Site Visit: Noor Al Deen Al Salmi Mosque, Oman

ALEMCO gives a tour of some of the small to medium-size projects

ANALYSIS, Site Visits, Business, Noor Al Deen Al Salmi Mosque

ALEMCO gives a tour of some of the small to medium-size projects it has taken on in Oman before launching a full-scale assault on the Sultanate’s contracting market

In Muscat’s Al Khuwair district, the construction of what will undoubtedly be a pretty but fairly unimposing mosque is fast approaching completion. Fitted snugly in its plot among the type of low-rise residential sprawl that is characteristic of Muscat, the project is a lively scene of a few dozen workers busying themselves with various tasks at various heights on the matrix of scaffolding assembled both inside and out.

In a GCC construction market of Burj Khalifas and Jeddah Airports, it is relatively unremarkable work – but for at least one of the parties working on the project, it is just the kind of project they needed.

MEP contractor ALEMCO entered the Omani market in 2012, following in the footsteps of its parent company ALEC, which had set up in the country a year before and which happens to be the main contractor on the Noor Al Deen Al Salmi Mosque project. The $1.2m (OMR 0.5m) MEP contract on the mosque, signed in April 2013, is one of a clutch of small to medium-size projects the MEP contractor has taken on in Oman in an attempt to ease itself into the market and avoid the pitfalls of contractor overreach.

Looking back at ALEMCO’s experience in delivering the mosque, the company’s general manager in Oman, Steven Little, says it was the right approach.

“The strategy in taking the mosque project was based on the fact that we hadn’t actually had a building project [in Oman],” says Little. “Had we taken an incredibly large project, we could have quite possibly lost our shirts. It gave us a good understanding of how the market worked and the support we would get from the market… We found the market quite resistant when we first started on the mosque, but now we’re finding it a lot more amenable.”

“In the UAE we’re a very big player in the MEP market,” he adds. “Down here we were a relatively unknown entity, so we’ve had to start from absolute scratch, right down to payment terms with suppliers. We’ve even had to utilise suppliers out of the UAE to bolster our work here [in Oman].”

This initially difficult operating climate was further complicated by limited access to skilled labour. Little says that getting clearance to bring labour into Oman can take some time and securing the requisite number of visas can also prove challenging. This situation is exacerbated by the standard of labour available in Oman itself, he adds.

“The sub-contractor pool of labour in Oman is very thin and the ones that are available don’t have the necessary skillset. In the UAE, if you need 200 electricians you can pick up the phone and within a week you can have those 200 electricians on site, of which 60% are skilled. Here it would take you a lot longer and significantly fewer would be skilled. I wouldn’t say it was something we overlooked, but we didn’t expect the gap to be so big.”
While this challenge is now something for which the company is much better prepared, it had initially hindered progress on the mosque and ALEMCO’s other projects in Oman.

“[Due to these difficulties], the mosque project was running a bit behind schedule in the beginning as we were a little bit slower off the mark than we would have traditionally been. Had we had a big project, that delay would have been too big to pull back,” Little says.

Despite these early resource hiccups, ALEMCO was eventually able to muster 80 men at peak on the Noor Al Deen Al Salmi Mosque job, which has helped bring the project back on schedule and looking likely to meet its October deadline. The mosque now stands at around 70 to 80% completion, with the MEP project “bar one or two areas, complete on the second fix,” Little says.

“We’re just waiting on the ID [interior design] package to be installed and then we can work on the final fix items,” he adds.

Beyond the logistical challenges of establishing a reliable supply chain and accessing sufficient labour resources, the engineering on the mosque has thrown up the odd difficulty here and there, but nothing significant enough to affect the delivery schedule.

“The hardest part was probably the HVAC because you have a triple volume worship area,” explains Little. “The heat load gains are slightly different from what you would normally have; you can’t really define them. Issues such as open doors and the number of people in there at any given time are quite tricky. We’ve worked closely with the consultants [Hoehler + Partner] to establish what the cooling requirements would be.”

“There was also a big change to the standard gases from when we initially started,” he continues. “There was a decision to make the HVAC system more environmentally friendly and they changed it to ‘green’ gases, so we then had to rework the system.”

The Noor Al Deen Al Salmi Mosque is just one of eight projects ALEMCO has taken on since its arrival in Oman, with two of these having been completed. Little explains that almost all of these contracts have been in the $1.4m (OMR 0.5m) to $2.8m (OMR 1m) range; just “small enough to resource out quickly and test the market”. The contractors’ Omani order book to date stands at around $9m (OMR 3.5m), with only 20% of this business having come from its parent company ALEC and the rest having been secured from other sources.

Key among these has been Petroleum Development Oman (PDO), which Little says ALEMCO set out to target when it first arrived in the country and from which it has since secured three projects. Working alongside Carillion, it is currently delivering a facilities maintenance contract for PDO as well as a design and build project for a 600-person temporary office block. However, both these awards stemmed from the contractor’s work on a golf course project for the partly government owned Omani company.

“On the golf course we were hired by Musco to do the installation and erection of all the floodlighting, including the connection to the feeder pillars and from the substation down to the feeder pillars,” Little explains.

“The golf course has taken us six months to complete; we’re just finishing the driving range. About two months into doing the golf course we were approached by PDO, under Proscapes, to design and build the maintenance shed, the pump house and the halfway house [at the golf course]. We undertook that with ALEC as a joint venture. We’re just about to hand those over; they’ve given us a couple of variations that we’re just clearing up at the moment. That was our stepping stone into PDO. ”

This key relationship with a powerful and influential Omani institution is not the only one ALEMCO has aimed to foster in its approach to the market. The contractor is also in the process of finalising a deal with one of the country’s most successful conglomerates, Alawi Enterprises. This will see the Alawi’s construction interests (namely Carillion Alawi) merged with ALEMCO’s MEP expertise – and the company’s Oman division become Alemco Zawawi.

”We approached them and they were incredibly welcoming,” says Little. “It was something they were looking for to complement their group of businesses, so the timing was right. The merger hasn’t gone as quickly as what we’d anticipated due to numerous administrative glitches, but we’re getting there. I’m hoping that in the next month to two months these will be sorted out and we’ll be fully operational.”

Once the deal is in place, Little says that Alemco Zawawi should be able to attack the market with a lot more freedom and confidence. By the end of 2016, the company is aiming for an order book figure that would make it one of the leading MEP contractors in the country.

Already, the company is putting the plans in place that will help it reach this target. With sufficient market knowledge having been gleaned from its array of small to medium sized projects, Little says that the company is now fully prepared to tackle something bigger.

“We’ve priced a regional airport and we’re currently looking at the Oman Convention Centre where there are four-star and five-star hotel projects coming up. We’re hoping to secure at least one of these projects.”

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