Building a future: Ibrahim Jaidah
Arab Engineering Bureau MD on psychology and camels in the North Pole
In 15 minutes with Ibrahim Jaidah, Managing Director of Qatar’s Arab Engineering Bureau, Jeff Roberts learns about psychology, Ali Baba and camels in the North Pole
We keep hearing how Qatar continues to develop quite rapidly. Given the economic climate, is this an accurate statement?
IJ: Development in Qatar is very interesting. Despite the economic crisis that is happening around the globe, Qatar has sustained impressively.
Whether you’re talking about the projects or the psychological aspect, Qatar has responded very well to the crisis.
We haven’t heard much about any projects stopping completely. Once in a while we hear that projects may have been pushed to other sites or been renegotiated but, for the most part, it’s business as usual here. As far as things at AEB, we’ve been signing contracts and moving forward.
IJ: Not just in the Gulf but across the world, the psychological effect of the financial crisis has had a very negative impact. This has slowed down construction, halted projects and created chaos in the market. The government of Qatar has handled this very carefully. It is trying to reassure people that things will be ok. It has just announced the budget for this fiscal year and it’s larger than in previous years. They’re discussing new projects and awarding contracts at a steady rate. All of that helps to instil confidence in the private sector.
In your opinion, what makes Qatar different in this respect?
IJ: A few years ago, we used to complain that there wasn’t as much development in Qatar as in other places around the region, it was a steady growth then and it continues to be so today. The difference here is that it’s healthy growth—the projects aren’t over-leveraged; it’s all realistic; it’s all solid money. That’s why it’s sustaining.
AEB, for example, has been designing some huge jobs recently—things that are around US $200 million and above. And, after whatever happened with the world economy happened, I assumed the clients would tell me to wait or postpone the project. Instead, they’re pushing us to turn the designs around faster because they know they’re going to get the best deals. And, that only reflects that it’s solid, genuine money that is available.
Can you give any specifics about what AEB is working on?
IJ: In terms of hospitality, we just finished the Al Sharq Hotel, which is a Ritz-Carlton resort. With that project we won the Arab Cities Award. We also just finished the Al Fardan Twin Towers, which consist of luxury retail and very high-end residences. We are very close to finishing the Al Fardan Residences as well. That is a 62-storey residential tower that comprises even more high-end residential space. Al Fardan will be announcing the operator of this tower very soon. All I can say is that it is a very well-known, very fancy operator.
We also won a design competition for the Al Saad project, which is worth around 1.2 billion Qatari riyals. It’s a mixed-use development that will include retail, hotel, commercial and residential space. It’s being built just across the street.
I’m particularly excited about a business park project that is under tender right now. It’s a very contemporary mixed-use development. After four months of discussion, we managed to convince the planners to change the regulations to allow for residential units along the street and commercial areas deep within the development.
Traditionally, they’ve always lined the streets with commercial and put the residential behind it. It’s really the first time that there has been an interesting attempt at an office park in Doha.
We also do quite a lot of retail projects. There are a lot of malls coming up. A lot of the clients want to do them in Italian or French styles but I’ve tried to convince them that we have many interesting stories of Ali Baba and Sinbad the Sailor. I was able to convince them and so now we’re moving forward with very Arabic-themed spaces. We’re doing one of those in Sharjah and one in Qatar.
We’ve also done several of Qatar’s embassies in countries throughout the world.
Building embassies must come with its own set of challenges.
IJ: For embassies, the state of Qatar requires that they must reflect a Qatari vernacular regardless of where they are in the world. Doing an embassy in Malaysia, for example, would still include the Qatari vernacular, but we would do it with a contemporary twist. In the case of the embassy in Kuala Lumpur, we tried to blend it with the mood of the local culture and architecture as much as we can.
We also used a different approach in Ankara. In Qatar, we are used to flat pieces of land but in Ankara we had a difference of 14 metres on the site—and it snows there. It was very exciting to see the Gulf wind tower and Arabian arches amidst the snow. I showed these pictures to the officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and they were shocked. It’s like seeing a camel in the North Pole.
We’ve heard a bit about Doha Land. Can you elaborate on this?
IJ: I was part of the jury for the international design competition for Doha Land. The idea is to remove some of the dilapidated parts of the city, which were built in the 1970s, and rebuild them into a true ‘heart’ of Doha.
The Qatar Foundation started a company actually called Heart of Doha, which is going to begin slowly by building small blocks of buildings that they’re hoping will create a proper city centre and encourage some of the local population to move back to the city. It will include residential areas, pedestrian walkways, social interaction space and surface trams for easy transportation. Right now, some of the buildings are in the detailed planning stages and very soon you’ll start to see demolishing.
In some Gulf cities, the tendency is to bring in scores of international architects to create an international, quasi-Arabian vernacular. Does development in Qatar follow this path or does the architecture tend to be more authentic?
IJ: Even though there is an influx of international signature architects here doing some beautiful things—the likes of IM Pei and Arata Isozaki immediately spring to mind—the tendency here to preserve the identity is a serious issue.
Whether it’s renovating the old or building some of the new government buildings, part of the brief is that they have to reflect the local vernacular. By no means is this an obstacle that limits one’s ability to progress into modern architecture, instead it presents a challenge to develop a contemporary approach the local vernacular.
Everywhere you look, you can see that a style is being born as we speak. It’s a contemporary Arabic architecture.
You usually take an avid interest in the development of architecture students in Qatar. Do they generally understand the importance of preserving the Qatari vernacular in the buildings they design?
IJ: They do. Virginia Commonwealth University just celebrated their 10th anniversary a few months ago. That is an interior design and fashion programme. Despite a huge history which includes a library of Arabic interiors, the international interior designs still haven’t been developed enough to have their own identity.
As far as architecture goes, it has really just started. Qatar University has an architectural engineering programme at the moment and now, they are seriously discussing a five-year, RIBA or AIA certified degree. We’re talking about a proper Western-style architectural degree. I’m actually going over to Qatar University today to address the students who are looking to transfer from the architectural engineering degree to the longer programme.
What was your first impression? Is it going to be similar to a Western architecture degree?
IJ: I was asked to comment on the curriculum and, once I saw it, I was jumping out of my seat with excitement. I was thinking, ‘Finally, we’re going to have a proper school of architecture in Qatar’.
I made the point that we need more people in the private sector—from contractors to designers to urban planners—that can make design decisions about everything from sidewalks to curbs to neighbourhoods to urban plans.
There are people out there making these decisions everyday but someone with an architectural degree will definitely make an impact. The need is there. I am training a lot of students both in my office and in the universities and I’m always stressing the development of the contemporary Gulf architecture. We’re at a very important and exciting place right now in Qatar. There is so much happening all around us. It’s a good place to be a student of architecture.
In some cities around the Gulf, there is a real desire to have the next record-breaking building. Do you think Qatar will eventually become embroiled in these types of competitions?
IJ: Qatar looks at this sort of competition a bit differently. I don’t know if ‘ego’ is the right term but the tendency to break records isn’t really that strong here. We’re doing 100-storey buildings but, at least from the clients brief, it’s never the intention to build the tallest building in the city or the region.
Interestingly, the records Qatar is breaking are ‘The Largest Gas Producer in the World’ and things like this. In terms of the future of the country, those are beautiful records to break. That’s not to say that what is being done in Dubai and other places in the Gulf is wrong. What has happened in Dubai in particular is a great phenomenon. I honestly believe that the person responsible for creating such an amazing city in only 30 years will certainly manage to ride out the economic storm.