Power 20: Top Architects

How the biggest international architecture practices stack up in GCC

KEO International
KEO International
Dewan Architects & Engineers
Dewan Architects & Engineers
Burt Hill
Burt Hill
Woods Bagot
Woods Bagot
Broadway Malyan
Broadway Malyan
Nikken Sekkei
Nikken Sekkei

Middle East Architect ranks the biggest players in global architecture by regional presence – based on staff numbers – and looks at what has made their name in the GCC

We all know the last year or so has been tough.

Even the biggest and brightest stars of the world architecture scene have felt the impact of the recession. Some established architectural practices have been forced to withdraw from the GCC region, while others have cut staff numbers. However, the main international players in general remain.

Middle East Architect has looked for those big name architecture brands that are still showing commitment to their work in the region and maintaining a local base. As a result, we’ve compiled a list of 20 of the biggest global architects working on the ground in the GCC.

Candidate companies were first selected based on global size, then ranked by regional presence - based on the number of permanent staff in the GCC. Some global firms took issue with the methodology, arguing that since a large proportion of its Middle East design work is carried out elsewhere, their rank would not represent their regional involvement. As a consequence, Foster + Partners, SOM, Allies & Morrison and Aukett Fitzroy Robinson do not feature. Perkins + Will are is also not included, though has more than a dozen staff based in Middle East offices.

1 Atkins
2,000 staff in Middle East with 213 architects

The UK’s Atkins has a massive presence in the region with 2,000 permanent staff and 213 architects. It has played a key role in the emirate for a number of years, most notably as designer for the iconic Burj Al-Arab, which helped define Dubai on the international stage.

More recently it has been involved with the landmark infrastructure project, the Dubai Metro, providing full multidisciplinary design, design coordination of civil works including geotechnical and site investigations, and construction supervision of tracks, underground stations and maintenance depots. The first line opened on 9 September 2009, although there is some debate when the remaining lines will open.

The firm has also designed the 400 metre-high 64-storey DIFC Lighthouse Tower, which will be the world’s first hot-climate, low-carbon, high-rise tower to aspire to a LEED Platinum rating.

Away from the emirate, Atkins has also provided master planning, architecture, landscaping, environment, transport, civil engineering and project management services for Durrat Al-Bahrain, which is expected to house a population of 60,000. Founded in 1938 by Sir William Atkins and formerly known as WS Atkins & Partners, in 2009 Atkins was appointed as the official engineering design services provider for the London 2012 Olympics.

2 KEO International
1,821 staff in Middle East with 504 architects

Just missing the top spot, but the firm claiming the most architects, Kuwait-based KEO International has performed well against its regional peers. Significant projects, such as the $750 million Lusail mixed-use development and the even larger Barwa Financial Centre (the design for which was released in October 2009) – both located in Qatar – have kept the firm focused on delivering high-quality, sustainable, mega developments.

KEO’s work on Reem Island in Abu Dhabi includes NREC’s Al-Reem Mall, covering a total GFA of 360,000m2. Still on Reem are the Carina Views; four residential 25-storey towers designed by the firm. On surrounding plots are the two 300-metre ‘Wings’ developments designed by KEO in 2009. Other design projects in Abu Dhabi include ‘South of Shamkha’ – the AED 10 billion ‘new town’ that will contain 10,000 villas for nationals, as well as other facilities, spread across 43 km2, and surrounding areas like Khalifa City.

In Kuwait, KEO is working on the Al-Othman Complex, a large commercial and retail complex starting construction in March. KEO also has design projects underway in Dubai, Oman, Bahrain, Egypt and Lebanon.

276 staff in Middle East with 51 architects

The Scottish-based firm RMJM has had a continuous presence in the Middle East since 1970 and – despite having to lay-off a number of staff as the downturn hit in 2009 – employs almost 300 people in its offices in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Doha.

At present Dubai’s office features 51 architects with further staff tasked with interior design, landscape design, visualisation and construction assurance. Most recently the firm announced that glazing work on the iconic Capital Gate Tower, designed by the firm and under construction next to the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre, is now complete. It also designed the Aviation Club Hotel by Dubai Creek.

RMJM is one of the world’s largest architectural practices employing over 1000 people located in 16 international offices throughout Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Asia-Pacific and the Americas.

RMJM has ongoing projects in more than 17 countries and across a wide range of industry sectors including education, commercial, industrial, regeneration, leisure, retail, residential, scientific research, healthcare, and public buildings.

In October 2009 the firm was awarded the Islamic Architecture Award at Cityscape for its work on the Zliten Al-Asmariya University for Islamic Science in Libya.

4 Dewan Architects & Engineers
220 staff in the Middle East with 140 architects

Established back in 1971 in Baghdad, the firm is now based in Abu Dhabi (growing from a two-man firm in 1984) and has offices in Dubai, Najaf, Doha, Riyadh and Manila. Its staff in the GGC region number 220 with 140 architects based locally. In February, Dewan Architects won first prize in a design competition to develop the area surrounding the Holy Shrines in Kadhimiya, Iraq.

The firm was one of 10 international and local companies shortlisted to renew and enhance the function of Al-Khadimiya as a key district of Greater Baghdad. In January it was appointed the contract to design and supervise the construction of a 28-floor commercial tower in Al-Khobar, the first step in its ambition to increase its presence in Saudi Arabia.

Closer to home the firm has been responsible for a number of iconic projects including the 85,000 square metre, 500-room Yas Hotel, which forms one of the main architectural features of the Yas Marina development and accompanying Formula 1 circuit. It was also responsible for the design of the Green Community in Dubai and the Media One Tower at Dubai Media City.

Over the past few years, the firm has entered associations with global firms such as Perkins + Will and Nikken Sekkei.

5 Burt Hill
213 staff in the Middle East

Despite laying-off 111 staff in January 2009 as the property sector stalled, the US-based architecture firm Burt Hill continues to be one of the largest architecture design companies in the UAE, with more than 200 employees. The company boasts a focus on sustainable design, technology integration, and energy management. With 10 locations in the UAE, India, and the United States (headquartered in Philadelphia), Burt Hill is among the world’s largest architecture, engineering, interior design, and landscape architecture companies.

Among the firm’s projects in the UAE are the multi-billion dirham Al Mafraq Hospital, ADEC Headquarters, and the masterplan for Union Properties 3.5 million m2 Motor City in Dubai. The key components of the project are the Dubai Autodrome, UpTown Motor City, Green Community Motor City and Business Park Motor City. One final component, the F1 – X theme park would be put on hold by at least a year due to the global financial crisis and lack of access to credit. The Dubai branch of the firm opened in 2003 to tap into the emirate’s emerging real estate market.

6 Godwin Austen Johnson
175 staff in the Middle East

GAJ is one of the largest and longest-established UK architectural and design practices in the UAE. The firm has 175 staff in the region spread from its headquarters. In March the firm announced a 10% increase in staffing to support new contracts across the Middle East and North Africa. GAJ has appointed 10 architects and interior designers, primarily from the UAE to support the growth in business. Notable projects include a number of academies at Dubai Sports City for Manchester United.

168 staff in the Middle East

Aedas’ Dubai office was established in 2004 and the company now has offices in Abu Dhabi, Doha and Bahrain. With 100 people in Dubai, 35 in Abu Dhabi, 10 in Doha, two in Bahrain, one in Riyadh and a further 20 interior designers in Dubai, the company has a total of more than 150 staff.

The firm is also expanding its portfolio of projects throughout the Middle East and North Africa. It is currently opening Aedas offices in Riyadh and Damascus, while expanding its existing offices in the GCC. The firm also has projects in Oman, Libya, Egypt, Iran and various countries in Africa.

Aedas had a relatively good year in 2009, maintaining its position with a turnover of $220million and winning significant new projects in Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Oman, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Libya, together with projects continuing under construction in Dubai.

8 Woods Bagot
120 staff in the Middle East

Woods Bagot has been an established practice since 1869 where it was founded in Adelaide by former architect-in-chief for the South Australian Government, Edward John Woods. Since then the firm has grown into a significant multi-disciplinary practice operating across three sectors; education and science, lifestyle and workplace with teams operating across Asia, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and North America. It currently has 120 staff across its offices in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain.

In the Middle East region the firm has been involved in a number of key projects. Possibly the most symbolic work for the firm - the design of Nakheel’s ambitious Harbour & Tower project - is currently on-hold. It was the lead architect providing architectural services for the $1.5 billion Saadiyat St. Regis Beach Resort project from concept through to completion. It has been involved in a number of other completed projects in Bahrain – for the Bahrain City Centre mall – Muscat and Abu Dhabi. In November 2009 the firm launched a new studio in Shanghai.

9 P&T Architects & Engineers
85 staff in the Middle East

Based in Hong Kong, the P&T Group has a history going back over 100 years to 1868, where it was formerly known as Palmer and Turner. P&T has been actively involved in the Middle East since 1998 and established an office in Dubai in 2004.

Currently the firm has 61 staff in the Dubai office and 21 in Abu Dhabi. The latter’s office was opened in 2007, to coincide with the award of a major scheme on Reem Island. In the same year it started work on the Al-Dana project in Raha Beach and two hotels in the Mina al-Arab resort in Ras al-Khaimah.

A further five staff spend their time split between the UAE and Hong Kong. Globally the firm has approximately 1,600 staff. It has worked on a number of key Dubai projects, including City of Arabia in Dubailand – though this has not commenced work.

10 HOK
65 staff in the Middle East

The Dubai office of HOK retains a strong presence in the region with 65 staff, broken down into 38 architects, one planner, one landscape architect, 12 engineers, two construction directors and eight administrators. As of 2009, the firm maintains more than 2,000 professional staff across a global network of 23 offices and is active in all major architectural specialities. Notable projects in the region include the massive $10 billion King Abdullah University for Science & Technology (KAUST) in Thawul, Saudi Arabia, being built for Saudi Aramco. The firm is also the design architect for the $2 billion New Doha International Airport, Qatar and the new $250 million 190,000m2 corporate headquarters for Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) in the UAE capital (bids for the main construction contract were submitted in February).

HOK was established in St. Louis, Missouri in 1955, the name derived from the surnames of its three founding partners: George Hellmuth, Gyo Obata and George Kassabaum. HOK’s first office outside the US was opened in Hong Kong in 1984 and by 2007 its international work represented more than 40% of its revenue. In 2008 its gross fees totalled $757 million.

11 Broadway Malyan
30 staff in the Middle East

The UK’s Broadway Malyan has 13 offices throughout the UK, Europe, Middle East and Asia. Established in 1958, the firm has been in the region since 2007, when it opened an office in Abu Dhabi. In December 2009, it beat-off competition from Foster + Partners and Aedas to design nine schools in Abu Dhabi, as part of a 10-year plan to build 300 schools. The firm specialises in urban design, masterplanning, town planning, regeneration and sustainability. Other projects include the masterplan and design for Al-Bandar on Aldar’s Al-Raha beach scheme and the Mina Zayed masterplan, also in Abu Dhabi.

12 PRP/AI Architects
22 staff in the Middle East

Based in Abu Dhabi, the firm consists of 22 professional staff, with 11 architects, two project managers and five managerial staff. Known as PRP/AI it is a partnership – formed in 2008 - between UAE-based practice Architects International and PRP, one of the world’s largest multidisciplinary practices.

Worldwide the firm employs 380, with offices in London, Edinburgh, Moscow and Cape Town. It is design focused working primarily across the UAE and MENA region. The firm’s work extends all over the world, including the Middle East, UK, Eastern Europe, France, Spain, China and India.

The firm’s work in the GCC extends primarily to Abu Dhabi with involvement in a number of potentially iconic schemes such as Masdar City, the AED570 million The Park and Maqta Waterfront.

Elsewhere the firm has designed the AED750 million Bab Ezzour mixed-use development in Algiers.

Mazin al-Hakim, co-founder of PRP – AI was previously head of architecture and an associate director with WS Atkins & Partners.

13 Gensler
16 staff in the Middle East

One of the world’s largest architectural firms, Gensler has managed to ride-out the turbulent last 18 months reasonably well. It still managed to record a small increase in gross revenue over the previous 12 months of $697 million in 2009, up from $683 million. Gensler’s Dubai office has three architects and eight staff and Abu Dhabi has one architect and four staff. It is also notable that the main body of Gensler’s design delivery within the Middle East is also facilitated by the London office, which accommodates 29 architects and 157 staff. Within the GCC the firm is responsible for designing elements of DIFC and has developed the master plan for Shamiyah district in Mecca,
Saudi Arabia.

14 BDP
15 staff in the Middle East

Europe’s largest building design practice, BDP, opened its first office in the Middle East on 1st April 2010 after agreeing to merge with Abu Dhabi-based multidisciplinary design practice SYNA to create BDP MENA. BDP was founded in 1961 and is ranked in the top 10 architects in the world with an annual turnover of approximately AED 600m ($163m) in the last financial year. SYNA’s project experience includes the Sheraton Jumeirah Beach Resort in Dubai and Danat Resort Jebel Dhanna, Abu Dhabi. BDP plans to invest in building a world class building design practice in Abu Dhabi to serve the Middle East region with the full range of services, including sustainability expertise and specialist engineering skills.

15 Benoy
14 staff in the Middle East

Benoy has had a permanent design studio established in Abu Dhabi since early 2006, primarily to oversee the design and delivery of Al-Seef at Raha Beach, the Yas Island master plan and Ferrari World Abu Dhabi – set to become the world’s largest indoor theme park.

Presently, Benoy Abu Dhabi has a permanent design team of 14 that includes one director, three senior associate directors and an associate director.

13 staff in the Middle East

Operating for more than 60 years, the US-based firm expanded into the Middle Eastern market in 2008, with its first office in Dubai to cash in on the expanding real estate market. The firm is responsible for a number of designs including the 360 degree Kuwait development, Bahrain City Centre and the British Embassy in Rabat, Morocco. In Dubai it has carried out the design of Mirdif City Centre. It has also master planned a mixed-use community in Aqaba, Jordan. In 2007 RTKL (renamed from Rogers, Taliaferro, Kostritsky and Lamb in 1968) became a wholly-owned part of the Arcadis network, a Netherlands-based engineering and professional consulting services firm.

17 FX Fowle Architects
10 staff

The US-based firm, with offices in New York, Washington DC and Dubai features 10 staff, with all design work carried out in the New York office. The firm has won a number of design competitions in the UAE, including the new government centre in Abu Dhabi and the proposed 1.7 km Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Crossing located within Sama Dubai Lagoon’s project (now on-hold). Steven Miller, managing director of FX Fowle’s Dubai office was appointed to the American Institute of Architects’ (AIA) International Committee
Advisory Group.

18 Callison
8 staff in the Middle East

The US’ Callison has eight staff in its Dubai office and has been based in the region since 1992.

Despite the downturn it remains one of the firm’s strongest markets. It has worked on the design of the $2.5 billion Pearl-Qatar, the 14 million ft2 island community off the coast of Doha. In March 2009, it was selected as master planner for the conceptual phase of the $10 billion Marsa Zayed project in Aqaba, Jordan, set to be the largest property development in Jordan’s history. Other projects include King Abdullah Financial District in Riyadh and the Mall of Syria in Damascus.

19 HKS Inc
3 staff in the Middle East

The firm currently operates a three-man presence as a project coordination office and business development: two architects and one planner/manager. Key individuals are rotated in and out of the GCC as needed. It recently passed its one-year anniversary in Abu Dhabi. Current projects include the Danat al-Emarat Women & Children’s Hospital. HKS is globally seen as one of the key healthcare planning and design firms. Since its inception in 1939, HKS has completed healthcare projects totalling more than $36 billion worldwide.

20 Nikken Sekkei
3 staff in the Middle East

Japan-based Nikken Sekkei may not have the largest presence in Dubai, but it continues to punch above its weight with the scale of projects. At present three permanent staff are located at its offices on Sheikh Zayed Road with a further 45 people in Tokyo assigned to Middle East jobs. It increased staff numbers over the past 12 months employing a total of 1,165 architects in 2010, up from 985 the previous year, with a fee income of over $400 million. The firm’s most ambitious design for Dubai is that of the Burj al-Alam tower in Business Bay.

Most popular


CW Oman Awards 2020: Meet the winners
A round of the thirteen winning names at the Construction Week Oman Awards 2020 that


Leaders UAE 2020: Building a sustainable, 'resilient' infra
AESG’s Phillipa Grant, Burohappold’s Farah Naz, and Samana's Imran Farooq on a sustainable built environment
CW In Focus | Inside the Leaders in KSA Awards 2019 in Riyadh
Meet the winners in all 10 categories and learn more about Vision 2030 in this

Latest Issue

Construction Week - Issue 767
Sep 01, 2020