EME Outlook Interview With Engr. Abdulhalim Muwahid

brief of UNEC legacy during the interview with the chairman -Engr. Abdulhalim Muwahid- conducted by EME outlook

Dubai. It’s a city brimming with sensational, surprising and admirable achievements.

As the region struck oil in 1966, H. H. Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum laid out a masterplan to turn Dubai into its modern self – what was once a relatively modest cluster of portside settlements now stands as something of an architectural playground, home to the Burj Khalifa, Burj Al Arab and a host of other iconic landmarks that wouldn’t look out of place in the dreams of the most revered structural artists.

“Look at the explosion of growth in Dubai in the last 20 years,” states Engr. Abdul Halim Muwahid.

“The city has drastically changed, having been established as a hotbed for construction for many years. The UAE long had major ambitions for Dubai to become a major hub, not only in the Middle East but around the world. And now we see that – it’s a focal point of business, tourism, air travel and indeed construction innovation.”

Engr. Abdul Halim Muwahid himself is able to map out this timeline of transition better than most.

After working in the region for a few years as a Site Engineer, he found himself dreaming of a better way of doing things. The dream became a reality in 1976, as he took the challenging and bold decision to lay the foundations for a new company – one centred on values of quality workmanship and reliable partnerships.

Those values have remained constant as the company has experienced change, challenges and achievements, now standing as one of the region’s most trusted and accomplished partners in the construction industry.

With over 50 years of experience and knowledge, United Engineering Construction (UNEC) is a company that is truly helping to shape cities and build tomorrow’s skylines today, partnering with the world’s leading real estate developers to exhibit excellence across every segment of the industry. Engr. Abdul Halim Muwahid remains the central driving force at the heart of UNEC and its future legacy with his active role in all aspects of the company’s development, strategy and daily operations.

Taking pride in technological progression

Taking after Dubai’s own heart, much of UNEC’s revered reputation has been built on the company’s commitment to innovation, a quality that has become particularly prevalent in recent times as construction-centric technologies continue to advance.

Such is no better evidenced than by its integration and utilisation of building information modelling (BIM) – an intelligent 3D model-based process that provides industry professionals with the insight and tools needed to more efficiently plan, design, construct and manage buildings and infrastructure.

Engr. Abdul Halim Muwahid explains: “In the past two years we’ve hired professionals qualified in BIM and at the same time invested in upskilling our existing employees in utilising its benefits. We currently have four ongoing projects being delivered using BIM, not because its usage has been mandated by our clients but because we see the benefit that it gives us as a contractor.

“We’ve also encouraged the subcontractors that we work with to start using BIM and have even helped to implement and integrate the technology within their operations in cases where they don’t have the necessary experience or expertise.”

Looking at UNEC’s processes and workflow, recently implemented enterprise resource planning (ERP) technologies have had similarly transformative effects.

Moving many of the organisation’s administrative tasks from paper to digital, it has served to interconnect each office and department. From HR, finance and procurement to stores and workshops, documenting and operating on one mainframe has significantly improved efficiency and operational transparency.

Despite the benefits that these innovations have provided, getting all parties on board with their integration has been no easy feat, many of UNEC’s employees having queried the need for such changes at all.

“And they have every right to ask such questions,” Engr. Abdul Halim Muwahid declares. “We’re talking about changing the way that an entire company has been operating in previous years, so you’re always going to encounter resistance as well as those embracing change. It’s entirely natural that concerns and challenges should arise.”

Here, a dedication to employee satisfaction and welfare – a cultural facet of UNEC best highlighted by its CSR Silver Label award from Dubai Chamber of Commerce among other accolades – has paid dividends.

The company has taken the time to introduce the technologies to its entire workforce, demonstrating through education and training how such tools have the potential to assist performance and ease workloads.

“In the wake of training sessions on both ERP and BIM, we’ve had a number of requests from the team about using technologies in other areas; whether we can automate this or that,” Engr. Abdul Halim Muwahid  affirms. “And that’s great – it represents a cultural shift where everyone now sees the value in what we’re doing and are moving forwards with a collective vision of continuous improvement.

“We’re dedicated to investing in new technologies and talent. We allocate separate budgets for research and development, and always look to explore new ideas. Sometimes things work, sometimes they don’t, but whatever the outcome, we really take pride in ensuring we are continually progressing in a technological sense.”

Devoted to development

The topic of pride leads us swiftly onto UNEC’s growing project portfolio, the firm closing in on a monumental milestone of 300 successfully completed developments.

Sifting through this collection, the sheer array of diverse structures spanning the commercial, retail, hospitality, governmental, infrastructure, education, culture, residential, healthcare and mixed-use categories is impressive in itself.

For Engr. Abdul Halim Muwahid, however, a few recent projects stand out as particular highlights.

“December saw the grand opening of the Arab Marine Academy project in Khorfakkan, Sharjah,” he states, pointing to the first of these. A university comprising 18 buildings, the entire project was completed in just eight months – a feat that’s almost unprecedented, even by UNEC’s high standards.

“At one point we had more than 6,000 staff working on this project in three daily shifts,” the Chairman continues.

“When we started the project, everyone was saying it was impossible, and we ourselves were not blind to the fact that it was a massive challenge. But we broke the project down into small milestones and through the help of our subcontractors, which were a great credit to what we’ve been able to achieve here, we managed to surprise everyone and surpass expectation.”

Meanwhile, November 2019 saw the Palm Jumeirah-based, UNEC-built Nakheel Mall open its doors in Dubai for the first time, the 4.5 million square foot development becoming the first mall to be built on a manmade island.

“What’s special about this project is that while the Dubai Metro (monorail) passes through the centre of the mall, its operation was not impeded throughout the entire construction process,” Engr. Abdul Halim Muwahid reveals, eluding to the firm’s strict safety precautions and professional knowhow as the key to its successful completion.

Two further Dubai-based malls are also currently being built by UNEC – Silicon Central Mall in Dubai Silicon Oasis, and Deira Mall located inside Deira Islands.

The former, which last year was shortlisted for the 2019 MENA Green Building Awards, is expected to be complete in Q4 of 2020, while the latter is the single largest contract award since the Burj Khalifa in 2004, valued at $1.3 billion.

“Like Nakheel Mall, Deira Mall will be located on a manmade island,” the Chairman states. “However, this new development will be more than twice the size of Nakheel Mall, set to become the largest such complex in Dubai at more than 10 million square feet.”

Pursuing new opportunities

With these contracts providing just a small flavour of UNEC’s value proposition and ongoing prospects, it’s easy to see why the company is currently blanketed by an air of optimism.

Looking outside of the UAE, its Saudi Arabian office is garnering greater attention, owed to the increasing number of promising projects emerging in the Kingdom. At home meanwhile, the Chairman is quick to reiterate that the organisation will retain its unwavering commitment to implementing cutting-edge industry technologies and remaining ahead of the curve as it moves through 2020.

“Traditionally the construction and education sectors have seen lacklustre innovation when compared to others in decades gone by, failing to leverage new technologies,” he explains. “But that is starting to change. There’s now greater awareness about how new solutions can provide benefit, and we want to be at the forefront of this industry shift.”

Technological innovation is just one way in which the regional construction field is changing, however.

The subject of trends leads Engr. Abdul Halim Muwahid swiftly onto providing his concluding outlook in the form of a number of other key forecasts, first pointing to the need for greater operational adaptability in the face of Expo 2020 and Dubai’s continual urban expansion.

“From what I can see now, infrastructure development contracts are going to be leading in the UAE for the next two to five years,” he explains. “A lot of buildings in this region are also getting older having been built 20 or 30 years ago, and for that reason I foresee facilities management becoming increasingly important in the coming years.

“In terms of a general overview, techniques such as 3D printing, prefabrication and modular construction are expected to become more applicable to this sector.

“While these are in their relatively early stages, the benefits that they can provide in terms of safety, quality and efficiency by enabling contractors to complete many fine-tuning elements in a timely, controlled manner offsite, thereby drastically reducing construction complexity and timeframes, make them undeniably attractive.”

Listening to Engr. Abdul Halim Muwahid, it’s without doubt that the construction sector is moving faster now than ever before.

For UNEC, however, this is not a challenge but an opportunity, the company’s vast resources, commitment to innovation and extensive experience perfectly positioning it to capitalise on any market shifts that may emerge, both now and in the future.