Issue 35: Fire Protection Engineering in the Middle East
By Susan Lamont, Ph. D.
The Middle East has seen a boom in construction in the last 5-10
years, which has meant exciting travel and work opportunities for those
in the construction industry, including fire protection engineers. In
particular, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar are host to a
number of fire protection engineers from the US, Australia, UK and
Europe. To put this in perspective, the fire protection engineers in the
UAE are beginning to establish a UAE based SFPE Chapter, which now has
over 90 members on the mailing list. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia already
has a well established SFPE Chapter as a result of Civil Defence's
(Fire Department's) enthusiasm for the work of the SFPE.
There a number of urban myths about working and living in the Middle
East, which are usually related to the weather and lifestyle. The
summers are hot and humid, but the worst of the weather is between June
and September. During the rest of the year, people enjoy outdoor eating
at great restaurants, visiting beach resorts, exploring the mountains or
dune bashing in the desert. During June-September, the air conditioned
cars and buildings plus the numerous entertainment choices make life
here very bearable.
A frequent concern is what it is like working in the Middle East as a
woman. Working in the UAE or Qatar is no different to working anywhere
else in the western world. Indeed, the local culture is very respectful,
and many local women have senior positions in government and the
private sector. Local dress is not required for female expatriates,
although more conservative countries like Kingdom of Saudi Arabia may
Typical projects are mixed-use high rise buildings – usually
containing residential, commercial, hotel and retail, although funding
from the government has meant an increase in hospital, school and
transport projects. A significant share of the fire protection
engineering workload is in developing masterplans and writing design
guidelines for the future plot developers, which is a great experience,
as most western cities are so well established that new masterplans are
The UAE in particular has been leading the world in building the
tallest, largest, longest and most exciting projects. In Dubai, the
Dubai Mall has over 350,000 square meters of leasable floor area and
houses cinemas, an ice skating rink, an aquarium and an indoor theme
park, in addition to the many retail stores. Burj Dubai just opened, and
it is the tallest building in the world at >800 m tall. On September
9th 2009, Dubai opened their driverless metro, making the city much
more accessible and reducing congestion on the roads.
Abu Dhabi is also planning significant public transport networks, and
it is currently leading the world in its development of the Masdar eco
City. The brand new Formula 1 venue opened in Abu Dhabi on November 1st
2009 to host the last race of the F1 calendar. All of these projects had
input from international expat fire protection engineers living and
working in the UAE.
Historically, Qatar has grown more slowly than the UAE, but Qatar is
also now booming and has an impressive skyline of high rises and plans
for tram and rail networks. There are also significant or growing
opportunities in Syria, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and the Kingdom of Saudi
Each country in the Middle East has its own local code requirements
for fire protection of buildings, although most follow NFPA codes or the
International Building Code to address the challenges of large new
developments. It is imperative that the design team establish the local
rules at an early stage to avoid additional costs on the project. For
example, most local authorities place significant value on smoke control
systems, which may not be required on a similar project in the UK or
Local requirements for travel distances can be shorter than permitted
by NFPA codes or the IBC, which impacts stair core locations. As most
local codes are written in Arabic, local architects and engineers are
often employed to advise on local rules and help negotiate building
approvals. However, most expatriates are able to navigate the local
requirements after a few years of experience as they will have built
their own working relationships with the authorities.
It should be noted that fire protection engineers will usually have
to be registered with the Civil Defence authority in order to work in
the emirate or country. This registration is specific to Civil Defence
approvals and is in addition to the normal licences required to work in
the country. For some projects, a registered local architect will make
all local authority submissions on behalf of the design team, especially
if the design is being carried out offshore. This means the local
architect is responsible for the approvals process and consequently the
fire protection engineer may not have to be registered, but this is not
always acceptable to Civil Defence.
Projects are extremely fast track, which means fire strategies have
to be developed very quickly and approvals sought as soon as possible.
For example, during 2008 the design for a 15,000 seat sports arena in
Dubai was developed; the stadium will be complete by early 2010.
The scale and fast track nature of typical projects pose challenges
for all stakeholders and parties. From a fire safety point of view, fire
protection engineers are often needed to adopt performance based
solutions to address the challenges of the project, but this in itself
can be difficult because the time demands on the approving authorities
mean they have limited resources to review solutions. When performance
based design is embraced by all parties, the results are great design
solutions of which the client, engineer and authority can be proud. As
examples, performance based designs have been used to permit buildings
to be closer together (building to building fire spread issues), to
permit optimized passive fire protection and to permit extended travel
distances supported by engineered smoke control systems.
Like the rest of the world, the UAE has also been affected by the
global recession. A number of the more iconic projects have been
simplified or put on hold in favour of more cost effective designs.
Consulting fees are more competitive because there is less work, but
overall, it appears that the market has simply adjusted to a more steady
and sustainable growth.
As a consequence of the fast track construction that has occurred
over the last 10 years, there are now a number of existing assets that
will need to be maintained for the future. Civil Defence and the fire
protection community are working together to learn from these projects,
and where necessary establishing solutions for better design, quality
control, site inspection, maintenance and testing moving forward. Many
of the Civil Defence departments are now developing new local codes in
Arabic and English based on lessons learned to date.
The future of the Middle East is likely to see steady growth with
greater focus on maintaining existing assets and developing the
transport infrastructure for growing populations and cities. Building
projects will continue but at a slower rate than the last 5 years, with
sustainability high on the agenda. Fire protection engineers will
continue to be in demand to support this development.
The opportunities in the Middle East are numerous and definitely
worth considering for those planning to work abroad as a fire protection
Susan Lamont is with Arup.
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