There’s a long way to go before we know what will emerge from the unrest in the Middle East and North Africa. But what seems reasonable to assume is that it will different from the established order of top-down command, in many cases fuelled by oil money.
How different things will be, who knows? Naturally it is unwise to rule out the possibility of the emergence of a more autocratic style of Government filling the power vacuums that are now appearing. But the betting seems to be in favour of more “people friendly” regimes.
And if this occurs just in those regimes that are currently in flux, it will have a profound impact across the region as a whole and how life operates there.
In general I do not seek to cover international events. But the truly remarkable developments in the Middle East seem to warrant some comment and a stab at answering the question: What does this mean for UK construction?
Well the simple answer must be potentially a huge amount. Construction builds the physical fabric within which cultures operate.
For someone with delicate sensitivities I have long been uneasy with the vision portrayed of construction in the region. A caricature I am sure, but majestic towers shimmering in the sand with floods of fountains, more man-made fantasy islands than you could dream of, world-leading conference centres a gogo, more hotels for the wealthy than you can stick a sheikh at and a World Cup to boot.
The clichéd image of unchecked egos splashing cash to satisfy their whims rather makes one weep. But I suppose my attitudes were shaped as a child in a Britain dimmed by the very long shadow cast by the Second World War that, until liberated in the Thatcher era, frowned on – at least publicly – overt wealth and questioned its usage.
Naturally I simplify for effect and, having not been extensively to the Middle East, I am ill-placed to make firm judgements. My comments are not specific but general, based largely on the portrayal of the region I see in the media and on the websites of UK firms doing business there.
I am also alert to the fact that the circumstances will vary nation to nation within the Arab world.
It is instructive to note, for instance, that Qatar rates as less corrupt than the UK on the Transparency International corruption perception index for 2010. And UAE, Oman, Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Tunisia all have more favourable scores than Italy and Greece.
It would also be wrong to suggest that the region is awash with poverty. There is poverty and inequality, as there is everywhere, but taken as a whole on most measures the Arab world fares pretty well in a global context.
Furthermore, from what I can see there are fantastic buildings being created in the region and I have no problem with playgrounds for the imagination – indeed I think they should be positively encouraged.
But it remains unsettling to see vast wealth put to the cause of the already very rich when the realities of poverty, need and powerlessness are neatly airbrushed away save for some showcase projects neatly tailored to meet the needs of those in public relations.
UK construction no doubt does much good work in the region, but it seems to me it is complicit in some of the worst excesses. As a willing servant to the monied it turns a blind eye, as it did to environmental issues and health and safety throughout much of the late 20th Century. I saw it then. I heard it then. And like many I found it distasteful – thankfully that tide has turned.
Anyway, that’s the end of a moral lecture that no one wanted but I felt necessary to include, now to the grubby business of threats and opportunities.
Until the shock has passed, until it is clearer what the future holds and how extensively the political fabric has been rent, it is quite right that firms will focus on their more immediate risks within the region. They are after all tied (in the main) to economic, social and political systems that look increasingly wobbly. Many projects may prove to be at risk and the safety of employees threatened. So the threats are real and plenty.
But – and a big but – if we do begin to see a new order emerging that is more centred on the immediate needs of the populous and a more egalitarian distribution of resources, fantastic opportunities open up.
In the UK we are developing – not brilliantly, but better than most – soft skill, listening skills and financial skills that help us to better translate the needs – and where possible desires – of the public into construction projects.
These are complex skills, far removed from the skills needed to deal with a more bipolar relationship firms might have with rich clients.
Indeed, central to the politics of the previous and current Government, and highly influential on construction, were concepts that sought and seek to engage the public – inclusion, localism. This has further cemented albeit subtle changes in how we plan, develop and construct.
The industry is, slowly admittedly, developing thinking and strategies to embrace a more democratic – for want of a better word – approach to creating and adapting the nation’s built environment.
For instance, we understand that sustainability is not just about reducing carbon, but also about building appropriately to meet the current needs as best we can while building something that will have purpose and relevance in the future.
I know it’s lovely for engineers and construction folk to have a playground to build the ultimate this or that building – something spectacular for the cv.
But wouldn’t it be great to export skills where we have a real competitive edge and could truly lead and inspire the world and which might actually enrich the lives of the masses rather than reinforce the masses already in the hands of the rich.
So, yes the upheaval brings real, immediate and worrisome threats. But in the aftermath – maybe, just maybe – there may be great opportunities to see more British talent at work in the Middle East and North Africa helping to sow the seeds for truly sustainable development.
And yes I do appreciate I am being idealistic and simplistic, for that I have no excuse.