KSA's construction challenges

While living in Saudi Arabia, I often took the short walk to work before the sun got too high in the morning.

Saudi Arabian Government, COMMENT, Projects

While living in Saudi Arabia, I often took the short walk to work before the sun got too high in the morning.

Along the way, I observed daily a cluster of new villas under construction.

Even as a casual observer, one couldn't help notice the rickety scaffolding, lack of safety equipment for workers and the excessive fill and patch when things didn't fit right.

When completed, these villas looked stunning, but I wondered what kind of damage a small earthquake or one of Jeddah's heavy January rains would do to these structures.

I considered this the other day when Corp Executive Hotels announced plans to build five luxury hotels in Riyadh, Al Khobar, Jeddah, Dammam and Al Hasa. The company is anticipating the demand for these hotels as Saudi Arabia begins a campaign to attract tourists to the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia is attempting to wean itself off oil revenue by diversifying its economy. Saudis are building six economic cities and the ambitious King Abdullah University of Science and Technology.

They want to attract more business investors and are developing plans to allow non-Muslim tourists to visit historic sites. The government applied for UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) World Heritage status for Jeddah as the city's historic sites are being renovated.

While these large-scale projects might make Saudi Arabia an international tourist destination, the country faces huge obstacles in adhering to construction quality standards and building safety.

Saudis have signed a memorandum of understanding with the International Code Council to use International Codes (I-Codes) as the basis for a new Saudi building code.

But signing an MOU and actually following established standards are two different things. Contractors and onsite project managers ruthlessly cut corners to ensure that projects are completed on time and within budget.

If that means skimping on worker safety or building structures using cheaper materials, well, so be it.

Consider a study commissioned for the Ali A Tamani Company on construction safety in Saudi Arabia. The study found that one-quarter of all contractors did not provide workers with safety orientation, protective equipment or first aid kits on construction sites.

And in 2005, 493 workers were killed and more than 100,000 injured on Saudi construction sites. In contrast, only 28 deaths and 3,760 injuries were recorded in the United Kingdom during the same year.

Also consider Jeddah's notoriously poor infrastructure of exposed electrical wiring, dilapidated pedestrian bridges and crumbling sidewalks. Heavy rains during the winter make the city a virtual swampland.

Saudi Arabia is poised to do great things and its eagerness to invite tourists from non-Muslim countries is an indication that it's ready to open Saudi society to the West. Building five-star hotels and the economic cities and new universities are bold moves.

But with this new vision comes a responsibility to provide quality structures that stand the test of time and a safe environment for its expatriate workers.

Rob Wagner is the editor of Construction Week.

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