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Interview: Riad Nashif, Aecom Middle East

Riad Nashif, Aecom’s managing director in the UAE and executive vice president in the Middle East, looks back at half a century of activity in the Emirates, and explains how the consultancy is preparing for the next 50 years

Riad Nashif, Aecom’s managing director in the UAE and executive vice president in the Middle East.
Riad Nashif, Aecom’s managing director in the UAE and executive vice president in the Middle East.

When Aecom landed on the shores of Abu Dhabi in 1965, the seven Emirates had yet to be united. In the form of legacy outfit, Cansult, the firm was quickly enlisted to support the construction of Abu Dhabi’s first international airport (then named Al Bateen Executive Airport) and Maqta Bridge. From the beginning, it was tasked with helping the then-independent state to build connections across the Emirates and beyond.

Riad Nashif is not old enough to remember the company’s initial foray into Abu Dhabi; he joined the company in 1988 as an assistant resident engineer. Nevertheless, as executive vice president of Aecom in the Middle East, and managing director for its operations in the UAE and Oman, he is acutely aware of Aecom’s heritage in the region.

“Aecom entered this market through a group of Canadian businessmen who came to explore the Gulf,” he begins. “At that time, it wasn’t the UAE; there were seven, independent Emirates. After landing in Abu Dhabi, my predecessors met the ruler, who was looking to strengthen his country’s transport infrastructure and global connections. That’s how Aecom came to sign the contracts for Maqta Bridge, which connected Abu Dhabi with the mainland and the other Emirates, and Al Bateen Executive Airport, which linked it to the rest of the world.”

Half a century later, the scope of Aecom’s UAE operations has grown, but the consultancy has retained strong links with its infrastructure past. It is currently working on Abu Dhabi International Airport’s Midfield Terminal Complex (MTC), and Jebel Ali Sewage Treatment Plant. Last year, it completed an eight-year contract for all infrastructure works at Al Raha Beach.

“The relationships that those businessmen established with Abu Dhabi’s ruling family in the 1960s laid the foundations for the success that the company has enjoyed ever since,” Nashif continues. “The Emirate’s leaders wanted to modernise their country, but there were no international consultancies with the required skills and experience in this part of the world at that time. From building an airport and a bridge, Aecom moved into land reclamation. It then expanded from the protection of beaches and cities, and the construction of breakwaters, into general infrastructure, planning, project management and buildings.”

Aecom has dramatically grown over the 50 years both organically and through a series of mergers and acquisitions, notably Maunsell, DMJM, Frederick Harris, EDAW, Ellerbe Becket, Metcalf & Eddy, Davis Langdon and URS. Nashif adds: “The company opened its first office in Dubai in 1976, and quickly became engaged in key infrastructure projects from roads and interchanges to sewage and drainage.”

Today, Aecom is considered amongst the UAE’s leading professional technical services providers, but that’s not to say that it has limited its activities to just one sector. As Nashif points out, the consultancy is now able to turn its hand to “anything and everything”. In the 1990s, he recalls being given the opportunity to expand into additional sectors with a mandate to grow the firm’s buildings and project management practices. He and his colleagues immediately set about targeting – and succeeded in securing – a selection of the UAE’s most iconic projects.

“We embarked on a 10-year programme with Etisalat to provide design and supervision services for their buildings across the UAE. These were the first ‘smart buildings’ in the region, and continue to stand out across the UAE. Immediately thereafter we won the contract for the Abu Dhabi Trade Center, which included the complex’s mall, hotel, and residential towers,” Nashif recounts. “It was commissioned in the mid-1990s, and our scope of work extended from project, construction, and design management through to design review. At that time, this was the largest project in the Middle East, costing just over $540m (AED2bn). Following our success with the Etisalat buildings programme and the Abu Dhabi Trade Center, we placed ourselves at the forefront of project management and the buildings sector.”

Aecom’s thirst for sectors new hasn’t been quenched in the intervening years. Not content to rest on their laurels, Nashif tells Construction Week that he and his colleagues are constantly on the lookout for fresh and challenging opportunities.

“We have identified a number of segments in which demand is growing,” he says. “We have made strong inroads into the fields of sustainability and waste management, for example. Some may view these as small businesses, but they are important and strategic in nature, especially since such areas are becoming increasingly regulated. Decrees are being issued to govern sustainability and waste management, and to encourage consistency across the region’s projects.

“On a wider geographic scale, Aecom is continuing to develop its design-build-finance-operate (DBFO) model. The company has adopted DBFO as its vision and strategy at a global level. We are committed to offering services from A to Z; not just from design to project management.”

Aecom is not yet ready to unveil its first DBFO project in the UAE, but Nashif hints that the wheels are already in motion. “We are just getting started”, he says, adding that the concept is actually an extension of the consultancy’s long-standing ambition to cater to all of its customers’ requirements and aspirations.

“We pride ourselves on providing integrated service offerings,” he continues, emphasising that clients shouldn’t have to look beyond the Aecom stable to meet their needs. “We want to maintain our existing leadership position in the UAE market, and improve in other areas to become number one in all sectors of our business,” he explains.

Though the ever-expanding breadth of Aecom’s service offering has played a significant role in its UAE growth over the past 50 years, for Nashif, there are a number of other similarly important – yet non-commercial – factors to consider. Corporate social responsibility (CSR), he explains, represents a cornerstone of the company’s UAE presence, and will continue to contribute to the firm’s ongoing success.

“It has been a key part of our business for many years, and it is an area on which we will focus even more in the future,” he says. “Aecom has been in the UAE for 50 years, contributing to the country’s success and development. We want to deliver social benefits that will last for years to come. This is high on our agenda; it’s not just about providing technical services for a fee.

“CSR can come from simple activities, such as contributing to local charities. It’s something that should benefit the community at large, but also our own employees. Staff members want to see their employer give something back to society. CSR benefits society, it boosts workforce morale, and it elevates our brand reputation in the market.”

Nashif revealed that Aecom Middle East has been selected, based on an entry from Aecom in the UAE, as the winner of the Golden Shield for social responsibility in the Arab World in recognition of its contribution to the local society. The award ceremony will be held in Jordan in late October.

This philosophy, Nashif continues, extends back into the professional realm. Aecom is committed to sharing its knowledge across the UAE’s construction sector – a strategy that might not always add to the firm’s bottom line, but which serves to advance the industry more generally. Nashif offers building information modelling (BIM) as an example, outlining how Aecom has helped both governmental and semi-governmental clients to develop their capabilities. “This is of no commercial benefit to us in the short term, but it benefits the industry as a whole and has far-reaching and long-term effects,” he explains.

Essentially, almost all aspects of the firm’s UAE business – from the contracts it pursues to the services it provides – are informed by one underlying factor. Cost may represent a perennial concern for consultants and clients alike, but Aecom’s priority has always been value.

“Whether in the public or the private domain, we want to work with clients that appreciate the value of our services, rather than those that are purely driven by cost. Aecom understands that cost is important, but value remains our primary focus. This is reflected in DBFO, a strategy which lends itself to large-scale, long-term, infrastructure projects rather than commercially-minded, short-term developments.

“The contracts we target do not tend to be driven by capital investment alone; rather by service to the community and stimuli for the economy. There is a big difference between these drivers,” Nashif points out.

And perhaps this, more than anything else, is the secret behind the consultancy’s longevity in the UAE. Though its scope of activities has expanded significantly during the past half-century, the firm hasn’t lost touch with the foundations upon which its subsequent success has been built. Nashif and his colleagues will no doubt continue to broaden their horizons, but their focus on value looks set to stay the course. So too does Aecom.

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