United Arab Emirates

built on oil, the Middle East's second-largest economy is rapidly diversifying its project portfolio





Dubai, United Arab Emirates


Breaking records is just part of doing business in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The UAE is home to the world's tallest building (the Burj Khalifa in Dubai), its largest man-made harbor (Dubai's Jebel Ali), and its largest mall (the Dubai Mall, featuring 1,200 stores). But why stop there? Last year, a real estate company owned by Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum announced a project to build an even larger mall, covering 48 million square feet (4.5 million square meters).

Profits from oil exports have propelled many of these high-profile megaprojects. Today, oil and gas generates roughly 40 percent of the UAE's GDP. But as the outlook for oil falters, Emirati leaders are steering the UAE's economy toward more sustainable sectors.

This broader focus has led to an increasingly diverse project landscape. The country has already launched an array of initiatives in line with its Vision 2021 National Agenda, which intends to develop a knowledge-based economy built on innovation.

“There's definitely a lot of project growth in manufacturing, information automation, tourism and transportation,” says Peter Vande Kerckhove, PMP, project manager, manufacturing application systems at Borouge, a plastics manufacturer in Abu Dhabi, UAE. “When guests visit, most are very surprised by how much is going on here, outside of oil and gas industry development.”


“When guests visit, most are very surprised by how much is going on here, outside of oil and gas industry development.”

—Peter Vande Kerckhove, PMP, Borouge, Abu Dhabi, UAE

UAE leaders aren't shy about diversifying into other sectors. The government officially designated 2015 the Year of Innovation, focusing on areas such as renewable energy, transportation and technology.

A large-scale push for technology innovation—one that has spurred hundreds of new projects—is Dubai's Smart City initiative. Launched in 2014, it focuses on making services more efficient across six sectors: transportation, communications, infrastructure, energy, economic services and urban planning. Smart City projects include the installation of sensors throughout the city to better manage traffic flows, the development of a “smart electrical grid” that allows residents to sell surplus solar power to the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority, and the installation of “smart meters” to foster more efficient use of electricity and water.


One ambitious goal Dubai's government set for the Smart City effort calls attention to an especially dynamic part of UAE's project landscape: IT. By 2017, at least 1,000 government services should be accessible via mobile devices. That's indicative of the sector's overarching shift in the country, says Mohmed Abbas Burmawala, PMP, system project lead, Dutech LLC, Dubai, UAE.

“More and more projects on leading-edge technologies like mobility, open source and cloud are in full bloom,” Mr. Abbas Burmawala says. “The legacy systems are being revamped to provide a mobile channel.”

That means project managers are expected to stay current with the latest trends in the IT market and keep up with technology changes during long projects, he says. The aggressive push for mobile can create tight deadlines, too.

“Given the government's Smart City initiatives, we had a requirement from a large customer to offer their more than 100 e-services on a variety of mobile devices,” Mr. Abbas Burmawala says. “The project had to be executed in a short time frame and required knowledge of both state-of-the-art technologies and the customer's legacy systems.”

UAE at a Glance

Population (2014):

9.4 million


83,600 square kilometers (32,278 square miles)

GDP (2014):

US$416 billion

GDP growth rate (2014):


Primary industries:

Oil, manufacturing, construction, tourism

Gross national income per capita (2014):


Sources: CIA World Factbook, United Nations


A rendering of Zayed National Museum, part of a US$27 billion tourism-focused development called Saadiyat Island


In conjunction with this growth, Muhammad Altaf, PMP, a Dubai-based project manager for IBM Middle East, a PMI Global Executive Council member, has seen a significant boost in the number of IT project manager positions advertised and filled by UAE companies compared to five years ago—especially in the financial and defense sectors. In particular, local banks are expanding into global markets and need savvy IT project managers to handle the transformation, Mr. Altaf says.

“Organizations here are spending heavily on technology projects. They realize that technology plays a vital role in competing in the international market.”


“Organizations here are spending heavily on technology projects. They realize that technology plays a vital role in competing in the international market.”

—Muhammad Altaf, PMP, IBM Middle East, Dubai, UAE


Across sectors, many UAE megaprojects are scheduled to span decades. For example, construction on the ongoing US$20 billion Masdar City project began in 2006, was delayed due to the 2008 global financial crisis, and is now slated for completion between 2020 and 2025. Masdar City aims to create the world's first zero-carbon emissions, mixed-use development on a 6-square-kilometer (2.3-square-mile) parcel of land in Abu Dhabi.

In 2013, the first solar facility was commissioned in the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park. The park is slated for completion in 2030 with a target capacity of 3 gigawatts.

Organizations sponsoring such long-term projects are particularly interested in project managers who will stick around for the long haul. But finding talented project managers who are content to stay in one position isn't always easy.

“It's a challenge for employers to find the correct person,” says Noman Zafar Chaudry, PMP, lead planning engineer, Parsons International, Abu Dhabi, UAE. “In our parents’ time, one person would have three or four jobs in their entire 40-year professional career.” Now job-hopping is normal and leaving a job for a relatively small raise is widely accepted, he says.

What's more, countries across the region are competing for project management talent. According to the 2013 PMI Project Management Salary Survey, the UAE offers the highest median annual salary for project managers in the Middle East: US$86,736. But neighboring Qatar ranked a close second, at US$82,473. To attract and retain the right talent, UAE companies are giving generous salaries to high-performing project managers, offering training opportunities and mapping out long-term career paths, Mr. Chaudry says.

For Mr. Vande Kerckhove, who has worked in the UAE for four years, the opportunity to handle transformative projects has been his company's best talent retention tool. “The project portfolio that is currently being executed in many companies here is very challenging. I've been managing projects that delivered several new petrochemical plants from scratch,” he says.

He's currently managing 12 projects to ramp up annual production capacity at Borouge's Abu Dhabi plant this year. Coordinating team members across the civil engineering, electrical and IT disciplines has been a unique professional experience, Mr. Vande Kerckhove says. “Most of my projects introduce new critical systems and create the foundation for the coming 10 years, whereas in Europe, most of my projects focused on efficiency improvement. So I've enjoyed my career path here so far.”

“More and more projects on leading-edge technologies like mobility, open source and cloud are in full bloom.”

—Mohmed Abbas Burmawala, PMP, Dutech LLC, Dubai, UAE


Dubai was the fastest developing city in the world between 2002 and 2008.


With UAE's economy on the upswing, many stalled projects are getting back on track. For example, construction of the Louvre Abu Dhabi was put on hold in the wake of the 2008 economic downturn. Part of a US$27 billion tourism-focused development called Saadiyat Island, the project is now scheduled for completion later this year. Overall, the construction industry is once again booming, with US$52 billion in contracts awarded in 2013 alone.

With formerly stalled projects, “it takes more effort to convince management to add additional time, costs or changes from the original scope,” Mr. Chaudry says. So project managers “need to be more aware of scheduling, risk management and client management aspects of projects.”

The Louvre museum is part of an array of construction projects supporting one of UAE's major economic development priorities: tourism. In addition to major museum projects in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, projects in this sector are also bolstering Expo 2020, the world's fair that will be hosted by Dubai and could attract 25 million visitors.

“Hosting the Expo 2020 has brought enormous business opportunities.

The planning and execution of these projects is a mammoth task which requires skilled project managers.”

—Mohmed Abbas Burmawala, PMP

“Hosting the Expo 2020 has brought enormous business opportunities,” Mr. Abbas Burmawala says. “The UAE government has sped up infrastructure projects and significantly boosted the overall spending on all other areas of national development. Naturally, the planning and execution of these projects is a mammoth task which requires skilled project managers.”

The UAE has already reached a tourism milestone: In 2014, Dubai International Airport claimed the title of the world's busiest airport, with a total of 70.4 million passengers. Naturally, that's not enough: The UAE announced in September a US$32 billion expansion project at Al Maktoum International Airport, the emirate's other airport, to accommodate 200 million passengers annually.

Along with catering to tourists seeking culture, shopping and entertainment, the UAE also plans to attract people in need of medical services. Dubai will build 22 hospitals to draw 500,000 medical tourists annually and generate AED2.6 billion for the local economy by 2020, the Dubai Health Authority announced in 2014.

Across all sectors there is growing demand for Project Management Professional (PMP)®-certification holders, says Munir Kosnik, PMI-RMP, PMP, project manager, Al Suweidi Engineering Consultants Bureau, Abu Dhabi, UAE. “This growth, along with higher-than-average salaries, will make the coming years an opportune time for professionals and job seekers to build their project management skills.” PM

Practitioner Perspective

We asked practitioners:


“Organizations are looking for project managers who also have business intelligence and sales skills. They want people who, while delivering a project, are simultaneously doing business development tasks and leveraging interactions with the customer. In UAE, most successful project managers upsell additional services to the client.”

—Imran Malik, CAPM, PMI-ACP, PMI-RMP, PMI-SP, PMI-PBA, PMP, PgMP, PfMP, senior director of enterprise project management, Emirates Integrated Telecommunications Co., Dubai


“Knowledge of UAE methods of working, experience dealing with local companies and the ability to get things done with a multicultural workforce.”

—Mohmed Abbas Burmawala, PMP, system project lead, Dutech LLC, Dubai

What skills or training sets project managers apart from the pack in the UAE today?

“The Project Management Professional (PMP)® credential. It gives you an advantage in the job market, and it enhances the value of just about any other kind of technical credential.”

—Munir Kosnik, PMI-RMP, PMP, project manager, Suweidi Engineering Consultants Bureau, Abu Dhabi


“Stakeholder management and risk management. With organizations expanding at a rapid pace, a main challenge for project managers is that stakeholders also change during the project life cycle.”

—Peter Vande Kerckhove, PMP

Five notable initiatives showcase the UAE’s ability to think big.




In 2013, Dubai completed a AED120 million 13-megawatt photovoltaic power plant. The project was just the first piece of a grander plan: The Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park, slated for completion in 2030, will deliver 3 gigawatts. It's meant to help the UAE reach its goal of obtaining 24 percent of its energy from “clean” sources within the next six years.



Slated for completion in 2018, the US$79 billion national rail project will cover an estimated 1,200 kilometers (746 miles), connecting all seven emirates. Government-backed sponsor Etihad views the railway network, which is part of a larger international rail program funded by Gulf Cooperation Council member nations, as vital to UAE's economic development. It will move freight and passengers at speeds up to 200 kilometers (124 miles) per hour.



Located 500 meters (1,640 feet) off the coast of Dubai, the US$1.6 billion Bluewaters Islands development program includes retail, entertainment and residential properties. The five-year construction project, designed to bolster the UAE's tourism sector, is scheduled for completion in 2018. It will feature a US$270 million Ferris wheel called the Dubai Eye. Standing at 210 meters (689 feet), it will be the tallest wheel in the world.


An artist's impression of the proposed Dubai Design District


Covering about 21 million square feet (2 million square meters), the Dubai Design District project—also known as D3—aims to establish the city as an international design and fashion destination. Expected to cost AED8 billion, the project will include retail space for small boutiques as well as prominent brands, artist workshops, luxury hotels and office space. Its first AED4 billion phase is scheduled to close in 2015.



The first Arab state to bring nuclear power to the Gulf, the UAE has begun a four-reactor construction program at the Barakah power plant in Abu Dhabi. Projects worth US$20 billion have begun on all four reactors, with the first slated to come online by 2017. When the program is finished in 2020, Emirates Nuclear Energy Corp. expects the reactors to supply 25 percent of the country's electricity.




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