Fri, Sep
1
2006

Making Water Bloom in the Desert

Fri, Sep 1, 2006

Ragweed season is here. And this morning I was out of Allegra D. Oh, joy.

But I did manage to get off two interviews for a state of the Waterloo economy article I’m hoping to do up for Business Edge. These included the Glenn Turchan, VP of Conestoga Rovers and Associates, and Waterloo Regional Chairman Ken Seiling. I was very fortunate to have these two individuals take the time to talk to me. I think this article is coming along well.

I’m also very pleased to say that my latest article for Business Edge is now available. You can read it online here.

This story, about Canadian companies taking part in the $100 billion construction boom in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, was picked up by the Alberta and Manitoba/Saskatchewan editions as well as my usual haunts in Ontario. So, after my Hespelar hockey sticks piece (which also appeared in BC), this is my most successful article submission so far. It helps that the companies I selected hail from across Canada, and not just my neck of the woods.

And it helps that the people I interviewed were passionate about their work. In particular, Michael Denman of Crystal Fountains was a joy to talk to, producing so much good copy, it was hard to cut his words down. But that’s what I had to do, unfortunately, or else the article would have been too long to print.

So this is how I work: I talk to the individuals on the phone, usually typing madly away while they speak (it can be quite a chore to transcribe after the fact). I then gather together my typed scribblings into a series of coherent quotes which I send back to the individual to make sure they’re happy with what they have said. The quotes go through a further edit in order to get them down to a succinct length and integrate them into the story, but I make sure that a draft of the article goes through them to, again, ensure they are happy with how they are quoted.

As the article covers only some of the interview I had with Michael Denman, I have posted the full transcript of that interview below. Compare it to the finished article:

WHY DID CRYSTAL FOUNTAINS COME TO DUBAI?

“Crystal Fountains started looking at the Middle East and Asia in the early 1990s. We were driven there due to the construction crash that affected North America at the time, where our primary sales were done. At the time, the large water feature projects were centered on Abu Dhabi, and as a result of this, we’ve been very successful in being awarded a number of contracts throughout the United Arab Emirates. Abu Dhabi is basically littered with water features, the most recent of which the Corniche project — the sea road in Abu Dhabi. As you drive along into Abu Dhabi, there is water feature after water feature, and in every major roundabout.

“Abu Dhabi had a beautification program for the past fifteen or so years, and Dubai has just started into its own. The challenge for Dubai was that it was growing so fast, its infrastructure had trouble keeping up. The municipality focused on building roads and other infrastructure first, but since 2004 they’ve focused on beautification. Zabeel Park, a municipal park, is an example of this.

“Much of Dubai’s construction has been as a result of private property developers, and thanks to our existing relationships in Abu Dhabi, working with designers and supporting contractors in coming up with ideas and concepts, getting our components specified, we’ve been able to take advantage of this market. We are now recognized in the United Arab Emirates as one of the premiere service providers within the construction industry.

“North America has since bounced back. It still represents 70% of our company turnover. But Dubai, the city, represents 10% of our overseas activity.

“The current surge in activity has challenged us to look carefully at this market. There’s no denying the scale of what is happening. It’s mind blowing; the pace they’re developing stuff is just incredible. I’ve been in this business for over 15 years, and I’ve seen things happening throughout the world. Even China’s growth pales to what’s happening here. The big question is, is this sustainable, and a lot of people think it is.”

DUBAI’S CHALLENGES

“As with all overseas markets, distance is one of the challenges we face. We’re talking about an eight hour time zone difference, which complicates doing business. Then there are the weekends. The official weekend in the UAE is Thursday and Friday, giving Western companies just a three day window of business communication. Over the next couple of years, this will shift to a Friday/Saturday weekend, which will give us a four day window.

“Local practises can be a big challenge. We’re communicating with property developers, developers, architects, construction workers. Fortunately, language is not a barrier, as English is the language of business, contracts, drawings and documentation. That said, the people working there are a real melting pot. The Emirate represents only a small percentage of the active population in Dubai; typically consultants arrive from all over, including Europe and India and other Arab countries.

“As a result, one of the biggest challenges we face is the transfer of knowledge and understanding and finding well trained qualified people, things you can take for granted in North America. It requires a lot of patience, and also making sure that everything is well documented and processes of communication put together that are easy to follow. You have to work hard on training.

“It’s improving. There’s some very dynamic leaders bringing the economy forward. There’s young, well-educated people who are working more and more to the Western model of management, but because there’s such a huge demand at the moment, finding high quality workers in Dubai can be a challenge.”

DUBAI’S PROSPECTS

“The growth of Dubai seems to have had a knock-on effect throughout the Middle East. Even Abu Dhabi is trying to pick up its pace because Dubai has stolen the limelight. We are experiencing strong markets in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain, even Egypt. One project in Saudi Arabia ((confirm name of this project)) is offering 55 million square meters of development over the next five years. But for all this, the United Arab Emirates is still the hottest economy in the area, no doubt.”

BRINGING WATER TO THE DESERT

“Why are water features so popular in the Middle East? One is obviously heat — the cooling benefits of water. Water is very important is the history and cultural of the Arabian Peninsula. Water is like jewelry, it’s very ostentatious. More recently, the entertainment aspect is coming into play. Private investors are starting to see the power of water features as a marketing tool to attract people to their properties. This is where we’re starting to see developers contacting us to produce more sophisticated water displays.

“Dubai is trying to attract tourists, so water in a leisure environment always plays an important role, especially when you’re trying to create the biggest and the best, which relates to a lot of projects that Dubai is doing. It’s rapidly becoming a Middle Eastern version of Las Vegas - big lights and big water displays.

“Most of the features we do are outdoor features; probably about 90%. Which is kind of strange because one would imagine that in such harsh conditions people would seek to spend time indoors. This does present a number of challenges; the heat generates huge evaporative loss — about one centimeter per day of the surface area of a pool — if you’re doing large pools, that takes on new meaning.

“Wind is a big consideration. It’s a very windy area, which produces overspray. You have to build in wind controls which lowers the fountain during windy periods.

“Then there is the sand. It’s very abrasive and it gets into everything, messing up mechanical components. We create pools with large surge tanks and other large, still areas where the sand can settle out.

“We are fortunate that electricity, manual labour and water are incredibly cheap. Sea water is used because it’s readily available, but the salinity poses a problem. The salt corrodes the pipes and just about anything else, though there are ways to deal with that.

“All of this means that water features require regular maintenance by qualified personnel, and fortunately people are coming to understand that maintenance is something you have to pay for.”

GOING FORWARD

“Going forward, we’re very excited at the regional prospects. We are prepared to further invest in this market as a result.

“One of the projects we’re working on is the world’s tallest tower, Burj Dubai, opening in 2008. It’s one and a half-times the size of the London Docklands at one go. We’ve been retained by the property developer to design water features for the tower park. It’s the most high-profile project in the Middle East and the world at the moment.”


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