Winds of change
Bahrain has long been the financial capital of the GCC, and now begins its own construction boom.
Bahrain has long been the financial capital of the GCC. As it now begins its own construction boom, Hugo Berger looks at the challenges the country is having to address.
Bahrain's construction sector is incredibly upbeat at the moment, with the number of mega-projects on the increase.
The tiny, oil-rich Kingdom is awash with new schemes, funded both by the public and private sectors.
But, like other construction sectors in the GCC, this rapid expansion is causing a raft of problems for the country to overcome.
The country will be the first Gulf State to run out of oil and so it is rushing headlong into an economic diversification programme.
The government has launched new port contracts along with power stations and desalination plants.
Bahrain International Airport is undergoing a huge expansion, while the Bahrain World Trade Center ((BWTC) - a symbol of the nation's interest in sustainability - is nearing completion.
Half a decade ago, the country was just a series of small towns and villages, where inhabitants lived a traditional Bedouin lifestyle.
Now, new hotel complexes, roads, shopping malls, theme parks, skyscrapers and residential areas are springing up.
And the wave of development is showing no signs of abating with new schemes being announced almost on a weekly basis.
And the country's small size - 716km2 - is not holding it back.
Just as in other Gulf States, reclaiming land from the sea is a common building technique.
In recent years the government has supported increased commercial activity, none more obvious than its growing financial sector.
Ever since the civil war virtually destroyed Lebanon's banking sector in the 1980s, Bahrain has taken on the mantle as the Middle East's financial hub.
With adequate communication and transport facilities, numerous multinational companies have set up in Bahrain.
At present, some 60% of the country's exports are related to oil, which accounts for 11% of its GDP.
Because oil supplies are limited, in 2006 the country signed a free-trade agreement with the US to encourage foreign investment.
The government is committed to a strategy of commercial and residential expansion, but it is being stage-managed very carefully.
Unlike nearby Dubai, which some people have suggested has a 'build anything, anywhere' mentality; the government has set out clear guidelines on development.
In December 2006 it drafted the National Planning Development Strategy, or 'National Plan'.
The plan provides strong and clear guidance on 10 key strategies that will support the future development of Bahrain. These include the built environment, infrastructure, transport and the environment.
Despite this, the country is experiencing a huge construction boom, which aims to make it the Middle East's prime financial and tourism destination.
Perhaps the symbol of Bahrain's construction resurgence is the BWTC in Manama with its iconic wind turbines.
Just as the Burj al Arab has become the symbol of Dubai, the BWTC looks likely to set the world's gaze firmly on the country.
Built to look like a pair of sails, the building offers accommodation, a five-star hotel, shopping centre and office space.
The turbines boost the building's green credentials by providing 15% of the power for the two towers.
Recently, the building made history when the turbines were turned on together for the first time, becoming the first building with integrated wind turbines in the world.
The successful rotation of the blades involved collaboration between Atkins architects and engineers and turbine specialists Norwin, who were in Bahrain for the milestone event.
Simha LytheRao, senior project manager, Atkins, said: "The use of established technologies, including type-tested turbines with minimal modifications, ensured that the additional cost incurred by incorporating turbines into the project was reduced to around 3.5% of the overall project value, making it not only an environmentally responsible but also a financially viable venture."
"Two weeks ago we had the three turbines running continuously together for the first time and we generated about 1,400 kilowatt hours over a sustained period."
"It was all very steady and safe with no noise generated in the building."
"So it was all very positive with the initial analysis we did."
Simha LytheRao adds that the effects of having such an iconic building in Bahrain were varied.
"This building is being done in a place where fossil fuels are widely available and so there was no real need to develop a building like this for solely economic reasons."
"Also, the time is now when carbon emissions are at the forefront of everyone's thinking and the construction industry is one of the worst culprits in terms of generating emissions."
"So the time and the place are both right for all of this."
He adds that by carrying out tours of the building, this message was getting across to people.
"We're not showing the project as some sort of gimmick, particularly now as the turbines run."
"A lot of the initial questions about why we were doing it - like the lack of wind in Bahrain or fears over problems with vibrations, flicker and noise - have really been dispelled."
He adds that the building had a lot of visual symbolism, which was gaining attention across the world.
"Here you have a building which tells everyone that it is generating a substantial amount of its own power."
"It is telling people that it is an environmentally responsible building."
It means other developers may want to see themselves in the same way.
LytheRao says that the region's desire to build ambitious, groundbreaking and iconic buildings meant the BWTC was able to be constructed.
"We were able to make this statement here, rather than anywhere else."
"If you go the UK and other Western countries, planning regulations mean that trying to build buildings which push the limits may not be so feasible."
"Planning regulations over there prolong the whole process, whereas it's a lot more get-up-and-go over here."
And LytheRao believes the BWTC would help put Bahrain firmly on the map in terms of a modern, developed economy.
He says: "It was really good to be involved in a building which will help the country stand out."
"Bahrain has not had a huge amount of development, up until recently."
"So to be there, and to be designing one of the major buildings is a great feeling. You can talk about it with anyone in the industry and they will know the Bahrain World Trade Center."
"I dislike the word 'iconic', but it is one. It is a really positive building."
As to the challenges of the job, LytheRoa says the main one was its complexity.
"Aside from the turbines, it was one of the first high-rise buildings in Bahrain."
"The design itself was very complex, so we had to deal with it by treating it as a number of discrete tasks."
As well as building iconic new buildings, Bahrain's government is trying to install the infrastructure to cope with the burgeoning population.
Dominic McPolin, executive coordinator, Office of the Minister, Ministry of Works is in charge of overseeing this process.
He says that previously in the country there was fragmentation in building infrastructure, but this was slowly changing.
He adds that in other Middle East countries undergoing construction booms, including Dubai, there was a lack of integration.
His plan for the development of the country is to set up clear implementation processes.
He says that previously in Bahrain projects had been conducted in a detached way, meaning infrastructure was unable to cope.
But the National Plan aims to change this, by making sure any new project has the supporting utilities before it is finished.
Central to the government's aim of implementing the National Plan is a central planning unit (CPU).
The organisation has implemented a policy of integration, seeking to form bonds between government ministries, non-ministerial government bodies, developers, private utility companies, residents and other stakeholders.
McPolin says that because the island of Bahrain is so small, underground utilities networks are extremely densely laid out, especially electricity cables.
"You have a jet fuel line to the airport, gas lines to the power stations and electricity transmission from the power station. If someone gets out of place, he can black-out Bahrain for three months and you can kiss goodbye to your economy," says McPolin.
McPolin cites another example, in which a fibre-optic cable was severed after a dead tree was removed, which connected the banking centre to the satellite station.
It led to all banks having to stop trading for 48 hours.
Such a precarious situation means that the authorities take any unlicensed work very seriously. So much so that it is considered a national security issue.
Despite the vigilance in planning, the government has recently had to deal with another unforeseen factor - that of worker unrest.
Like other Gulf countries, most construction work is being undertaken by foreign labour, mostly from the Indian sub-continent.
Recently there have been a large number of high-profile strikes, bringing building work to a standstill.
In the latest incident, some 2,200 workers at four labour camps downed tools after being told they would receive a $26.4 monthly pay rise.
The Indian workers, who were employed by Dubai-based Al Hamad Construction and Development, had complained the pay rise was not enough to cope with the rising cost of living.
The labourers refused to report to work as required, but returned to work later in the day after the company agreed to increase their salaries by between 10-30 dinars, depending on the worker's grade.
The labourers had also refused to work on two separate occasions in August, saying their labour camp had been without water or electricity for over a month, and that conditions were poor.
The situation became so severe that in February the Indian government banned its unskilled workers from migrating to Bahrain, unless they were paid a minimum wage of $265 a month, in a bid to prevent exploitation.
The government refused to grant Bahrain work visas to unskilled Indian labourers, including construction workers, unless they had contracts confirming the minimum wage.
To appease the Indian government, in March the Bahraini government bought in a minimum wage for all unskilled expatriate workers.
As Bahrain oversees all aspects of its construction boom, there are clearly factors which cannot be controlled by a well-orchestrated plan.
But, if factors such as worker welfare and adequate infrastructure are invested in, the Bahrain of five years time will be totally different to that of today. The nation could be well on its way to becoming one of the most spectacular holiday destinations and industrious financial centres in the world.
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