Exploring The Red Sea Project's construction with John Pagano

EXCLUSIVE: Pagano reveals the development plans of TRSDC, which is building Saudi Arabia's 28,000km2 gigaproject

John Pagano, CEO of TRSDC.
ITP / Supplied
John Pagano, CEO of TRSDC.

The last few years have seen Saudi Arabia ramp up investment to position itself as a tourism destination for both regional and international visitors. The ongoing drive is a crucial pillar of the kingdom’s Vision 2030 agenda, a major transformation scheme underpinned by various megaprojects and 'gigaprojects' announced by Saudi Arabia’s leadership over the past 24 months.

Notable developments that have consequently come to the fore in Saudi Arabia include the Neom super-city; the 334km2 entertainment city of Qiddiya; and plans to enhance the Unesco World Heritage site of Al-Ula.

WATG and Buro Happold worked on the masterplan [image: TRSDC].

A key component of this list is The Red Sea Project, a luxury, sustainable tourism-focused 28,000km2 development that was formally announced by HRH Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Deputy Prime Minister, and Chairman of the kingdom's Public Investment Fund (PIF) in late July 2017.

Envisioned as a resort destination built across a lagoon of more than 90 untouched natural islands, the gigaproject will be located minutes from the kingdom’s Red Sea Coast, between the cities of Umluj and Al Wajh. It is being developed by The Red Sea Development Company (TRSDC), a closed joint stock company wholly owned by the kingdom’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund headed by the Crown Prince. 

TRSDC’s chief executive officer, John Pagano, tells Construction Week that the approval of the project’s masterplan in late-2018 by the Crown Prince was “a major achievement and a milestone” for the project team.

Developed in partnership with US architecture firm WATG and the UK’s Buro Happold, The Red Sea Project’s masterplan also included design concepts from “some of the world’s most prominent architecture firms”, Pagano says.

Formally announced in January 2019, the masterplan includes detailed plans for Phase 1 of the project, construction on which is expected to begin in Q3 2019.

This initial phase includes 14 luxury and hyper luxury hotels, providing 3,000 rooms across five islands and two inland resorts.

Yacht marinas, leisure and lifestyle amenities, and an airport to serve the resort will also feature during this phase, alongside “the necessary supporting logistics and utilities infrastructure”.

The Red Sea Project will be fully completed in 2030 [image: TRSDC].

Pagano adds: “In the intervening period, we have been progressing on the project in terms of concept designs, developing these to a point where we can ultimately procure it and start construction.

“In parallel with that, we’ve been running a number of different work streams in furtherance of the project.”

Pagano says TRSDC is “actively in the market” to award a major design, build, operate, and transfer, or public-private partnership (PPP) contract, for the project’s major infrastructure, including power, water, and waste treatment facilities.

Pagano says a request for proposal (RFP) is currently in the market, adding: “The PPP initiative, which is a major piece of work, is attracting a lot of interest, not only domestically and regionally, but also internationally.

“This is pretty good for us, because it really underscores the importance of this project and the credibility that it has.”

However, these first-phase activities will follow the ‘Phase 0’ work that is currently under way at TRSDC’s site, which Pagano explains covers primary infrastructure and “getting the site ready for the eventual build”.

Explaining on the significance of Phase 0 works, Pagano says: “The site is completely undeveloped. So, before construction can commence, [we] must construct the base infrastructure to facilitate movement around the development area and support the workforce that will be on-site.”

This phase also includes building accommodation for the 10,000 employees and workers who will be on site for the early stages of The Red Sea Project’s construction.

Additional components of Phase 0 include the temporary roads needed to transport materials around the site; mechanical, electrical, and plumbing infrastructure; a bridge to transport materials to the hub island; and marine works – including jetties – which will facilitate the transportation of materials over water.

“Another key element will be building up the land levels on the hub island to facilitate construction,” Pagano adds.

“This will be achieved using sand removed from the interior of the island to form the central marina and material brought over from the mainland.”

A flagship part of the project’s initial works is Base Camp, which became operational in February and is located at the southern end of the project.

Pagano describes this as a “forward station” for his staff to have a permanent presence from where they can manage the build-up of contractors as the development moves into its construction phase – a task that is “currently under way” and partially complete.

An aerial view of The Red Sea Project's Base Camp [image: TRSDC].

In July 2019, TRSDC also awarded a contract to Archirodon for the delivery of enabling works that include the construction of a 3.3km crossing to Shurayrah, the main hub crossing for The Red Sea Project’s Phase 1. The project also includes two coastal jetties and four island jetties, with all work due for completion by November 2020.

Base Camp is fully operational as of July 2019, and the project team will be connected to its hub island by barge for transporting materials and labour from December 2019, with road connections expected from June 2020.

Green credentials

At the heart of TRSDC is the ambition to spur sustainable luxury tourism in Saudi Arabia through conscientious planning and a responsible development approach that safeguards marine and coastal habitats. In fact, TRSDC plans to deliver a net-positive conservation benefit of up to 30% – equivalent to designating the entire site as a marine protected area – through its gigaproject within the next two decades.

“We’re very much focused on our aspiration of becoming 100% carbon-neutral,” Pagano explains.

“Within that context, all of the mobility around the development is going to be either through autonomous vehicles or – if the technology [hasn’t evolved by then] – electric or non-fossil fuel burning vehicles. That’s the essence of the whole mobility strategy.”

All of the 90 islands that make up The Red Sea Project will be car-free, Pagano explains, adding that even an island with a high concentration of hotels “will be limited to either non-fossil fuel vehicles that transfer you to and from the airport, or golf buggy-type vehicles”.

The development’s lofty sustainability goals are also reflected in the methods of construction that will adopted throughout the project – even if the practice is unconventional given existing costing models in the regional industry.

“We’re looking at producing building materials in factories and then delivering and positioning them at their final destination,” the CEO explains.

“This is to avoid heavy construction activities on the very precious islands. It may be marginally more expensive, but if done cleverly and thoughtfully, then we can we can educate the marketplace.

“Ultimately, we’re not asking the contractors to take the risk on this. We’re going to design it so that it’s a level playing field and everybody is working off the same requirements.”

TRSDC plans to deliver a net-positive conservation benefit of up to 30% [supplied].

“As a client, we understand we may be paying a little bit more than doing it the [traditional] way, but I think this is the right way to go – it is a sustainable option, which is which is really what this is really all about.”

Pagano says TRSDC is “leading all discussions” on the project’s high sustainability standards – both in terms of the design and construction. These requirements are “embedded” within the contracts it awards too – be it for consultancies or contractors – with the organisation ultimately “managing the entire process” that is required to build sustainably.

He explains: “We’re building the resources and capturing the knowledge and expertise, so that we can continue to evolve and improve our processes, workflows, and product, and deliver on the promise of setting new standards in sustainable development.”

Worker welfare

It is evident during Construction Week’s conversation with Pagano that he is among the few industry CEOs that recognises sustainability for not only its environmental impact, but its human cost and benefits as well.

Given the scale of The Red Sea Project, the number of workers required at every stage of the development – particularly construction – runs into the thousands. As such, high standards of worker welfare are a key priority for Pagano and his team at TRSDC.

“We are very much trying to break the business-as-usual case,” he explains, noting that typically, the responsibility of providing worker accommodation falls on contractors, which can sometimes lead to “difficulties with regards to the conditions" that workers are provided. 

“We’ve taken the initiative to actually deliver welfare accommodation so the contractors that will work with us [...] have to use our facilities, and we will set the welfare standards within the accommodation.”

“We said ‘let’s do it ourselves, let’s procure it ourselves, and let’s make sure that we build the right standards’ so that we create an environment that's conducive to the welfare of the workers that are going to be there to deliver this vision,” Pagano says, explaining that the leisure aspect of the accommodation is very important to the developer.

“We are trying to create a [community-style] environment so that it has a more homely feel than traditional worker accommodation areas.

“It's not just about building the project. These people are human beings and we need to treat them well. We hope that through the actions that are taking, we are going to do something that hasn't been done before – we're certainly trying to set new standards, and then go beyond that.”

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