Delegates at ACE conference hear that 'Dubai is not dead' and the UAE economy is set to return to growth next year

The Middle East, including the UAE, still offers some of the best opportunities for construction companies in the world, according to speakers at this week's Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE) conference.

Despite the impact of the global recession on the region, including late payments in the UAE, delegates and speakers at the event held in Abu Dhabi on Sunday and Monday said they still thought the region had significant potential.

Nelson Ogunshakin, chief executive of the ACE, said in his opening address to the conference that the association predicted that while the UAE's construction economy had contracted by 15% in 2009 it would grow by 1% in 2010 and by 3% in 2011.

Phil Dowrick, business specialist at UK Trade and Investment, the arm of government that helps British firms to work abroad, told delegates: “Dubai is not as dead as people think and it's hard to see how the emirate will not remain the regional hub for financial services, tourism, transport, trade and exhibitions.”

He said Abu Dhabi offered great opportunities too, citing key projects that could offer work for UK firms, including the £22bn Saadiyat Island scheme being developed by Abu Dhabi state-linked developer TDIC, Aldar's £13bn Al Raha Beach scheme and the sustainable city, Masdar, by Mubadala, which is worth around £22bn.

Dowrick added that Saudi Arabia was a key market, with £623bn being spent on public sector projects before 2020. He said that in the private sector, while Saudi was not immune from the global lack of liquidity, the government had established a $430bn “stabilisation fund” to support private sector developments that run into funding problems.

The issue of late payment in the UAE was also discussed at the event. Ogunshakin revealed that an ACE survey published this week found that 79% of its members were experiencing problems with international payments, with much of this thought to be in the Middle East.

He said the UK government needed to do more to tackle the late payment issue: “Peter Mandelson [the business secretary] is aware of the issue but I would like to see more intervention.” Mandelson visited the UAE in April to discuss late payments to UK firms.