The decision by the world’s biggest construction company, Bechtel, to establish a global centre of excellence targeting rail and ports work in Dubai is not all that surprising once you hear the president of the company’s Europe, Middle East and Africa region, David Welch, talk about its prospects.
Mr Welch is a well-known figure in the region, having served a US diplomat for more than 30 years, rising to become Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs before taking up his post with Bechtel in 2008.
He heads a division of the company that employs thousands of people in the region on big-ticket projects such as the new Muscat International Airport, Doha’s new Hamad International Airport, Jubail Industrial City. Last year, it also completed the $7.2bn Khalifa Port & Industrial Zone at Abu Dhabi.
“The three most dramatic developments in the last 15-20 years in this region have been the development of ports and industrial zones, the complete transformation of the air traffic market, and now railroads,” he said.
"We're looking at opportunities here in the transportation sector, since this has been a convenient place to do business not only in the region but elsewhere. You'll see us expanding the use of our capabilities from the UAE to do business elsewhere, too.
Bechtel is ranked as the biggest contractor in the world last year by US-based Engineering News Record. Its recently-released figures for 2012 show that its sales grew 15% in 2012 to $37.9bn, and although new contract awards announced during the year fell by 55% to $23.9bn - due largely to the fact that they hit a record all-time high of $53bn in 2011, its project backlog at the end of 2012 was $92bn.
“We're a globally deployed company - a true multinational,” said Welch. "At any given time, we probably have the majority of our revenues from our multinational business. Though we still have an extremely important part that is North American - the United States in particular."
The firm has its traditional headquarters in the west coast city of San Francisco, but many corporate functions are also carried out from a base in West Virginia. It also has divisional headquarters for oil & gas in Houston, for infrastructure in London and for mining and minerals split between Santiago in Chile and Brisbane, Australia.
The company, which employs 53,000 worldwide, has been active in the Middle East for more than 70 years - initially working in Saudi Arabia on oil & gas and railroads projects. In the UAE, it began its first project in the early 1960s on the Murban oil field in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi.
Bechtel has carried out a full range of activities - project management, EPC and other types of contract - across all parts of the region, and Welch said that it is typically engaged in complex infrastructure or industrial projects.
One example of how long-term relationships have paid off for Bechtel has been at Jubail Industrial City, where the company has been advising the body responsible for the area - The Royal Commission for Jubail and Yanbu - since the idea for the project was developed in the 1970s.
In the 1950s, Jubail was one of a number of small fishing and trading villages on the Eastern coast of Saudi Arabia with just a few thousand occupants.
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