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Strategising Growth

Hill International’s regional president for the Middle East Mohammed Al Rais on the project management sector in the region, and its way forward in what is now a booming construction market

With more than 35 years of experience in the management of construction projects around the world, Mohammed Al Rais looks to be extremely well placed in his role as regional president for the Middle East for the New York Stock Exchange-listed construction consultancy, Hill International. Al Rais was appointed to this position in January this year (he was earlier the Senior Vice President and Managing Director for the firm), and to say that he has a lot on his plate right now might be a bit of an understatement, given the dynamics of the region he oversees. “The Middle East is the biggest region for Hill International, both numbers-wise and revenue-wise,” Al Rais explains. “We are doing something in the region of, I think, 62 projects today, with value worth about US$82 billion of construction costs.” Given the amount of work the company is dealing with right now, it should then come as no surprise that Hill International has been on a recruitment spree of sorts as well—Al Rais says the company has been hiring an average of 70 people per month for the region, with the total number of employees it has in the Arabian Peninsula reaching 1800 now.

Now, if Hill International’s regional staff numbers sound impressive, wait till you hear about the projects it has under its belt—the company’s current portfolio includes several prestigious undertakings like the Midfield Terminal Complex at the Abu Dhabi International Airport in the UAE, the expansion and modernisation of the Salalah and Muscat airports in Oman, the 57-acre Jabal Omar development in Saudi Arabia, the Doha Metro Green Line in Qatar and a lot, lot more. In addition, Hill International is also enjoying renewals and repeat projects from many of its existing customers – for instance, in February this year, the company announced that it had received three new project management and site supervision contracts from the Civil Projects Division of one of its long-term clients, Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, which were estimated to be worth a total of US$25 million. As far as Al Rais is concerned, such happenings are indicative of Hill International’s expertise in the sector: “I think that is the evidence of the success of our services, the quality of services we provide, and so on, where people come and keep us onboard for longer and longer.”

When asked about the reasons why Hill International has been able to succeed in the market, Al Rais pointed toward the singular focus the company had on the field of project management, and as a result, its particular expertise in that field. “At the end of the day, we are specialised in project and construction management, because we have the systems, we have done our own procedures, we have done our own QA/QCs, and so on—so we have all our processes in place,” he explains. “The people we put in at the start of a project—they bring in the system, the Hill processes, and then explain these to the consultants or contractors, who are then expected to follow [the procedures]. Because standardisation for us is critical—so everybody understands how to talk to everybody else, who’s responsible for what, and so on, and that will basically delete a lot of the ambiguity that normally takes place in projects. This is one of the differences that we bring in—we have those [systems] in place, and we make them work for the project, but based on the client. And I think this is why we have been so successful in this area to this level.”

Al Rais also noted that having had a presence in the Arab world for over 25 years is also a significant advantage for Hill International when it comes to winning –and retaining- projects in the region. “We understand the culture in this market,” Al Rais says. “I think that is critical. People cannot expect to come from the West or the Far East and expect the Middle East to behave like they do—it’s the reverse that is actually expected. You’re coming here to do business, so you need to understand the locality, the culture, so on and so forth—and we do, big time.” In addition, Al Rais also drew attention to the way Hill International actually did business with clients in the Middle East. “Although we are a public company on the NYSE, we have a very simplistic format of moving,” he explains. “So decisions are made very quickly, because of the amount of authority and responsibility we have and send down the line. This quick response [format] that we have set up [in the company], and given to all of our clients makes a huge difference, because people expect swift answers in this market.”

Al Rais is also extremely keen on encouraging the understanding of project management in the region, and increasing local participation in the field. Hill International, for its part, has launched training programmes in Saudi Arabia and Oman, and Al Rais reports that the resounding interest these initiatives have seen have spurred the company to increase its offerings in this particular area. “Knowledge transfer is critical—but it’s not just hiring people for the sake of meeting quotas,” he says. “It’s an issue of training people… Project management firms in the area are not giving back to their localities as much as they should. I think there should be a lot more done, us included. We should give back more to the areas we are working in—again, this is income, this is revenue, and I think we should give some of this back to the local people through training, education, bringing people on board… We’ve started this in Saudi Arabia, we’re starting it now in Muscat—but I think we are lagging behind, and we need to do a lot more. Having said that, I think we’re doing a lot more than a lot of others.”

At the same time, the construction sector in the region is booming, and the sheer deluge of projects being announced (and already being worked on) here has caused Hill International to also consider alliances with fellow companies in the project management field to take on this load. “Projects are becoming much bigger, much more complex,” Al Rais says. “There is so much going on that you will reach a stage where [for] certain projects, you’ll have to partner with reputables. So what we do is we actually seek these relationships with companies similar to us, if not better than us—because, at the end of the day, the project is the most important thing, and if we can achieve a relationship with other consultants that allows us to actually provide the service with the support of others, then we shall—we don’t shy away from that. We don’t have a problem with that. At the end of the day, the client and the project is the target, and achieving quality on the project is the most important thing for us.”

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