Face to face: Fakher Al-Shawaf, Al Bawani

Saudi contractor Al Bawani makes the most of KSA's spending boom

Fakher Al Shawaf, Al Bawani
Fakher Al Shawaf, Al Bawani

Saudi Arabia’s relentless drive to upgrade its infrastructure has brought plenty of work to contractor Al Bawani, but as general manager Fakher Al-Shawaf explains, it is not without its challenges.

Fakher Al-Shawaf is all too aware of the difficulties that trying to upgrade infrastructure into a compact city such as Riyadh, whose roads were already packed before re-routing for the $23.5bn Riyadh Metro got underway.

Part of his interview with Construction Week took place in gridlocked streets in the capital, as he attempted to fight through heavy evening traffic, while also juggling a pair of mobile phones that carried on ringing even as midnight approached.

His firm had chosen not to bid for any of the Riyadh Metro projects, but like everyone else in the city, he remains an interested bystander.

“We were approached, but I said ‘it is not for now’. It’s better to be on the side, see how it is going on and to learn more,” he said.

He believes that a metro system for the city should have been developed much earlier than it was, as delays have made its delivery a more complicated affair.

“It’s very challenging for the consortiums, the ADA (client Arriyadh Development Authority)… for everyone.

“But in the end, you need it to be done. Prince Turki is doing his best as the governor of Riyadh and chairman of the ADA to co-ordinate. He’s pushing every department. Hopefully, we will see in three years’ time something running along the rails,” says Al-Shawaf.

His interest in the project is understandable. For a start, Al Bawani is working for ADA on several other projects across the Saudi capital.

“ADA is a unique organisation. They expect all of their jobs to be of a certain standard,” he says.

Al Bawani is also interested because it is looking to pick up a related project as part of the wider transport masterplan for the city, which includes linking the 83 metro stations to feeder and commuter buses.

“We’ve submitted our bid to ADA for the bus stations. To build bus stations at phase 3, with the line of the metro,” he says.

Perhaps more importantly, though, the company is targeting metro work elsewhere and has submitted a bid to build the proposed new system in Makkah.

“We are still waiting for the results of that,” he says. “More metro projects are coming along the way in Madinah, Dammam, in Jeddah.

“It’s a really big business in Saudi Arabia and hopefully that will be done successfully. To support the cities from overcrowding.”

Saudi Arabia’s burgeoning population – 65% of its citizens are under 25 – means that this, and other issues are having to be addressed, and Al Bawani is playing its part in attempting to come up with answers.

Unlike many of his counterparts, Al-Shawaf never left the Kingdom to study, instead completing his civil engineering course at King Saud University. Even during his degree course, he was working on projects in Riyadh.

“During my studies, I went to work training on some projects and I really enjoyed it. My mind was more on business than on school,” he said.

He joined his father in business at Al Bawani after graduating in 1997. At the time, the firm took on small projects as a main contractor and worked on larger schemes as a subcontractor to Dutch giant Ballast Needham. These included a military air base at Dhahran and a healthcare project in Riyadh on King Fahd Road.

“We learned from the Dutch company how to plan, be organised, use the best technologies, formwork, quality assurance and quality control,” he explains.

“This was a good start for me. I was thinking at that time about how to be specialist – like you have general practitioners, but then you have cardiac doctors, surgeons. You need specialisms.”

By 2000, the firm had grown to a size where it was handling much larger contracts on its own, but decided to continue catering for many of the same niches – healthcare, military and airport projects. The strategy has served it well.

To date, Al Bawani has completed more than 45 healthcare projects and is currently on site at the King Abdullah Cancer and Liver Disease Centre, which is being built at the new $900m King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre.

The 360-bed facility is on a 21-floor tower, 72,000m2 building that has been designed by US-based architecture firm Cannon Design alongside Saudi practice Dar Al Riyadh.

“It’s one of the most high-tech for cancer and liver [treatment] in the Middle East, using the best technology. We are very proud of it,” he says.

The firm is carrying out a total of $544m (SR2bn) of projects for the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre, and has more recently won a pair of contracts to build two, huge medical cities for the Ministry of Health in the cities of Al Jouf and Abha, which have a combined value of $2.75bn (SR10.3bn).

The King Faisal Medical City in Abha is a $1bn project of 2.8m ft2. It contains a 500-bed main hospital and a further 850 beds for specialist treatment, including oncology, neuroscience, a cardiac centre and a medical rehabilitation facility.

At Prince Mohammed Bin Abdulaziz City in Al Jouf, meanwhile, it will deliver a facility which will again have a 500-bed general hospital, but also a 500-bed specialist unit. Both hospitals will feature staff accommodation, administration blocks and all ancillary buildings.

“We have something like 200 specialist staff – from engineering, design, drawing, technical teams and management teams – only to execute hospital projects.”

In schools, too, it has been appointed onto a panel of contractors charged with delivering a $10.7bn school building and refurbishment programme by Tatweer Building Company (TBC) – an agency commissioned by the government to deliver around 1,000 new schools per year.

Al Bawani has picked up an initial $240m (SR900m) deal from TBC to build educational facilities in Riyadh, Jeddah and Makkah, but Al-Shawaf says the deal is extendable.

Initially, it will build 37 schools in Riyadh, which is aimed at getting the firm accustomed to implementing its standardised design and erection model so it can scale up delivery volumes.

“At the end of studying it with TBC we realised we can reach a maximum of 50 schools per year. If we reach this target, we are really doing an amazing job.”

It is also studying ways of creating modular housing to allow it to deliver huge volumes of homes over short timespans on government housing projects.

“A school or a house is not difficult. It’s not like a hospital. Doing one unit is easy. But doing hundreds is a problem.

“Logistics is one of the things that is most important, but don’t ignore the details – what type of building are you going to use? Are you going to use precast concrete or in-situ? What type of lifting are you going to use to erect these buildings as fast as you need? Sometimes you need to think in a different way.”

In terms of flagship projects, the company has completed a couple of key Riyadh schemes over the past 12 months and is delivering many more for Rayadh Investment Corporation – the government-backed investment body behind the capital’s King Abdullah Financial District (KAFD) and the Information Technology and Communications Complex (ITCC).

Al Bawani delivered 17 low-rise office buildings at the latter – a campus which is now home to companies such as Ericsson, Mobily and Saudi Business Machines. These were handed over in July 2014.

At KAFD, the financial district containing 59 towers and 33m ft2 of built-up space, Al Bawani completed a flagship mosque project designed by FX Fowle in the middle of last year, and it is currently onsite at the Financial Plaza – a structure linking the CMA Tower to be used by the Kingdom’s Capital Markets Authority with a group of four other towers taken up by key financial institutions. The plaza contains four basement levels and some grand steel structures above ground, and is due for completion in June.

Another KAFD project is a futuristic-looking science museum that will cost $373m (SAR1.4bn) to build. It has been designed by the district’s masterplanner, Danish architecture practice Henning Larsen. Al-Shawaf describes it as “one of the most advanced museums in the world”.

“It’s a very, very beautiful museum. You see the history of Saudi Arabia, all of the earthquakes, volcanoes. We started working on this project five months ago. It’s expected to hand over in 2016.”

Al-Shawaf says the Saudi government’s drive to create financial cities like KAFD and economic cities like the mammoth King Abdullah Economic City in Rabigh give local firms the chance to work on increasingly sophisticated projects, either under their own programmes or in joint ventures with international firms.

It is currently delivering an Institute of Diplomatic Studies and Consular Affairs – also designed by Henning Larsen – within the Diplomatic Quarter next to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The 54,000m2 building contains an institute with auditoriums, large lecture halls and a consulate.

It is also keen to work on other forthcoming projects in the area, including a massive Celebration Hall being built for VIPs and a $1.9bn (SAR7bn) general court building.

Al-Shawaf explains that the firm has already built embassies and consulates for overseas governments both in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, and is currently completing a 150,000ft2 headquarters for Arabsat in the Diplomatic Quarter.

Overall, the firm’s backlog has increased from $1.33bn (SR5bn) at the end of 2013 to almost $4bn by the end of last year. Employee numbers are also set to swell, from a current base of 4,000 to over 10,000 by the end of this year, Al-Shawaf says. The company currently has a turnover of around $532m (SAR2bn).

“We’re selective of clients, projects and partners,” he says. “We’re not really after just big jobs – I want steady and stable contracts. To build step-by-step.”

In terms of future plans, Al Bawani has set up joint ventures with a Portuguese water treatment company and German facilities management giant Dussman to target work in both fields.

“Now the Saudi market is booming and the government has been injecting hundreds of millions in riyals every year for the past few years, attracting all of the international firms.”

He said that the firm had already bid for work with a number of major international players, including France’s Vinci, Spain’s FCC and Turkey’s Yuksel. As with its early collaboration with Ballast Needham, Al-Shawaf believes these partnerships are a good thing.

“We give them local and logistics experience and get international experience from them.”

He said Saudi firms “cannot ignore” the experience brought to the country by the likes of Vinci, which has operations in over 100 countries.

“It’s our time to work hard in this age. Everywhere is booming and there are a lot of international companies from all over the world. This makes me interested to know more people. With our experience, we share and learn from each other, tomorrow we can use this outside Saudi Arabia.

“That is what I am dreaming – that Saudi contractors will compete in other countries in a fair way.”

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