For using his passion for projects to build a better life for the people of Bahrain
Khalid Mahmood Al Marzouqi is a bit of a wunderkind, leading a project management office (PMO) at just 25. So what's behind the meteoric career success? "Emotional intelligence. At the end of the day, no matter how many tools or manuals you have, project management is a people field. It's how you deal with various project stakeholders that determines your success."
He also has impeccable timing. As the director of strategic projects at the prime minister's office of the kingdom of Bahrain, Al Marzouqi oversees a portfolio of strategic priority initiatives ranging from mega-infrastructure projects to key health, transport and logistics, housing and economic reform projects. He took on the role in 2015, soon after earning the Portfolio Management (PfMP) certification. "It was the perfect time for me to start applying my portfolio management knowledge," he says.
And it's quite a portfolio: Al Marzouqi and his team oversee 30 to 50 priority projects for the kingdom. In a one-on-one chat, he covers a lot of ground: keeping ahead of the pandemic, navigating project politics and decision-making by text.
You became head of a PMO at age 25—what led to that?
I had been working as an IT project coordinator for a telecom company. Whenever I finished my day, I would go to the office of our PMO head and ask him about his work. He taught me what project management is all about. It immediately clicked for me because I love managing people, I love planning and I don’t like routine. I saw myself in project management and immediately started building my knowledge in this field, started my MBA focusing on strategic project management and obtained my PMP credential.
When my mentor left the company, I was appointed as acting PMO head. It was very challenging because I was only 25, but I did my best to prove to myself and to the entire project management community that young people can be successful in their roles.
From there, you moved to government. What are the primary challenges you see around managing projects in the space?
Multiple stakeholders for every single project. And politics. You have to know what to communicate to whom, and who needs to know what and when. Also, with government projects, it’s not always the financial impact that matters, it’s also about social impacts. This fulfills my project management passion, because I see the direct impact on every single citizen.
How do you meet these challenges?
The two things you need as a project manager of big, complex projects in the government are authority and getting decisions on time. We’ve established a successful governance system. We have an executive committee headed by the crown prince and prime minister, who meets the team twice a week, even during the pandemic. In those meetings, we focus on the priority projects. Whenever we need an important decision, we present the topic to the relevant minister and everyone else at the table to get a decision on the spot.
How did you help Bahrain address the pandemic?
I was one of the people who established Bahrain’s COVID war room. Very early on, Bahrain’s crown prince and prime minister instructed us to coordinate all the COVID-related work. So we were ready a month before our first COVID case.
I realized that health experts alone wouldn’t be able to handle the pandemic. This would involve setting up field hospitals, developing vaccination campaigns, getting testing facilities up and running, ramping up equipment—all in no time. I saw the link between project management and the COVID operation. The Ministry of Health still was at the center of executing testing and vaccination, but the command and control, the data and the daily reports were all centralized in the war room.
How did project management change for you during the pandemic?
A successful project is no longer only about delivering benefits to companies, the government or the economy. During a pandemic, project management can mean saving people’s lives. It means being able to help people and directly impact their day-to-day activities and overall well-being.
What was an early COVID-related project that delivered a big impact?
We set up a national call center in less than 48 hours. We appointed and trained over 300 agents speaking more than 12 languages, since Bahrain is multicultural and over 50 percent of its population are immigrants. That hotline is our main source of communication with the public. You call it if you test positive, or the hotline calls you to set up vaccination appointments. And it still operates 24/7.
The team in the war room was quite young. How do you think that shaped how projects were handled?
In the COVID war room, the core team were all under the age of 35. The younger generation tends to be more flexible and more practical. If we can achieve what we need to achieve with a phone or video call, we will. We used text messages to get the decisions we needed, rather than spending weeks waiting for official letters with ministry approvals. To deliver our campaigns and messaging, we used social media instead of traditional media and we used simple, day-to-day language.
Looking ahead, what are your career aspirations for the future?
I’d like to elevate the level of project management in the entire government. I want the kingdom of Bahrain to be well-known as a center of excellence in project management.