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Foreign expertise vital for Saudi construction

Oman's new economic zone will span more than 20 sq km Shutterstock
Oman's new economic zone will span more than 20 sq km
  • Imported talent supports giga-projects
  • Kingdom’s construction ‘golden age’
  • Hiring roadshows held around world

Saudi Arabia’s construction industry needs more foreign involvement if achieving its Vision 2030 goals is to become a reality, according to attendees of the Big 5 conference in Riyadh.

In the first half of 2023 alone $44 billion worth of new projects were awarded in the kingdom’s $140 billion construction sector, according to real estate consultancy company JLL.

Attendees at Big 5 this week described it as the “golden age” of construction in Saudi Arabia

They ranked the kingdom among the top three most enticing markets in the world alongside China and India and compared the current Saudi landscape to Dubai 20 years ago.

“You go to the US or Europe or Australia and there is a mindset of limitation, whereas over here is the opposite,” said Ben Breen, the Project Management Institute’s global director of construction and interim regional managing director for Mena. 

“Over here, we talk about the vision of what you want to achieve and then work out how to do it. Money is not an object. Doing something different is in fact encouraged.”

However, this level of ambition requires more talent than is currently available domestically. 

About 70 percent of construction companies active in the Saudi market struggle with finding skilled personnel, according to the Royal Institute of Chartered Accountants’ global construction monitor for the fourth quarter of 2023.

Breaking through this bottleneck – both by training a new generation of Saudi professionals and importing expertise from abroad – is a key goal of the Saudi government and developers.

Breen told AGBI thousands of foreign professionals are being brought in to support the $1 trillion in planned giga-projects, and many of them can look forward to career-long prospects. 

“There’s 30 to 40 years of work on the table and how exciting that would be to be part of the development,” he said. 

“You are also given the ability to do a much bigger role than what your age or your experience dictates: it’s actually based on the merits of what you’re able to do.”

In a drive to attract more foreign talent the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) and Red Sea Global, which is developing dozens of luxury tourism resorts in the kingdom, have held roadshows across the world to identify new contractors and partners. Stops have included Qatar, Egypt, Turkey, the UK, Germany, South Korea, Japan and Singapore. 

Ben Edwards, group head of cost, commercial and procurement at Red Sea Global, said the message at the roadshows was that Saudi Arabia is “open for business” and “not the difficult market that it used to be to enter into”.

Edwards said he still gets many enquiries from overseas companies that want to dip their toe into this market without fully establishing themselves domestically.

“We’ve got quite a successful track record of recommending joint ventures as a softer market entry for companies that want to come here,” said Edwards. 

“Almost as a sort of an arranged marriage where they will partner up with a local company and then deliver the projects together.”

Othman Mohammad Alghannam, a senior engineer with the Saudi Contractors Authority, said it was “a great time to get involved”.

“We’re getting large companies that have been working for 50 to 60 years and are very experienced working with smaller contractors. They will definitely enhance the Saudi contractors,” he said.

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