United Arab Emirates: Dubai's Construction Industry - Still On Track

Last Updated: 8 September 2016
Article by James Foster and Courtney Rothery

While the UK construction industry holds its breath following the vote to leave the EU and concerns over investment in the months ahead, it is interesting to look at what is happening in Dubai's construction industry, which has been exposed to similar economic pressures as a result of the plunge in oil prices since mid-2014.

Dubai's current preparations for the Dubai Expo 2020 and the recent 3D printed building initiative highlight Dubai's determination to continue delivering world class projects and to lead industry innovation, which has not been dampened by wider economic uncertainty.  

Both of these projects offer opportunities for contractors and consultants from across the globe and the UK industry which, with its world-class experience and expertise, is well positioned to play a part.   

Dubai Expo 2020 - what is a World Expo?

In the six months between October 2020 and April 2021, Dubai will host the first World Expo to take place in the Middle East.  World Expos are global events which happen every five years and provide an opportunity for businesses from across the world to showcase their products and services.  Expos are often described as an "Olympics for Business".

Expos attract world leaders, decision makers and millions of visitors, and are a unique opportunity for a country to strengthen its international image, attract foreign investments and build its core economy rapidly.

The aim of a World Expo, in simple terms, is to attract visitors and make a profit.  This fits well with Dubai's ambitious targets to attract 20 million visitors a year by 2020 and the UAE's strategy to continue to reduce the proportion of GDP derived from energy revenue from about 30% to 20% in the next 10 to 15 years.  Reports say that the Expo is expected to generate approximately US$24billion in revenue for Dubai's economy between 2015 and 2021.   

The total spend on infrastructure projects related to Dubai Expo 2020 could reach as much as US$18billion.  Contracts to deliver these essential infrastructure requirements are in the process of being awarded as explained below.

The Expo 2020 site

In order to host a World Expo, Dubai needs to build a world class site.  The Expo 2020 site will be the biggest ever built; spanning 438 hectares it will be located in the Dubai South district, halfway between the UAE's capital Abu Dhabi and Dubai.  Estimated development costs of the Dubai South district are reported between US$8.1 and $8.7billion.

Dubai South District is adjacent to the new Al Maktoum International Airport in Jebel Ali, which will be expanded to meet capacity needs. The Expo site will also be served by two other international airports in Dubai and Abu Dhabi and will be accessible by a 15km extension of the Dubai Metro system's Red Line. 

Al Maktoum International Airport expansion

The Al Maktoum International Airport has been open for cargo flights since 2010 and the existing passenger terminal has been open for commercial flights since October 2013.  The airport was designed to relieve the pressure on Dubai's main airport Dubai International Airport (which is the world's largest for international travel) and is expected to see 100 million passengers by the end of 2020. 

The planned $32.67billion expansion project which was approved in 2014 will be executed in two phases over the next six to eight years and is expected to produce the world's biggest airport by 2050 in terms of size and passenger capacity.  

In May 2016, the UK's Turner & Townsend won a key contract to provide cost management services for the passenger terminal expansion. 

Dubai's ultimate plan is to grow Al Maktoum International Airport to have a handling capacity of over 220 million passengers per year and over 12 million tonnes of cargo per year on its completion. Al Maktoum International airport is estimated to be around ten times the size of the present Dubai International airport.

Dubai Metro Expansion

Dubai's Metro system is already the world's longest driverless metro network, spanning 75km and serving 47 stations (including 9 underground) on two lines.  The extension plans which are part of the Route 2020 project are impressive and involve a 15km extension of the network to connect it to the Expo 2020 site and to Al Maktoum International Airport.  This includes an 11.8km route above ground level, a 3.2km route below ground level and seven stations, including five above the ground and two underground.

Dubai South residential   

Dubai South (previously Dubai World Central) launched in 2006 and is a 145 square km purpose built city which will ultimately be home to one million people.  It is the emirate's flagship urban project and forms part of the Dubai Strategic Plan 2021.

By 2020, Dubai South Residential District will have around 10,000 residential units, a mix between villas, townhouses and apartments which will house an estimated 35,000 residents. It will include schools, nurseries, hospitals, retail outlets, a post office, swimming academy, and a sports centre.

In July 2016, Dubai South awarded contracts worth $272million for a number of project developments in the city's Residential District, adjoining the Expo 2020 Dubai site. The infrastructure and design contracts were awarded to the USA's Parsons Corporation and the US-based RNL Design, the UK's Atkins Global and the UAE's Studio International Architects, Al Nasr Contracting and Tristar Engineering & Construction.

Expo 2020 - sustainability  

Dubai Expo 2020 is promised to be one of the most sustainable Expos in history.  It is reported that half of the electricity used by Expo during the event will come from wholly renewable sources, with half of this generated on the site itself. The vast majority of the material used in permanent construction on the site (90% of the total) will be reused or repurposed in the legacy state of the buildings and infrastructure.

Expo 2020 - the road ahead

Dubai has set itself a hefty challenge; it has to build the main Expo buildings and all related infrastructure for the Expo at the same time, and all before the 2020 deadline.  The region however has a proven track record of delivering world class ambitious projects and the work required for the Expo 2020 will provide a timely bolster to the Dubai economy and the global construction industry, after other UAE projects were placed on hold and payments on existing projects stalled following the oil price slump.

3D printed buildings in Dubai

In May 2016, HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, opened the 'Office of the Future' - the first 3D printed office in the world.  

The unique office building covers up to 250 square metres and was constructed using a special mixture of cement and a set of building materials designed and made in the UAE and the United States. These materials underwent a range of tests in both China and the UK to ensure their reliability.  An arc shape was adopted for the building for safety purposes and to ensure the stability of the building. 

A giant 3D printer measuring 20 feet high, 120 feet long and 40 feet wide was used to print the building. The printer features an automated robotic arm to implement printing process.

The 'Office of the Future' demonstrates how 3D printing technology can be used to lower construction cost.  The official government statement reported that the labour involved in the printing process included one individual to monitor the function of the printer, seven people to install the building components on site and a team of only ten electricians and specialists to take care of the mechanical and electrical engineering.  As a result, the labour costs were reported to have been cut by more than 50% compared to conventional buildings of similar size.

In order to manage the execution of the project, extra mobile printers were located at the construction site, in addition to the use of advanced computers to help ensure quality control, facilitate the printing processes, and form effective and productive basement for different projects' requirements.

3D printing on this project enabled accelerated construction; the 'Office of the Future' took only 17 days to print after which the internal and external designs were adopted. The office was installed on site within two days, which is significantly faster than traditional construction methods.

The 'Office of the Future' is part of Dubai's 3D Printing Strategy (focused on construction and specialist products) which HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid announced in April 2016, when he also predicted that 25% of Dubai's construction will be 3D printed by 2030.     

Dubai's 3D printing strategy and vision

The value of the 3D printing technology based construction sector in Dubai is predicted to be over US$810million by 2025 and the UK industry, with its technological skills and expertise in modular building technologies, has an opportunity to play a key role in this industry revolution.

Whilst 3D printed structures are unlikely to replace bricks and mortar on larger projects, 3D printing may still feature in building projects on an increasing scale. There will no doubt be ongoing hurdles in relation to implementation; construction 3D printing will need to be integrated with other building components and is likely to require costly machinery and equipment, which means that cost savings may be longer-term.   Dubai's objective in this area is ambitious: to become a leading global centre of 3D printing technology by 2030.  

Clearly, Dubai remains determined not to let uncertainties in the oil market or wider economic confidence take the wind out of its sails, and this means significant ongoing opportunities for the UK construction industry.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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