create from scratch. If the available area is mountainous, we will look for a relatively flat area close to a number of villages. There are than 20 criteria. We selected seven different civic-centre locations, based on the anticipated infrastructure projects.” Eng. Al Malek says a key consideration was the centralisation of infrastructure in order to service as large an area as possible.

The next stage of the rural development programme was planning the roads, “how to connect those villages to the main road and the civic centres. We then put in the needed housing projects, clinics, civil defense and police offices. We came out with the final plan, which we represented to H.H. Sheikh Khalifa, and he approved it. We finished constructing the entire project by the end of 2008 at a total cost of $952m.”

Eng. Al Malek says the community response has been enthusiastic. “At the beginning of the project, a lot of people talked highly about it. They liked it as it started connecting them with the rest of the Emirates.” Eng. Al Malek also presented an ancillary economic development plan to the Council of Ministers.

“We found that most of the families there were not complete: the husband worked in Dubai while the mother had to take care of everything else. This is why we came up with the idea of projects to promote economic development, so people could return to their families and contribute economically to their own areas.” Eng. Al Malek’s proposals in this regard were so successful that they were incorporated into the overall development strategy for the entire UAE.

Looking at some of the mega road projects she has been involved with to date, Eng. Al Malek highlights the 45.4km-long, $462m Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Expressway, which is a highway connecting Dubai and the Northern Emirates to Fujairah. “It was a strategic road because it connects the East Coast with the other Emirates. It has really shortened the distance.

"Now if I go from the Ministry to Fujairah, it takes only 35 minutes.” Eng. Al Malek adds that this was “a difficult project” as “there were a lot of changes during the construction and implementation process.” This resulted in the total cost escalating from the initial $272m to a final $435m. The project has been largely completed, apart from the final rock-cut protection measures to ensure the safety of motorists in the mountainous areas traversed by this technically impressive highway.

Another major project was the Outer Bypass Road, which runs parallel to Emirates Road. “It provides another option for people to travel to Sharjah,” says Eng. Al Malek. In addition, the stretch of Emirates Road in Sharjah itself was developed into a fully-fledged highway, “not the internal road which it was,” at a total cost of $54m. “There is not a single project in the Roads Department of less than $54m.”

In terms of project selection and prioritisation, Eng. Al Malek explains: “First of all, we have some idea as to what is upcoming and important in terms of providing good connectivity between Emirates and some cities; sometimes it is requests from certain Emirates to provide connecting roads from this point to that.” The National Transport Authority (NTA) of Abu Dhabi is also the custodian of the Federal road masterplan.

“Our work is based on the masterplan, so it is more organised and managed better. Now we know that this year we need to build this road and in five years’ time we need to build that road. It is easier to adapt the budget as we know what is required over the next five years.” Eng. Al Malek says the planning window that the Roads Department works on is five years.

The Council of Ministers has also decreed that Federal road projects enjoy priority. “We have a new law that gives us authority and Federal roads the right of way. There is no single government that can implement or do anything inside our right of way.

“If they carry out any development, they have to provide a service road parallel to our road, outside our right of way. We even start organising the utilites and Etisalat, everything; we now have a dedicated corridor for them for the future.

“So I do not think we will have a surprise in a few years that there is a mega project coming here that affects our roads and we have to modify our planning.

"Everything is organised now, even for the Emirates that want to put in a mega project, the investor has to come to us and provide a traffic impact study and what type of improvements they will carry out in terms of bridges or tunnel to facilitate connection with their project,” says Al Malek.

An example of such long-term planning is the $68m Ras Al Khaimah Ring Road. “In terms of Federal infrastructure, in three years all Emirates will have a good infrastructure to develop their cities.”

However, the development of internal infrastructure is not the responsibility of the Roads Department, stresses Eng. Al Malek. “We can start working on their projects today because we have a good network to handle any development.”
In terms of GCC and cross-border connectivity, Eng. Al Malek says this falls under the ambit of the NTA, which is responsible for road and rail projects.

In addition, the Roads Department has implemented an asset management system. “All the constructed Federal roads are considered a Ministry asset, so we have to maintain it in order to save it.”

In conclusion, Eng. Al Malek comments: “I really want to encourage any lady who wants to study engineering but who thinks it is for men only to do so.” In terms of her career path, Eng. Al Malke says she is definitely aiming higher.”

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