Architect Mohamed Ibrahim Jaidah makes a global impression
From designing some of the iconic Qatar Embassy buildings in foreign countries to winning the 2022 World Cup stadium project, Ibrahim Mohamed Jaidah has come a long way since acquiring the Arab Engineering Bureau (AEB) in 1991. Today, with close to 700 employees of 35 different nationalities, AEB has grown into a truly global architectural firm of Qatari origin with five international offices in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. In an exclusive interview with Syed Ameen Kader, AEB’s chief architect and chief executive officer Jaidah shares his journey from local to global, and what it takes to become a respected name in the industry.
AEB has been appointed design consultant for the 2022 World Cup’s eighth proposed stadium in Al Thumama. Tell us about the project and the design competition.
It was an international design competition where a number of firms competed. We are proud that we won it. The stadium will be built over an area of 515,400 square metres (sqm) and will have a minimum capacity of 40,000.
Like all the other stadiums, it is part of the brief that the project has to be unique. It needs to meet all the international standards and have the latest technologies in the world, but, in terms of identity, it should belong to its surroundings. As in the case of other stadiums – whether it is Al Bayt stadium in Al Khor or all the other stadiums in Al Wakrah – they all have some relevance to our culture and nature.
You are the first Qatari architectural firm to do so. What do you think has worked in your favour to win such a tough competition?
We had the right team from all over the world because it is such a highly specialised project. But reflecting the cultural identity into the design, I think, was the key, besides the fact that we are as big as any other international firm which has the best technical and aesthetical capabilities.
But timely delivery is also the key for such a project.
We are a local company and have been delivering projects for many years in Qatar. In fact, we are celebrating our 50th anniversary this year. The company was originally founded in 1966 before I took over in 1991. That also gives confidence to the client. So after 50 years of delivering projects in Qatar, I think we can be trusted for any scale of projects.
Tell us about your global presence. Was it an intentional strategy to expand your operations internationally?
We have done projects in many places where we do not have branches – from Mauritania to Sudan to Cyprus and Yemen. We continue to do projects all over the world, but our branches are in Doha, Abu Dhabi, Muscat, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Manila. These are the locations where we have a physical presence. And, hopefully, we will be in Dubai very soon.
We are extremely busy here, but we get calls from people who say they want us to come and do their projects. So when you are in demand, you cannot refuse.
About 10 years ago when clients told us to come, we started realising that we need to expand globally. I started the first branch in Abu Dhabi and I was literally given a job. Actually, I was asked to enter a competition that I won. They said take the job and open a branch. And the rest is history. A similar incident happened with Muscat. We had an opportunity to do a big project there. Now we are building so many projects there.
Was it tough to compete with big and established players in those markets where you entered?
We moved there because we got called. They said, “Take the job and open your office here.” So our clients are telling us to open a branch and we get rewarded with a job for opening that branch. So we are actually called to open. We didn’t open and go and look for work. The work took us there to open a branch.
But those countries are different from Qatar, both culturally and architecturally. With AEB’s specialisation in Qatari traditional designs, how challenging was it to compete in those markets?
It wasn’t that challenging because buildings are buildings at the end of the day. We do very contemporary buildings even in Qatar, such as the ones we have done in West Bay, The Pearl-Qatar and Lusail. We are doing quite a bit of those projects. So at the end of the day, state-of-the-art engineering and architecture are capabilities that are global. It does not have to reflect a certain identity at all. When we do something here, or we do in Muscat, we reflect the local culture.
What type of diversified manpower pool do you have in your company?
We have 35 nationalities and we speak 44 languages in one office. So that is really something we are proud of. We are as global as you can imagine, and we really have a mixed-culture within our environment.
We are extremely busy here, but we get calls from people who say they want us to come and do their projects. So when you are in demand, you cannot just say no.
There are concerns about the current economy, due to the dip in the oil price. How challenging are the times for you as an architecture firm?
I think it was very well stated in HH the Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani’s speech during the opening of the Shura Council session a few months ago that we can become more efficient now and this is exactly what is happening. In my opinion, the right sizing of most of the companies is a healthy sign. It is like a wake-up call to say that you have to become more efficient. You don’t exaggerate the sizes so all the companies are doing this, which I think, is healthy. We see this happening in many economies around the world. As soon as there is crunch situation, I think people become more economical, they learn and as things pick up again, they are just better. In 25 years of my career, this is the fourth time something like this has happened. So we have seen this go up and down. Thankfully, it does not hit as hard as it hit other places in the world because our per capita income is high. Our government is good and we started diversifying into the gas industry. We have also done mega investments in the overseas market.
However, as far as our company is concerned, we continue signing contracts like we did before. At present, we are negotiating a contract every week or so, and I think the clock is still ticking. Qatar has many ambitions and projects that have to go on, especially, those related to the 2022 World Cup and infrastructure projects. The private sector has not slowed down, especially when it comes to hotels or the Lusail project. It may be possible that the middle investors, or the small five-storey building guys are a bit more cautious. But, usually, in such times, it is best to continue building because you are getting the best deals from the contractors.
Why are there not many Qatari architectural firms like yours here?
Many people from my generation have gone to work for the government or into setting up businesses, but there are not many people in truly professional businesses. We have seen some lawyers and doctors, who have received good success, but within the engineering and architectural industry, you are correct, there are not many in Qatar. Even within the whole Gulf Cooperation Council, you would not find 20 firms that have been established and have grown.
There is a lot to learn from international architecture best practices, but I think with Qatar University’s school of architecture, we train a decent number of these youngsters who are now decision makers in government and so on. So I am extremely optimistic that there will be continuity.