Saudi Arabia: ‘The scale is like nothing anyone has ever seen’

Saudi Arabia
Hopper worked on the revisioning of the King Abdullah Financial District in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (Image:
Rick Hopper FCIOB is the new managing director for Mott MacDonald in Saudi Arabia, and the new chair of the CIOB’s MENA region hub. He tells Rod Sweet how mind-blowing the building scene is in the kingdom today.
Rod Sweet: Tell us how your career started.

Rick Hopper: I started my studies in civil engineering as a mature student, alongside an internship in architectural design in the US. I moved to England in 2004, taking on my first job at Jane Duncan Architects, doing high-end residential work in the Home Counties.

Interested in bigger, mixed-use schemes, I moved on to Sutton Griffin Architects, working on the Parkway Newbury mixed-use scheme in Berkshire. This was also the time BIM came along, so I became the firm’s BIM champion.

My last UK job was with Lyons+Sleeman+Hoare Architects, researching how English town centres, hastily rebuilt after the Second World War, could be restored to their more organic, pre-war character. That was fascinating, and I’d probably still be doing it if the boom in the Middle East hadn’t happened.

RS: What made the Middle East beckon?

RH: I still had this niche skill for taking a design concept and running a multidisciplinary team to get it built. Atkins initially hired me as a design manager on the Al Areen Downtown development in Bahrain. Over time I progressed to project director working on the National Theatre – one of the most exciting projects I undertook in Bahrain.

Atkins identified my skill for pulling effective teams together, so I became managing director for Bahrain and Kuwait, before moving on to Saudi Arabia.

RS: What did you work on initially in Saudi?

RH: When I arrived, Atkins had only five people on the ground, but we got the timing right because Vision 2030 was announced six months later. We immediately started picking up projects from that. In a very short time, we went from five people to about 100.

Aecom recruited me at the end of 2018, with the remit of developing the business as I had for Atkins. As head of operations and strategy for Saudi, I worked with the CEO to grow Aecom to become one of the largest consultancies in the country – expanding from a small team of four to five people to a 300-person business over four years.

Saudi Arabia
Rick Hopper FCIOB: “You almost have to be here to understand that it’s real”

The teams I led won work on projects that are almost household names today. We took part in the original visioning project for Qiddiya, the entertainment giga project west of Riyadh, the revisioning of the King Abdullah Financial District and the first masterplan for the Diriyah Gate heritage development. For the Neom giga project, I also started working on the regional planning study and recently was leading the Neom business operations team.

RS: Saudi now seems to be booming

RH: The challenge is to stay focused because the boom here is well beyond anything in the UAE. The scale of projects is like nothing anyone has ever seen. My first tour of the Neom site in 2018 took three days! And that was just an overview.

Traditional site monitoring techniques don’t work on these massive programmes in Saudi, so they moved to drone technology and now they use satellite imagery on certain sites. You almost have to be here to understand that it’s real.

The biggest challenge is competing for good people. During Q2 and Q3 of last year, 1.5 million new expats gained residency, adding to an expat population of 10 million. Construction is by far the biggest driver of the population boom.

For CIOB, that has translated into a 38% growth in members in the country between 2021 and 2022. The institute is in a good position to support people because they’re getting promoted fast and they want their professional accreditation to keep pace with that.

CIOB champions equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI), and some very interesting things are happening in the kingdom in that respect. The government had set a target of reaching 30% Saudi female representation in the workplace and, having started from a very low base, it now stands at 37%.

Many Saudi women have studied overseas and are now working in planning, project management, architecture, engineering, and we want to carry that momentum on.

RS: How are you settling in at Mott MacDonald?

RH: I have been in my new role for just over a month and the team has lived up to its reputation for being a positive and collaborative group of professionals. I’m particularly looking forward to working with all the new Saudi graduates as they shape their careers in Mott MacDonald and help shape the future of their country.

This is a very interesting time to take the lead for Mott MacDonald in Saudi. Our new Riyadh office brings us closer to our key Saudi clients as we work with them to support Vision 2030. As we grow our team, we can draw on Mott MacDonald’s global expertise, while developing a pool of industry-leading experts in this country.

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