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Face-to-face: Ali Al-Khalifa

Ali Al-Khalifa speaks to James Henderson

Ali Al-Khalifa, CEO of ASTAD Project Management.
Ali Al-Khalifa, CEO of ASTAD Project Management.

There can be few places in the world that can match up to the pace of change in Qatar. Leave just a week between journies along Doha’s Corniche, West Bay and Business District and you’ll notice significant changes to the landscape.

In amongst the myriad skyscrapers and towers, there are some projects that really catch the eye – The Museum of Islamic Art, Education City, the Qatar National Convention Centre, Museum of Modern Art, and the National Museum of Qatar all spring to mind. As well as the striking nature of all of the projects, they are all part of ASTAD Project Management’s vast project portfolio.

As the company celebrates its fifth anniversary, ASTAD – a joint venture between Qatar Foundation and Qatar Petroleum – can reflect on a rapid period of growth; today the company is overseeing 163 projects with a combined value of $34.6bn (126bn QR).

Sitting at ASTAD’s offices at the colossal National Museum of Qatar, the organisation’s CEO, Ali Al-Khalifa smiles when asked to pinpoint his favourite project, likening it to asking a parent to choose between his or her children.

“Each project is special in its own right and has its own unique life cycle,” says Al-Khalifa.

“As a project management company, what we are dealing with are complex and iconic projects that all present their own set of challenges – they require time, cost and quality. For example, the National Convention Centre presents quite a different set of challenges than the campus projects we work on at Education City.”

Al-Khalifa joined ASTAD as CEO in 2010 having studied mechanical engineering in the United States in the 1990s, followed by an MBA before working in Dubai, Singapore, Malaysia and China. Al-Khalifa has been with the company almost from the start.

“Over the past few years, ASTAD has seen tremendous growth in terms of the number of projects we are working on and the value of our portfolio. We have also grown in terms of our capabilities, and the complexity of the work we’re doing.

We are deeply proud of the progress we have made and, looking back we can say that we have made some truly remarkable accomplishments. Everyone within ASTAD – including our shareholders at Qatar Foundation and Qatar Petroleum – is proud of what we have done and what we are doing.”

One of projects that ASTAD is overseeing, which has really caught the world’s attention, is the National Museum of Qatar. Its location on the Corniche and its hugely striking design make it hard to miss.

“The National Museum of Qatar is a project we are really proud to have in our portfolio, and it's one the nation has taken to its heart. The concept of the desert rose is a special one and to make the design possible, the project has required four times as much steel as the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

The structure is very complex and that has presented us with many challenges. But we’ve managed the design process effectively and have been successful in turning these challenges into opportunities”

Given the nature of many of ASTAD’s projects, the company has embraced BIM (Building Information Modelling) technology. “The design of the National Museum would not have been possible without BIM,” states Al-Khalifa.

“What we’ve tried to do is lead the way with the implementation of BIM in Qatar, using it on many projects, including the Qatar Foundation HQ building and the Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies.

"People make the assumption BIM can only be used to detect clashes, but that is not the case, you can work with it and use it over the entire life-cycle of a project.”

Al-Khalifa sees the utilisation of BIM on complex projects as a way to enhance the project delivery process, and is convinced that technology is a strong enabler. “It also helps when our engineers have an average of 21 years experience,” he adds.

“Our engineers are highly competent in BIM, and that is very important as BIM is a sophisticated software, so you have to be completely sure that the data you are inputting into it is correct, and you know the parameters you are working with.

The National Museum of Qatar is a good example of engineers working with BIM software. In some instances we faced challenges whereby we couldn’t see the design from certain angles, to overcome this we had to rely on the calculations of our engineers to determine the final design of the steel structures.

“Of course, BIM is software that can do things that engineers cannot, but the inverse is also true – ultimately they complement each other. There are some engineers in the industry who try to resist BIM, but they shouldn’t as it actually helps them to achieve things and to enhance the process in ways that were not possible before.

“We look at the 2030 Vision as a mandate, and the 2022 World Cup has become an accelerating factor to deliver that. We know that Qatar is delivering a huge amount of highly complex projects to a deadline that has never been attempted before.

At ASTAD, we share the same expectations and objectives as our clients from the beginning. We look at things from an end user's perspective to understand a building’s role and how it will function once it is completed.

“We do not see any difference between us, and the end-user; take the National Museum, for example, we think of it as our project as it is a national project that all Qatari’s are proud of, the same as the Convention Centre or the Faculty of Islamic Studies.

“Delivering the 2030 Vision is not a simple task, but this is where ASTAD comes to help. We are confident in our ability to deliver our projects and build a sustainable future. We are a local company with a global reach, and we are part of the mosaic that forms our local and cultural heritage.

This makes us proud and honoured to do what we do and this is why we hold our projects so close to our hearts. We are committed to building a great environment and unlocking human potential by developing local expertise and talent. I am very proud of the team we are building here at ASTAD”

Reflecting on recent reports that 15% of projects could be postponed in the run-up to the 2022 World Cup finals, Al-Khalifa says that the process of prioritisation is a sensible one that happens each and every day in the construction industry, not only in Qatar, but all around the world.

“Positive things are happening; the airport is almost complete, the port is progressing well and preparations are gearing up. In any project, the project manager will make decisions on priorities every single day.

I think this is reflected here, where the government is looking at projects and asking ‘is this something that is absolutely necessary for the World Cup or the country, or is it something that is nice to have and can be done at a later stage? It is a solid approach.

“Qatar is not just going to stop developing projects after the 2022 tournament ends, it is an important milestone in the journey to the 2030 Vision, which was planned before the country even won the World Cup.”

ASTAD is already involved in the preparations for the event, and Al-Khalifa recently visited Brazil to view the work the country had done before it hosts this year’s World Cup. Al-Khalifa says that ASTAD is well placed to help deliver a successful tournament in 2022.

“The World Cup is part of a journey that Qatar is on, and one of the main goals at ASTAD is to continue to shape the construction industry here, and participate in delivering important building and infrastructure projects for the country.” 

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