The Britons helping to build the Emirates' promised land

The Middle East has become a sanctuary for leading business lights looking to try their hands overseas.
  • @MLeftly

Tony Douglas, a 47-year-old from the sleepy Lancastrian market town of Ormskirk, will jet off to Abu Dhabi this evening on a mission to build one of the Middle East's grandest megaprojects.

As chief executive of the Abu Dhabi Ports Company (ADPC), Douglas will lead the construction of a 400-square-kilometre industrial area midway between Abu Dhabi and Dubai known as Khalifa Port. The project, which will include an offshore port and workers' residential areas that are as big as small cities, will be two-thirds the size of Singapore and the first phase alone will cost 27bn dirhams (£4.9bn).

This marks something of a comeback for Douglas, whose star dimmed slightly last year. He had been groomed to become chief executive at £5bn-turnover Laing O'Rourke, the country's biggest privately owned construction group.

Tough chief executive Ray O'Rourke cancelled plans to hand over the reins to Douglas, who had been his understudy as chief operating officer for more than two years.

This was part of a wider trend in the construction industry of big-personality, long-time bosses being unwilling to loosen their grip during the height of recession. As another example, Stef Stefanou, the owner of concrete contractor John Doyle, parted company with highly regarded chief executive Rob Johnson as he looked to have more day-to-day control.

Industry gossips speculated wildly about where Douglas would turn up next. Infrastructure schemes seemed a likely destination as Douglas had previously been responsible for the £4.2bn construction of the architectural odyssey that is Heathrow Terminal 5.

Tomorrow, Douglas will confirm his new role to the Gulf media. Television crews will scramble for interviews with him and his chairman, Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber. The latter is also chief executive of the company behind the Masdar initiative, which will be the world's first carbon-neutral, zero-waste city.

Douglas will find himself in the heart of Abu Dhabi's drive to turn this small emirate into one of the world's leading metropolises. This has become part of an overall plan known as Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030, which was launched in January and comprises a number of annual and five-year development targets.

Neighbouring Dubai might have some of the most crippling debt problems, but this emirate is attracting big name British talent to lead its growth.

Khalifa Port and Industrial Zone

Douglas replaces acting chief executive Tawfiq Yousof Al Mubarak, and will be the most senior Westerner in a company dominated by Emirati.

Dredging and land reclamation work started two years ago at Khalifa Port, one of nine ports that come under the remit of ADPC. But the vast industrial zone that surrounds it is by far the company's number one priority.

The port will start operations in autumn 2012. Beyond that, houses, infrastructure and industrial areas will be developed. Some analysts have put the eventual budget into the hundreds of billions of dollars, but the truth is that the scheme is currently too complicated to cost properly.

All manner of industries will be developed, from processing aluminium to trade and logistics centres. They will be separated into clusters, with zones for paper production and petrochemicals already earmarked.

On ADPC's website, the executive vice-president, Khaled Salmeen, says: "KPIZ is a key component of Abu Dhabi's industrial development and economic diversification strategy, with an overall vision to become a world-class industrial, export, services and logistics hub."

Masdar City

The snappily named Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company is masterminding Masdar, a $22bn (£14.6bn) development just 17km from downtown Abu Dhabi. The city's leaders want Masdar, which will be powered by renewable energy, to become a hub for international experts to research carbon-free technologies.

Construction started in 2008, with the first buildings due to open in the third quarter of this year. The city is being built on six square kilometres of land not far from Abu Dhabi International Airport.

The scheme is part of a broader commitment to ensure that Abu Dhabi gets 7 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.

Lord Foster, the leading British architect, masterminded the planning of Masdar and his ideas have been exhibited in Abu Dhabi since he was commissioned. The inclusion of such a big name was a boon to the project which has received much overseas attention.

Just last month, Angela Merkel, Germany's Chancellor, visited Masdar along with German officials and business leaders. The power group E.ON, chemical company BASF, and Deutsche Bank are among the huge German companies that are working with Masdar.

However, there have been problems. The masterplan is being reassessed, with Richard Reynolds, the head of supply-chain management at Masdar, admitting that "the choice of design and commercial mix" needed to be updated to ensure the scheme remains commercially secure.

There have also been job cuts representing roughly 20 per cent of Masdar's workforce, although officials insist that the first phase of the project will be completed by 2016.

Union Railway

Blackburn Rovers fan Richard Bowker left the UK last year after an unsuccessful tenure as the boss of listed transport group National Express. Lord Adonis, the then Secretary of State for Transport, stripped National Express of the East Coast Mainline franchise as Bowker was packing his bags for the warmer climes of the Middle East.

However, UAE authorities must have been impressed by his time as boss of Network Rail, where he was regarded as Tony Blair's favourite businessman.

As chief executive of Union Railway, Bowker is in charge of rolling out a countrywide railway network linking all seven emirates.

In total, there will be 1,500km of rail track, estimated to cost up to 30bn dirhams. The first track should be operational within four years and will be a huge boost to Abu Dhabi's economy. Trains reaching speeds of 120km/h will transport granulated sulphur from fields belonging to the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.

Formal tenders inviting expressions of interest from companies wanting to build and supply the construction will begin this year.

"We will run a disciplined, transparent and competitive process," Bowker was reported as saying earlier this month, as he tries to restore his reputation so far away from home.