French cotton on to industry's potential

The French have so far been reluctant to get involved in the Middle East construction boom. Hugo Berger reports on how this is set to change.

The French may be late to the GCC construction party, but are still confident of success
The French may be late to the GCC construction party, but are still confident of success

From Notre Dame Cathedral to the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower and the Pompidou Centre - for centuries the French have been world leaders in building construction.

The expertise of the nation's architects, engineers and construction workers have created some of the globe's most iconic structures.

Yet many experts believe that for years, the GCC's building industry did not utilise this pool of skilled workers.

For decades, the region was seen as the domain of British and American project leadership.

However, many believe that French representation is now beginning to muscle in on Middle East's markets.

In 2006, trade between the UAE and France stood at US $6 billion (AED22 billion).

This compares to trade between the UAE and the UK in the same year, which was $12.4 billion.

Another indicator could be the number of exhibitors at last week's Big 5 event. There was a French presence at show, with 45 companies exhibiting.

But this pales into comparison with its neighbours the UK, which has almost 80 stands, and Germany, which has more than 300.

So why has the country so far not been as involved in the UAE's construction upsurge as its neighbours? Philippe Tartaglia, partner, Frame & Associates, believes in the past it had been a lack of demand for French expertise in the Middle East, combined with the conservative outlook of his countrymen.

He said: "France has not been a major contractor in the UAE for a while. It used to be in the past, but many companies were not convinced by the market - as they did not make a lot of money out of it.

"In France, we are used to developing the whole project - you receive the designs which are not 100% complete and then make changes as you go along.

"Therefore just to participate for tenders, where they mix local and foreign contractors, is not the way we wanted to work.

"In Europe, the market was quite booming as well and so often French companies didn't want to take a risk here in UAE while they had interesting work at home."

Tartaglia added that although there was a multitude of exciting projects in Dubai, they were not in the areas of French expertise, especially bridge building.

"Yes, you have the highest tower in the world in Dubai, but you don't have bridges which are outstanding," he said.

"Many of the bridges in the city are, without meaning to be critical, quite common. We are experts in sophisticated techniques in bridge building, such as the famous Viaduct of Millau.

"We are superb at making very innovative structures with a lot of reduced weight, making them very futuristic with very sophisticated techniques. I think the UAE government is realising its landmarks should not just be towers, they need excellent bridges and other structures as well. There are some fantastic plans for landmarks which will be bought to the UAE by French experts."

The market that many French companies are focusing on is Abu Dhabi.

Last week the Advanced Technology Forum, hosted by the French Business Group, took place in the city to strengthen economic ties between France and the UAE.

Edward D'Mello, chief executive of the group, believed French involvement was improving in the UAE. He said: "At the moment the UAE is dominated by the British, as well as Indian players.

"The French are a minority, but it is still quite a large minority.

"French are one of the players in this part of the world, but they represent the second rung of players in the UAE."

Speaking at the event, Patrice Paoli, ambassador of France, said: "We are astonished by the dynamism of the UAE's construction sector and we hope that French companies get more involved in the number of projects in the country."

One of the key participants at the recent conference was Eiffel, the constructor of the Viaduct of Millau. The structure is the highest cable-stayed bridge in the world at 250 metres above ground level.

Last year, a branch of Paris's most famous university, the Sorborne, opened in Abu Dhabi.

Perhaps the most important cultural link between the two countries was when, in January this year, plans were announced by the Louvre to open a branch Abu Dhabi.

The $1 billion project on Saadiyat Island is the first time that the French national museum has opened a franchise branch.

And recent figures say that 300 French businesses have a presence in the UAE.

One of the main French investors in the UAE is the Total Group, which is currently one of Abu Dhabi's main foreign partners.

In addition, French companies have been involved in major projects including the Dolphin initiative and seawater desalination investments in the Taweelah A1 project.

Experts estimate that $160 billion could be invested in expanding the UAE's capital over the next two decades, and the French are keen to get their share of this wealth. So although the French may have come to the party slightly late, few believe that the opportunity for business has been missed. In future years, it is more than likely there will be a distinctive Gallic influence in the Middle East's construction industry.

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