Face to face: Ghassan Aouad, CIOB

The Chartered Institute of Building's first president from the Middle East wants the organisation to have a stronger presence in the region

Ghassan Aouad, CIOB
Ghassan Aouad, CIOB

Ghassan Aouad, the first president of the 180 year-old Chartered Institute of Building to be based in the Middle East, is now two-thirds of the way through his brief, one-year tenure and acknowledges that there is still plenty that he wants to do.

Aouad, who became president at an AGM which was held in Qatar last July, is still trying to grow awareness of an organisation in which he has spent decades as a member in a region where there is no shortage of construction professionals.

For instance, he met Construction Week after a long day in Dubai which involved meetings trying to arrange a CIOB event in Bahrain, where he is also president of the Applied Science University.

He is also trying to arrange an event for built environment and construction management academics in Manchester in May to “engage the academic community with our institute to make them more aware of what we are doing”.

“The student community is really important for us – to have student members,” he says. “We want to make a difference with the next generation.”

Perhaps his most important task, though, is finishing its global growth strategy, for which the Middle East is clearly a key priority. The Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB), which was initially founded in London in 1834 as the Builders’ Society, is currently a worldwide organisation with 45,000 members.

CIOB is a charitable body with a royal charter whose purpose is to promote higher standards in construction management. It has eight international branches, including a Middle East operation based in Dubai. Its membership in the region is growing – it currently stands at 850 regional members, up from around 500 three years ago, but it is not as well-established in the region as other industry bodies.

The Institute of Civil Engineers, for instance, claims 1,800 members across the GCC, and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors has a regional membership of around 3,100.

CIOB’s annual accounts for 2013 show that it secured revenues of around $16m last year, and that $10.7m of this came from member subscriptions of this, around $9.2m was generated from UK subscriptions and $1.5m from overseas members.

“We’re going to work hard on our global growth strategy over the next few months,” Aouad says. “It should be ready before I hand my presidency to somebody else.”

Aouad says he is proud to be the organisation’s first president to hail from the Middle East.

“I want to make sure that this region is benefiting from my presence in the Middle East to generate more activities,” he says.

“I’m really pleased with the progress we have made in the Middle East. We have increased membership and we have hosted, for the first time ever, graduation ceremonies for our members and fellows recently. I think there are plenty of opportunities for the CIOB and for British firms in the region.” He argues that CIOB can “easily” double its local membership.

“It’s just [a matter of] exposing what CIOB can do for them. This is what we have been doing for the last three years, and this is why we have seen this increase in membership. The region is booming in terms of construction activities and our institute can play a major role in promoting professionalism and good practice, training, CPD courses, etc.”

His elevation to the role – which is a voluntary one – was a planned process, with CIOB presidents generally serving as vice-president and then senior vice-president before taking over the top role. As a result, the organisation was able to plan his accession, and to host the AGM at which he was voted into the post in Qatar.
Alongside this, it planned a week-long series of events including its Global Members’ Forum.

“We had a conference, which was mainly about construction workers in Qatar and their issues,” Aouad says.
“We hosted an event with Amnesty International and we had all sorts of activities relating to the institute.”

Aouad has made leadership a key theme of his year in the president’s chair, and the event with the human rights organisation in Qatar is one example of this. As an industry body, CIOB’s role is to promote best practice, which includes liasing.

with governments about the benefits of making sure that the firms employed on flagship projects have some kind of chartered or professional status to accompany academic qualifications.

So good governmental relationships are important, but so are its leadership credentials and sometimes this means sparking debates that cause controversy if it feels there are international standards that need to be upheld.

“We have been covering topics relating to the state of construction workers in the region and how we can help governments to improve their situation. We have made some really good progress in that area,”
he says.

It takes the same approach in its home market. It completed a major survey in 2013 on corruption in the UK’s construction industry which found that almost half (49%) of respondents believed it was commonplace within the sector. The figure was largely unchanged from an earlier survey in 2006, despite the fact that the UK had toughened up anti-bribery laws in the intervening period.

“We have covered really sensitive issues in the past and people are aware of what we are doing. We try not to scapegoat. We say, ‘there is a problem, let’s put in an action plan and see how we can help resolve it’.

“Corruption is a global phenomenon. I think it is not that big a problem in this part of the world. But it’s happening everywhere in the West and the East. I’m sure that professional companies want to tackle this and what we have done is created [an] impact in the UK and beyond.

“I think what I like about the institute is that it is brave enough to tackle issues which some people may have shied away from in the past,” he says.

“What’s really important is leadership. If you can provide the right leadership within your professional body or your industry, the rest of the problems will disappear. Understanding of problems and resolving them becomes easier.”

He says that he takes great pride in being president of the organisation because it tries to promote a culture of “strong leadership, professionalism, ethics and values”.

“It’s an institute that is trying to help our industry. We want to make a difference and we feel that we are.”

Another issue he wants to address before stepping down from his role in July is the provision of a greater variety of professional construction disciplines in the region. Currently, there are universities that run construction management courses in the Gulf, but these are at masters’ level rather than undergraduate courses.

“It’s not a specialist subject. Many people will do a module as part of a civil engineering course, which is still the main one that most people will do,” he says. “There is a recognition, though, and it is getting better – a few years back you couldn’t do quantity surveying or facilities management [as a degree course].”

He says the CIOB is willing to help academic bodies in creating courses, particularly as it already accredits some courses and provides CPD training.

“It’s important for us to diversify,” he says, talking about its range of activities, but he also believes that it should spread its wings geographically – targeting territories such as Egypt, Jordan and his home country of Lebanon.

“In July, I will hand the presidency to someone else and become a past president, but my passion for CIOB – I am a fellow already – will be the same. I will be doing more work in the region for CIOB even when I complete my term of office.”

Ultimately, he says the long-term goals of the institute in the Middle East should be to grow its own membership and to create opportunities for UK-based firms in what he believes will continue to be a rapidly-growing market in spite of falling government revenues as oil prices slip.

“There will be some side effect – I’m sure that it is going to be short term. In the long term, you are still looking at booming economies and plenty of money to invest in the construction sector.”

He adds that as construction giants from around the world attempt to take a slice of this market, many British firms have the advantage of an established presence in the region and a strong track record. A recent CIOB report stated that in 2012, the UK exported around $2.3bn of construction services, $526m of architectural services, $310m of surveying services and $9bn of engineering services – a big slice of which was likely to be related to built environment projects.

Aouad said the main advantages UK firms offer are “our work ethic and professionalism”.

“Technical competence you can build with time, but it’s your track record in terms of being professional and being ethical about your work [that counts]. We see the CIOB as a body which can bring these companies together.”

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