Experts discuss social infrastructure in the Gulf

Regional experts reveal that the gap between the public- and private-sector development of social infrastructure is narrowing, as Jochebed Menon reports

King’s College Hospital, London, Dubai will open in 2018.
King’s College Hospital, London, Dubai will open in 2018.

Infrastructure projects in the GCC continue to witness unparalleled investment, as government expenditure is expected to hit $288bn by 2020, despite the slump in oil prices, according to project tracker, Ventures Onsite.

The countries of the GCC are each following an established national vision to diversify their economic base, according to Michael Connor, associate director at Faithful+Gould.

He explains: “The link between their targeted economic sustainability and the need for investment in education, healthcare, law and order, culture, and recreational facilities is well recognised in each country. Although we have experienced a significant pull back in terms of contract awards in the last year or so, GCC governments have all prioritised social infrastructure, especially housing, education, and medical programmes.”

Healthcare projects underway are said to be worth $65bn, with more than 700 healthcare projects under construction, according to a BNC Network report. Saudi Arabia holds approximately 53% of all healthcare projects in the GCC, while the UAE has the second highest number of healthcare projects in region at 17%.

Steven Velegrinis, director of cities and sites at Perkins+Will, believes that wellness-related communities are becoming increasingly common in the master-planning and urban design space, such as hospital-aided schools, medical-cluster-aided schools, and resort communities with wellness retreats. “We’re seeing the development of such projects everywhere in the region, and slightly beyond. We are working on many such projects; in Morocco are working on a master-plan for a wellness destination.

“We are currently in the process of building the King’s College Hospital London, Dubai, which is scheduled to complete by Q4 2018. This is one of our most advanced projects in the social infrastructure space, although we’ve done a series of clinics for King’s College and Majid Al Futtaim.”

Health and education remain the overriding key issues today. Prevalence of child obesity and diabetes remain high across the region, and there are also challenges in school-leaver literacy and numeracy.

Connor says: “Government focus on health and education enhancement programmes are required to address these matters, for both treatment in the short-term and prevention in the medium-term.”

The ongoing education project pipeline in the GCC is valued at $50bn. Public and private educational organisations are pouring investments into more than 500 educational projects. The UAE is at the forefront, adding more than 200 schools and 300,000 students by 2020, according to a recent report from Alpen Capital.

Santosh Raj Pillai, sales and export manager for the Middle East and Africa at global education construction consultancy, Hunter Douglas, says: “The UAE demonstrates global best practices in using sustainable architecture methods to renovate existing schools and to build new schools on time and on budget.”

Privately owned educational institutions are also springing up around the region. It was recently announced that Swiss International Scientific School will be opening its first boarding school at its Al Jaddaf campus. The facility is currently under construction and on track for completion before the academic year starts in September, The National reported.

Velegrinis confirms: “The biggest driver is the private sector. We are working on universities in Turkey and the UAE, where they are mostly under private sponsorship or privately owned. Similarly, with schools, most schools we see – or 90% of the schools that come to the market as design projects – are privately sponsored. Whereas in the past, it was much more balanced in the private and public sector.”

He elaborates: “One of the main reasons behind this trend of privately owned public spaces, or privately provided social infrastructure, is because the government provision to provide public infrastructure took a really significant hit when the oil prices dropped. So, we see much less of government-sponsored social infrastructure, and much more of the privately sponsored infrastructure.”

A similar approach is being followed in the development of communities. Developers are much more inclined to make provisions for public open spaces as they see the demand for such projects, says Velegrinis. “[The GCC governments] do a good job of providing highly developed social infrastructure facilities to residents, [while] encouraging private [entities] to come in and fill the void.”

He continues: “[We are working on] a series of such projects. One of the most interesting projects is The Mount in Muscat, Oman. It is a wellness-related project, [which] looks at the creation of social spaces that are more distributed in scale and have households where neighbours know each other.

“It also has a centre for Islamic healing, which is looking at a lot of herbal treatments that were traditional in the region. It collated that knowledge,  creating a centre of healing that’s based on traditional methods rather than Western medicine. It is being driven by a private developer that is committed to the social infrastructure agenda.”

Connor agrees: “There is a welcome trend at present focussing on creating communities. Developers and authorities are favouring mixed-use developments, versus single typology, creating integrated places to live with proximate recreation options and civic facilities.

“This approach fosters connectivity between people and places, enabling stronger social cohesion. We have seen changes in the retail sector too, for example, with the convenience factor fuelling demand for community malls. This smaller, community-based provision is a response to the large number of recently completed housing developments catering to residents’ daily grocery and necessity shopping. They offer a convenient alternative to the larger malls.”

The line between privately owned, commercially driven projects and the social infrastructure sector is becoming increasingly blurred in the region. “Shopping environments, to a degree, are treated as social infrastructure. Plus, now, some forms of the virtual world are also viewed as social infrastructure,” says Velegrinis.

He continues: “It’s very difficult to pin it down and say, ‘this is social infrastructure’. So I would say it’s actually a really interesting time for [the sector], because there are so many different categories of infrastructures that are starting to be labelled as ‘social’.

“There is an enormous social change happening and, if you look at Saudi Arabia, it’s a really good case study – socially the place is transforming. We are getting clients who are telling us, ‘don’t always assume that women won’t drive in Saudi Arabia’, so now we’re actually starting to look at women’s universities in the kingdom, where we might need to provide facilities for parking.”

He adds: “There is social change that is happening because society is modernising so rapidly. I would expect that to increase, and that is going to be a challenge. Everyone has got so used to things happening so quickly here that when social infrastructure can’t keep up, I imagine people will get frustrated very quickly.”

Connor points out that the “GCC countries continue to face internal societal issues as they seek to modernise and become more progressive”, while also retaining balance with important traditions and heritage. “Regional differences are reflective of this strive for balance and aim to reflect each country’s roots,” he says.

“The social contract that exists in the GCC means governments are under a much greater obligation to deliver a variety of projects that may or may not be part of other countries’ remits – for example, governments in the region widely consider power and water to touch on social infrastructure when this isn’t the case elsewhere.”

Velegrinis notes that people are looking for hybrid solutions in the social infrastructure sector, and it’s going to be hard to distinguish between public and private sector projects.

“Perkins+Will has been a pretty significant advocate, in the wider region, of the idea of social infrastructure in the form of public open space, and we see a lot that is tied to the notion of climate change.

“We have been asked to look at ways to build waterfront developments using public spaces, and protect them from rising sea levels. So there [are] going to be all of these overlaps between projects. Social infrastructure will have to fulfil multiple roles while still evolving. It will become more and more significant,” he concludes.

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