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Face to Face: David Welch, Bechtel

David Welch, EMEA president of Bechtel, says he is optimistic about the GCC construction sector’s growth prospects, despite current challenges within the market

David Welch, EMEA president of Bechtel.
David Welch, EMEA president of Bechtel.

The Middle East is a competitive market, and the GCC is the centrepiece of our activities,” begins David Welch, Bechtel’s Europe, Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) president. In truth, this is hardly surprising; the contracting giant established a centre of excellence in Dubai, UAE in 2013, with the intention of securing construction work in the fields of natural resources, rail, and ports.

But even with this knowledge hub, heading the regional division of one of the world’s largest contracting outfits is no mean feat.

Four verticals comprise Bechtel’s global operations: infrastructure; nuclear, security, and environmental; oil and gas; and mining and metals. The contractor’s historic headquarters are situated in the West Coast US city of San Francisco, whilst many corporate functions are conducted from its base in Virginia. Bechtel’s divisional headquarters for oil and gas are based in Houston, US, and for infrastructure, in London, UK. Responsibility for mining and minerals is shared between Santiago, Chile, and Brisbane, Australia.

Bechtel currently employs 53,000 people worldwide, and has been active in the Middle East for more than 70 years – initially working in Saudi Arabia on oil and gas and railroad projects. The firm began its UAE activities in the 1960s with Abu Dhabi’s Murban oilfield.

Today, the firm’s EMEA division employs thousands of people, and in recent years, it has worked on some of the region’s largest projects. These include – but are not limited to – Oman’s Muscat International Airport, Qatar’s Hamad International Airport, Saudi Arabia’s Jubail Industrial City, and most recently, Riyadh Metro.

In 2012, Bechtel completed the $7.2bn (AED19.6bn) Khalifa Port and Industrial Zone in Abu Dhabi, UAE. The company was also responsible for construction of the world’s largest greenfield aluminium smelter, Ras Al Khair, on behalf of the Ma’aden Alcoa joint venture (JV) in Saudi Arabia.

In 2014, Bechtel completed its work as main contractor on the Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar. Operations at the airport commenced in May of the same year, and it has since established itself as one of the GCC’s most important transport hubs. “It is in full operation now, and adding to the rapidly increasing global aviation market,” notes Welch.

Encouragingly, the firm has maintained its high levels of activity within the field of GCC transport infrastructure. A Bechtel-led consortium is currently working on the construction of a new terminal at Muscat International Airport – the contract for which was awarded in 2011. Due to be handed over later this year, the structure was commissioned as part of a $1.8bn (OMR693m) upgrade of the Sultanate’s main airport.

When questioned about the project, Welch offers a somewhat understated description: “it’s large”. He continues: “We have overcome all of the challenges associated with the project, and we have made good progress.”

Broadening his focus to the wider region, Welch adds: “In the Middle East, our business goes up and down due to the volatile market conditions, but still, we don’t measure our performance by market share. We are aware that the Middle East is a good place for business, and expect to [continue with] our volume of work.”

The Bechtel chief may be reluctant to chase market share, but make no mistake; the contractor boasts a sizeable project pipeline in the EMEA region. “We have our portfolio of work in Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Egypt,” explains Welch. “In late 2014, we also began work on a number of important projects in Abu Dhabi, UAE.”

Bechtel’s involvement with the Kingdom’s Riyadh Metro represents a significant feather in the contractor’s cap. Not only is the $23bn (SAR84.5bn)development Saudi Arabia’s first subterranean rail system; it is also the largest under-construction mass transit system in the world. With operations slated to commence in 2019, the 176km-long, six-line driverless network will serve 400,000 passengers in the country’s capital.

The Bechtel-led BACS consortium began tunnelling on Line 1 in July 2015. The team – which also includes Almabani General Contractors, Consolidated Contractors Company (CCC), and Siemens – is responsible for a $10bn (SAR37.5bn) contract that includes design, construction, train cars, signalling, electrification, and integration of Lines 1 and 2. Seven tunnel-boring machines (TBMs) are being used for this portion of the track, and construction is expected to end by mid-2016.

“It’s proceeding well and construction is in full swing,” notes Welch. “The [overall project] will take five years from inception. It is scheduled to reach its conclusion in 2018.

“It’s a big project,” he continues. “A lot of changes have been incorporated, especially regarding the types of stations that the metro [will] have. It is an iconic project, designed by internationally renowned [companies] from around the world.”

But current megaprojects aside, will Bechtel be able to maintain its busy GCC schedule in the longer term? Despite the low oil price and fluctuating commodities, Welch is confident that the region will continue to witness growth.
“Our focus in the future will be on infrastructure, oil and gas, and mining and metals,” he explains. “We are a global business unit, and despite the challenges in the market, it still throws plenty of good opportunities.

“The economic environment will improve, and we will continue our promising market growth in the future,” Welch concludes.

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