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Contractors can boost UAE's social infrastructure

Social infrastructure construction is on the rise in the GCC, but the industry must collaborate to achieve long-term results, according to experts

SPECIAL REPORTS, Projects, Contractor, Contractors, Infrastructure, Social infrastructure, Uae, United Arab Emirates

Last week, the UAE’s Tilal Properties revealed that its $653.4m (AED2.4bn) master development in Sharjah comprises space for the development of six community mosques.

Tilal City’s six mosques will have a combined capacity of 4,100 worshippers, and are likely to accommodate residents from within the development as well as neighbouring areas. The two Jami at Tilal City collectively accommodate more than 1,700 worshippers.

Remarking on the scope for mosque construction in the development, Haysam Jazairi, business development executive director at Tilal Properties, said: “Tilal City has been designed and planned for the development of sustainable communities, and it therefore includes adequate prayer facilities for the community.

“The mosques will also include dedicated praying areas for women. In addition to mosques, we have been keen to ensure the provision of comprehensive community facilities and infrastructure.

“We are confident that the overall strategic master plan will ensure a huge demand – both rental and sale – delivering high returns to land investors in Tilal City.”

Tilal Properties’ mandate for mosque development appears to follow an emerging trend in the UAE’s property market – one that places increased emphasis on social infrastructure components, such as schools, hospitals, and prayer facilities.

A key factor driving this change is the growth of master-planned communities in the country, notable examples of which are Abu Dhabi’s Al Raha Beach and Dubai’s Akoya projects.

The UAE’s commercial real estate is steadily growing on the back of advancements in its free zone property sector, and residential developers appear keen to replicate the formula.

Abu Dhabi and Dubai’s urban designs, however, are not identical, as one might assume of cities situated within two hours’ distance of each other. As Mohamed Al Khadar, executive director of Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council’s (Abu Dhabi UPC) Urban Development and Estidama Sector, explains, Abu Dhabi is “trying to spread out” its infrastructure services.

“The approach is different,” he tells Construction Week.

“Dubai has a concept where certain activities are located in certain areas, whereas Abu Dhabi – with the exception of industrial zones – is trying to spread its infrastructure.”

Here, Al Khadar is referring to the ‘clusters’ Dubai has gained prominence for in the last decade, such as Dubai Healthcare City, Dubai International Academic City, and Knowledge Village. Replicating this model in Abu Dhabi would boil down to two key factors, he says.

“It’s all about good timing and the location. In some ways, I see Abu Dhabi is already [implementing] this model.

“For example, look at Al Maryah Island. Al Maryah is unique – it has clinics, homes, a financial centre, a hotel, and a mall. So the master concept is visible in Abu Dhabi, but it is perhaps on a smaller scale, rather than being [confined] to one area.”

Al Khadar says master plans such as those of Saadiyat Island or Al Maryah Island are part of Abu Dhabi UPC’s plans to follow a fixed and uniform formula for city development.

He explains: “We have a fixed formula about the trigger of a community’s facility. This includes, for example, where you need mosques, schools, or retail services.”

Understanding the factors that contribute to the need for these facilities – and when they could be ‘triggered’ – forms a key part of Abu Dhabi UPC’s mandate for development across the capital. This has resulted in a “unique” urban design model for the emirate, Al Khadar says.

That is not to say Dubai’s cluster design for social infrastructure development is any less sophisticated than its neighbour’s. Indeed, the development of hubs such as Dubai Healthcare City – which boasted 96% occupancy in its main buildings at the H1 2015 mark – has propelled the boom of specialised construction in the city.

Dr Tarek Fathey, chief operating officer at Mediclinic Middle East, says the UAE’s “well-defined” construction legislation benefits its operations in the country.

“In terms of permits, the system here is very well defined and clear about what the [development] process is,” Dr Fathey tells Construction Week.

“It might take time on some rare occasions, but at the end of the day you’re guaranteed that you won’t have any surprises halfway through the project. As operators, that’s something we appreciate.”

Mediclinic is a listed hospital group, and its Middle East footprint is best visible across the UAE, with facilities in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, and Al Ain. The company recently broke ground on the Mediclinic Parkview Hospital, a 150-bed project in Dubai. All of the company’s projects, Dr Fathey says, are planned in collaboration with local municipal bodies, and on the basis of market studies.

As an example, Dr Fathey outlines how Mediclinic plans its UAE facilities’ ingress and egress points: “This is developed with relevant authorities as a part of the approval process.

“In Dubai, we work with the Roads and Transport Authority, and in the capital, with Abu Dhabi UPC, which carries out a traffic impact study. This must be undertaken through consultants to ensure the project’s supporting infrastructure is up to standard.”

Contractors for Mediclinic’s projects are picked after being prequalified and interviewed, and this process involves the project’s consultants and managers.

“We normally prefer companies that are experienced in healthcare. “A hospital’s mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) system will typically be unique, which makes it better to [work with] an experienced contractor,” Dr Fathey adds.

Evie Boustantzi, general manager for Al Shirawi Contracting Company’s interiors division, ESG Group, and Al Shirawi FM, agrees with Dr Fathey’s views. Al Shirawi’s portfolio includes the UAE’s Medcare, Welcare, and Al Noor hospitals, as well as Al Ain University, American School of Dubai, and Dubai College. Boustantzi believes value engineering is the way forward for the region’s social infrastructure contracting sector.

“Tightened liquidity as a result of low oil prices has forced GCC governments to revisit their budget allocation and spending plans,” she tells Construction Week.

“At the same time, [the need for] social infrastructure developments is on the rise due to rising populations, and due to the solid drive to improve the quality of life of residents – especially in the UAE. Meeting the latter need with funding limitations demands a much more creative approach to project funding and delivery.

“There is a need for adoption of the appropriate procurement method and process; value engineering and innovative solutions; and efficient execution in order to drive the overall costs down. As the ultimate purpose is to develop as much as possible with the limited resources available, the whole process is lengthier and much more effort consuming,” she adds.

Boustantzi believes contractor relationships will shape the GCC’s social infrastructure building sector in the future.

She concludes: “Main contractors need to have strong relationships with quality sub-contractors, [as they] will enable open exchange of knowledge for long-term and mutual benefits. As costs rise sharply, strong relationships matter.”

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