Qatar Bin Ladin Group: Combining family experience and European know-how

by  — 7 January 2013

Overnight technology sector miracles aside, the process of building a company can take several years or even decades. But with a fixed deadline in a highly competitive sector – such as construction in Qatar in the lead-up to the 2022 World Cup, for example – this luxury of time is not an option. One solution, though, is to form an umbrella company that combines Gulf construction experience with the readiness of large international firms, explains Omar bin Ladin, chief executive officer (CEO) of the recently formed construction firm Qatar bin Ladin Group (QBG) to The Edge’s Miles Masterson.

If you try to set yourself up now for the World Cup, of course you are not going to be on time,” said bin Ladin in his quiet and measured manner. “It is not even 10 years to go now. It is impossible. But on the positive side, there are many international companies who would like to come to Qatar under a group umbrella.”

This is why, bin Ladin revealed, he has set up QBG rather as a collective of related international companies. 

He explained how he has been working since 2011 towards creating a Doha-based conglomerate that will be able to handle any project as well as offer services or equipment locally through its affiliates.   Under the guidance of bin Ladin, QBG hopes to compete for the scores of lucrative public and private sector contracts set to be tendered in Qatar from 2013 onwards, both in preparation for the World Cup 2022, as well as for the country’s general infrastructure plans.

The foundation of QBG is a partnership with Spanish construction giant Coprosa, who have a 51 and 49 percent stake respectively in Bin Ladin Company Group (BCG). This is then augmented by partnerships with a number of other firms, many from Europe, but also other parts of the world, across a spectrum of construction sector specialties. 

“We looked for general construction partners, electrical and mechanical engineering companies and heavy machinery rental companies etcetera,” Miguel Angel Sanjuan, a Spanish national who is QBG’s business development manager, told The Edge. Sanjuan added that the past year has been one of much travel – most of it to Europe – and negotiation for bin Ladin and his associates to vet potential companies and secure partnerships with the best. “It takes a long time. We spent about one month over there talking to companies, and have been developing our business for the past year.” 

“We have been creating a foundation,” bin Ladin added. “There were many companies interested in doing business with us, but in the end we chose the ones with more than 30 years’ experience, at least. They needed to be powerful and right to do the job.”

Coprosa, explained Sanjuan, has been involved in building railways, roads, underground developments, public buildings as well as large residential and other general construction projects in Europe and around the world. Other partners, Sanjuan added, include a heavy material rental company from Europe that he says already is operating in Saudi Arabia and is poised to enter the Qatar market through QBG.  “We are bringing in one hundred pieces of machinery here to start off with,” he added, “to support ourselves and to provide for the market.” 

The idea, Sanjuan reiterated, is to create a web of companies that QBG manages and enables them to “take hold of the opportunities around us.”

Apart from Qatar, bin Ladin explained, he is also looking to spread the affiliated network of construction firms he has created to other locations, including Sudan and Malaysia. But for the time being their main focus, and urgency, remains local. “Because of the World Cup the time we have in Qatar is short,” furthered bin Ladin. “You need to be ready to join this race, but you cannot build your company like in Saudi Arabia where you have a lot of time. You have to be ready in this country to do something fast.”

The reputation of the bin Ladin family name in the construction sector on the Arabian Peninsula of course precedes Omar bin Ladin. In 1931 the patriarch of the bin Ladin family Mohammed bin Ladin – his grandfather – left home in rural Yemen for the newly formed Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). Here he befriended the country’s founder, King Abdul Aziz Al Saud, founded Saudi bin Ladin Group (SBG) and was awarded numerous contracts to extend and restore most of the holy Islamic sites across the country. 

This lead to Mohammed bin Ladin landing deals to extend a network of highways across KSA and numerous other large and lucrative public sector contracts, which formed the basis of a multinational, multibillion-dollar construction conglomerate that now employs more than 180,000 staff and has a presence in various guises in Qatar, including in the form of Qatari Diar Saudi bin Ladin Group (QD-SBG).

However, in creating QBG, Omar bin Ladin insisted that he is wholly independent and any ties are in name only to the KSA-based bin Ladin construction businesses. 

Omar bin Ladin is also and will be forever famous for being the fourth son of former Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Ladin. He spent a short time with his father, whom he described as a “war person” in the organisation’s camps in Afghanistan. But while he has professed to loving and respecting his father like any good son and grieving his recent death, he is also equally famous for distancing himself from Osama bin Ladin’s extreme views.

“This is nothing to do with my business,” at first he reacted sharply to The Edge and then added that much of his life has been a learning process, leading him to the point he is at now, where he ultimately realised he wanted to contribute to the world and his adopted country in particular, by being a businessman and building things rather than breaking them down. “I am doing this because my father taught me this, my uncle, my grandfather so this is something that is our job,” he said of construction. “This is what I know how to do in order to make a living. I am Qatar-based, so this is also my duty to my country now.”

Qatar, explained bin Ladin, is in desperate need of capable construction skills and said his companies can potentially bring fresh ideas and provide innovative approaches to pressing problems. As an example, he cited a potential solution for issues such as traffic congestion and safe passage for pedestrians. “We have some new ideas to cut the traffic down 50 percent at the roundabouts,” he said. 

“We came with an idea to build special bridges with our partner Coprosa. The same thing might normally take two or three years to solve, but we can do it in around eight months, with very low costs and without disruption to traffic.”

Though, thus far QBG has only completed one small project in Qatar and has yet to secure a large contract, with his family’s solid reputation in construction and international partners, coupled with ideas and solutions such as the above – which Omar bin Ladin said have been well received – he is confident that they will soon land their first big deal. “The timing right now is very good and now we are comparable to a lot of companies,” he continued. “I have been doing this for 10 years now and I have no problem in handling it. This not difficult, you just need to have the right company and the right people to do the job.”

Nevertheless, setting up his business in the manner that bin Ladin has done so has not been without challenges, some of them ongoing.  Apart from the time it has taken to set everything up, another of the reasons he went the umbrella route rather than build everything up organically, Omar bin Ladin explained, that small construction companies find it hard to fit into the large project-based construction environment in Qatar – unless they are happy to fight for subcontracting scraps.

He also feels that many international companies, without the protection and experience afforded to by a local umbrella partner such as BCG, struggle to gain a foothold in Qatar and as a result often pull out after a few months, which in turn is not favourable for the local industry. Omar bin Ladin opined that this, added with well-publicised reasons such as the price of materials and labour recruitment, means the Qatari construction industry as a whole faces many challenges. 

Overall, as an industry construction in Qatar, Bin Ladin says, can be sometimes be disorganised and needs to improve its efficiency as a whole sector, if it is to meet its goals of well-constructed and integrated projects for 2022 and beyond. Nevertheless, he remains optimistic and is hoping his company will ultimately secure larger projects in the future. 

When it comes to his own management style as CEO of a multinational construction company, Omar bin Ladin says it is not all about deals and industry politics, and he can often be found on-site in a hard hat. 

“Sometimes you have to do that,” he closed, smiling for the first time in our conversation. “If there is a problem or difficulty you need to be there, you cannot just sit in an office. We have to check everything, you go to everything, every area, and make sure things are working the right way. Sometimes you will see things that your own people may not see. This is one of the responsibilities that I have. No one will succeed if you don’t visit the site sometimes and take care of these sorts of things with your own hands.”

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