Thousands of piles dot the Middle Eastern desert, spreading out in a T-shaped formation. They are the foundations of what will become a 700,000- square-meter airport terminal—and one of the foundations of Abu Dhabi’s ambitious 21st-Century infrastructure plan. The emirate’s long-term goal, to become a top destination for world trade and a cultural crossroads for the East and West—is getting an upgrade. The project now includes green-building and sustainability goals, as well as a growing number of western engineers and consultants brought in to help manage the $2.5-billion Abu Dhabi International Airport expansion and a slew of other projects.

“There is a vibrant market here,” says James Bennett, chief executive officer with the Abu Dhabi Airports Co. (ADAC), the authority overseeing the project. He arrived in Abu Dhabi a year ago from Washington, D.C., where he oversaw the $3-billion expansion of Dulles Airport. “The [U.A.E.] region is experiencing phenomenal growth,” he says. Bennett would know. The veteran builder has watched a steady stream of his American colleagues join the effort—more than 50 at last count on a 200-member team. The imported expertise “speaks to the international nature of the aviation business,” he says.

Haytham D. Haidar, chief development officer for ADAC, recruited American airport experts from Chicago and Atlanta to join the team. “In addition to our emirati colleagues, we have two-dozen countries represented on our delivery team,” says Haidar. “We are combining our own experience with new blood.”

Dan Molloy, who led Atlanta’s $5-billion airport expansion before becoming ADAC’s deputy development officer, adds: “Part of why we’re here is the challenge. It’s a new frontier. We’re stepping out of [our]comfort zone,” he says.

These professionals, including executives with Parsons Corp., Pasadena, Calif., as ADAC’s program manager, are part of an overall $12-billion upgrade plan for all five of the emirate’s airports. In conjunction with the emirate transportation department’s ambitious road and rail plans, the airport program is part of a goal to transform Abu Dhabi’s oil-dependent economy and accommodate a 1.6-million population that is expected to grow to 3 million by 2030.

“�Transportation is key for our overall planning,” says Saood Al Junaibi, director of sustainability and urban design for the emirate�s Urban Planning Commission. “The key directive was how to make growth more sustainable without over-development. The economic factor is to not depend on oil and gas. We look at the airport as a key to that.”

The star of the airport program is the Midfield Terminal Building (MTB), to be built between two existing runways and slated to open in 2016. In the interim, terminal facilities have been expanded. “We’ve tried to resolve how to build for interim capacity while looking 30 years ahead,” says Haidar.

Design of the 700,000-sq-m MTB is complete, he adds, with a construction manager bid selection pending. The initial contract may call for a first phase of 630,000 sq m, based on constructability reviews and risk assessments. “It is a dynamic, fluid environment,” he notes. The team has to be prepared for change. For example, officials originally estimated that 16.5 million passengers would pass through annually. That figure swelled to 20 million after Etihad Airways, an anchor airline, made acquisitions that bumped up the estimate, notes Ismael Al Zarouni, ADAC program manager for facilities support.

Now, 7,425 augered cast-in-place piles as deep as 20 m await the MTB’s future construction manager, which will also strive to meet Abu Dhabi’s answer to LEED—a sustainable ratings system called Estidama, which means “sustainability” in Arabic. It is considered the first sustainability rating system in the Arab world and is already in use to rate all new construction; a maximum rating is considered five “pearls.”

The MTB will require 1.2 million cu m of excavation, with the deepest cut about 11 m, says Nadir Al Khatib, infrastructure team leader. Eight of the 65 gates will accommodate the supersized Airbus A-380 jetliners. A new 110-m-high air traffic control tower, now in commissioning, is expected to aim for an Estidama rating with the use of ethylene tetrafluoroethylene, a highly anti-corrosive, resilient and light-transmitting plastic on its facade. Christopher Arman, MTB deputy development director, will bring his experience with the Chicago airport’s green efforts to bear on ADAC’s Estidama goals. “We’re trying to recognize and hybridize [green] elements,” he says.

Big Dig

The first new construction project slated to receive an Estidama rating would be a crucial link in the project. Once travelers arrive in Abu Dhabi, they will have greater access other attractions, thanks to the $1.36-billion Salam Street project, says Abdulla Saeed Al Shamsi, acting executive director of infrastructure and municipal assets for the municipality of Abu Dhabi. Divided into four construction contracts, the project includes a 3-km-long cut-and-cover tunnel, four underpasses, a bridge and four lanes in each direction squeezed into a compact urban landscape.

The expected reduction in traffic congestion plus sustainable construction practices such as soil reuse go into an Estidama rating. The project involves lifting 1,200 precast-concrete girders, up to 80 tonnes each, into place for the cut-and-cover tunnel, about 1.5 m below ground level. Secant piles line the walls to shore up the adjacent buildings, and a waterproofing liner is used to prevent water seepage. The two-year project requires almost two million sq ft of excavation.

“We are combining our own experience with new blood.”

When completed next year, the 18-km-long route will accommodate about double the current capacity to 6,000 vehicles in each direction per hour. The increase is expected as major retail, tourist and mixed-used developments sprout around Abu Dhabi—including Saadiyat Island, the site of $1.5 billion in new developments, including an outpost of the Guggenheim museum.

Sustained Opportunities

Jeffrey Squires, Abu Dhabi-based president of Parsons, has seen U.A.E. opportunities evolve over the past decade. In addition to its involvement in the airport program and Salam Street, Parsons designed the high-profile Khalifah Bridge and serves as construction supervisor for the development of Saadiyat Island, among other projects. He believes the next major market growth will be rail.

Landrum and Brown, Cincinnati, has an on-call planning contract with ADAC. “Airport growth in Abu Dhabi and the United Arab Emirates is the fastest in the world,” says Doug Goldberg, the firm’s president. “Abu Dhabi is taking a prudent fiscal approach with a strong stakeholder focus. Instead of just spending money, they are looking at the long-term payback.”

Making the move halfway across the globe wasn’t necessarily easy, despite the lure of financial compensation. But ADAC’s imported staffers say they embrace the challenge. “It’s been interesting to strip out my own experience to some degree while learning from others and getting to know the local culture,” says Arman, formerly of Chicago. “We’re privileged to be part of it, and we have to iron out our differences.”

Some airport financial models, like airline fees, differ from the States, notes Bennett. “But you’ll find that the issues are the same business-wise.” The ultimate key was picking “like-minded individuals who are the cream of the crop,” says Haidar. “We’ve been entrusted with billions of dirhams. Once we start building, there is no turning back.”