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Mohamed Al Assam on infrastructure, Iraq and the future of Dewan

INTERVIEWS, Projects

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With offices in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, Dewan has come a long way since its foundation by 23-year-old Mohamed Al Assam in Baghdad.

Over the last four decades, Al Assam has led Dewan from Baghdad to Dubai to Abu Dhabi and, most recently, back into Baghdad, where Dewan is raking in contracts since re-opening its office in 2008. At the helm of the now 300-strong architecture firm, Al Assam and his son, Ammar, have seen the UAE change irrevocably since they first arrived in the country in 1976.

“At the time we were looking for better opportunities, looking for freedom, both as people and as architects,” Al Assam said.
“The opportunity was there in the UAE, and that is still represented now. Even in those years the UAE had the image of freedom, and that’s what I found when I first came here. We didn’t feel like foreigners or strangers, we had a great margin of freedom that we didn’t enjoy in our own country.”

Dewan has thrived in the UAE since arriving over 30 years ago. The firm’s first building, the Baniyas Tower, was the first major modern development in Abu Dhabi, and in 2010 Dewan is working on two five star hotels and 19 schools in the emirate. Al Assam also has the benefit of having already lived through one financial crisis in the Gulf, at the end of the 70s, so the present economic situation was not as big a shock as it could have been.

“The late 70s was very hard for us because we were small, but we passed it. This one is much bigger, volume-wise, because the economy is much bigger than before. But if we learn from the history lessons than we know that this will pass as well,” he said.

It perhaps because of this experience that Dewan has chosen to meet the economic challenges with expansion. Al Assam opened an office in Riyadh earlier this year, with plans for offices in Jeddah and Doha, Qatar, next year.

But it is not just in terms of geography that Dewan plans to expand in the wake of the financial crisis. It’s focus on Saudi Arabia and Iraq has necessitated a new drive towards infrastructure development, and Al Assam has this year set up a joint venture with Portuguese firm COBA to target what is an essential market in both countries, as well as in the UAE.
“We are now targeting projects from metro lines, to roads, to sewage systems and marketing ourselves in Iraq, Saudi and UAE in that order. Iraq needs infrastructure right from zero, and in KSA and UAE there are big plans too,” he said.

Al Assam is keen to stress that Dewan is an international firm, but the firm’s roots in Iraq are impossible to play down. Few Middle Eastern firms have anything close to the amount of contracts that Dewan has won in the past two years, and Al Assam’s background is undoubtedly a factor in this success.

He was one of a golden generation of Iraqi architects who studied at the prestigious Baghdad School of Architecture before the destructive reign of Saddam Hussein began in 1979. Al Assam remembers the reputation that the city had even then for having the strongest faculty and churning out the best designers in the region.

“We had very strong teachers and most of the pioneer architects from Iraq in 20th century taught at that school. We are a generation that learned in that school when it was strong and good,” he said. “It is known in the Arabic world that the best designers are the Iraqis and the Lebanese, which is something of which we are proud.”

This background, as well as Dewan’s quick re-entry into Iraq first in 2003 and later in 2008, has shown a dedication to the country that is appreciated in the corridors of power in Baghdad. The firm recently won the contract to develop Iraq’s three holy cities, including the Shiite shrine at Al Kadhimiya, a project that Al Assam describes as one of his proudest.

“The are huge in terms of the land, but this is the most prestigious project in Iraq at the moment. To master plan and design the old city, keep its character as an old city but at the same time modernize it and create an economic atmosphere that encourages investment so the whole economy of the area grows,” he said.

More recently, Dewan has secured the contract for the city council building in the city of Najaf. The design, with its transparent glass walls and opacity to the streetscape, is representative of Iraq’s new political scenery, Al Assam said, a factor which swayed the judges in Dewan’s favour.

“In a dictatorship everything is closed, everything is inside, and whether they wanted it or not that was reflected in the architecture in Iraq. The government buildings that were built and designed in the 1980s and 1990s they were very much closed buildings, you can’t see from outside to the inside, they have small windows. Architects without knowing it reflected what the politics was of the time,” he said.

“With our new design the jury understood what we wanted to say. They appreciated very much that we wanted to create a new philosophy in design for Iraq, showing that it is an open society, after being closed for a very long time.”

It is another important aspect of Dewan’s design philosophy, Al Assam explained, that it is a firm very much rooted in the Middle East. Dewan’s architects come from old Arab cities like Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo, but they also consider themselves part of the modern world. The balance between old and new is something that Al Assam believes is essential to good contemporary design in the region.

“When we design buildings we try as much as possible to reflect the fact that we are sons of both the modern world and of our tradition. This way I think we have been very successful,” he said.

“This is reflected even in our offices, our office here in Dubai has a traditional style, but if you go to my office in Abu Dhabi it is completely modern. That was done on purpose because we are from tradition as well as being from the new world.”
Al Assam believes that this, along with Dewan’s reputation as a non-hierarchical firm where it is easy to engage with the management, bodes well for 2010. While Al Assam and his sons, Ammar and Haider, all work within the senior echelons of Dewan, he feels the family links within the firm are more than just blood.

“It is like a family, I mean it is a family, but most of the corporations they work as a machine and we don’t have this feeling. We started young and small and we grew but we kept this tradition, the family feeling. People feel that, and it’s something I am very proud of,” he said.
 

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