As Mohamed Harasani sits behind a desk in his hotel suite – overlooking the half finished sandy sites of Dubai Festival City – half of Jeddah is underwater.
His office has been on the phone, having lost power for a few days, and as he prepares to fly back to his home city, the rain continues to fall.
Jeddah has not fared well, and the situation has brought stern comments from Saudi King Abdullah as to how the city has once again failed to prepare for what is becoming an annual phenomena.
“There is water running in the street like rivers,” Harasani says. “We never had such rainy season in Jeddah, and it wasn’t built to deal with it. It was never a problem so they didn’t take it very seriously. Now it is something that needs to be taken extremely seriously.”
Just as Jeddah needs to adjust to the changing climate, so Saudi too is going through a process of change. Over the past five years the market for major architecture firms like Harasani’s has ballooned.
He has gone from designing villas to designing high rise office blocks, this for a man who had to fight to get work at all when he first returned to the kingdom from architecture school in London and Liverpool.
At that time the bulk of lucrative government work was taken up by the same well established firms, while the private sector was seriously underdeveloped. For a young, recently graduated Saudi architect like Harasani, life was tough.
“In those days the main projects were the government initiated and were handled by many foreign international firms associated with a few Saudi architects in the kingdom,” he explains. “There was no way I could compete straight out of college with such firms or such projects, so I had to go into the private sector.”
That had its own challenges, Harasani says, because at the time private clients were not willing to invest in quality design. Architecture was not something that people believed you paid for.
“The private sector thought you were selling them paper, really, they were only willing to pay you what the paper cost. To them it was nothing, they didn’t really value the architect as an architect, and fees were low.
“In a way I am proud to say I really helped the profession in the kingdom, to be actually respected and to be in demand from the private sector.”
Harasani was able to change this attitude through working on small scale residential projects, designing villas and private homes for individuals and families in Riyadh.
“We started working and the word of mouth started spreading and how good design can actually help people live better. I think we changed a lot of lives in Saudi, and when you’re designing for an end user it’s a tremendous pleasure. It’s different from designing mega-projects and hotels. With an end user you know how he is going to use this product,” he says.
That market has changed, indeed. Harasani is now working on projects varying from Jeddah International Airport, to huge villas developments and a good deal of high-rise projects. This is another area where Saudi has changed over the last five years.
“The type of architecture that we are now seeing in Saudi Arabia is going to be on the large scale – tall towers – which we never really had in the past,” he explains.
“The zoning didn’t allow for that, so many things had to change in order to allow for such buildings. For instance, on the corniche three years ago you weren’t allowed to build 20 storeys or 24 storeys. That was considered then to be a very tall building for the Saudi architecture scene.
Now there is the new project in Jeddah which is going to be one mile high.
“The shift happened very slowly, of course, it grew with time. Now we have offices in Riyadh, Khobar in Mecca, basically we cover most of the kingdom.”
Harasani hopes that the growth in the industry in Saudi Arabia will enable more young Saudis to go into the profession, helping the country fulfil its need for growth. So far, he says, the number of locals employed in the architecture industry is minimal.
“We’re very short on architects and engineers in Saudi,” he explains.
“Today the current situation we have 170,000 engineering and architecture positions – general staff in Saudi – the Saudis don’t even amount to 30,000. The need is for 170,000 but there are not even 30,000 in total!”
The firm’s recent joint venture with Atkins will certainly play a part in redressing this balance, Harasani hopes. It was announced at the end of last year that the leading engineering and architecture consultancy would be joining with Harasani to form Atkins Arabia Design & Engineering Consultants.
The new firm that will target major infrastructure projects in Saudi Arabia, including transport, airports and port facilities. Atkins is investing 70% into the new partnership, with Mohamed Harasani contributing 30%.
“I think Atkins have a commitment towards (employing locals) and it is something I’m very interested in. I have a couple of young architects who actually trained in my office and they are actually now working on their own and they’re very successful, which is fantastic,” he said.
Meanwhile, Harasani, who was recently made representative of the Gulf Chapter of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), is not seeking to spread his wings beyond the kingdom, even with the announcement of Qatar 2022 World Cup drawing many consultants to Saudi’s tiny neighbour.
“To be honest we don’t really work outside Saudi,” he said, glancing out across Dubai through the window. “We are very busy, you know.”