Award winning article : "Belgian contractors in the service of the sheiks"

In the first years of the 21st century, Belgian contractors play a significant role in major infrastructure projects that shoot up like mushrooms in the Middle East. In a billion-dollar business, Belgian companies construct Burj Dubai, the tallest skyscraper on earth; they are reclaiming new land for prestigious development projects such as the "Pearl of the Gulf" in Qatar, the Palm Islands off the United Arab Emirates, or the Lulu resort for leisure and pleasure in Bahrain. Not to forget the construction of the new Doha airport platform, where the A-380 will land after her maiden flight in 2008.

This new wave of Belgian business activity in the Gulf follows a similar boom in the 1970's. Crude oil prices were soaring in the aftermath of the 1973 oil crisis, and the talk of the day was about "recycling the petrodollars." "General contracting" and "ensembliers" became the new buzzwords. In the mid 1970's I deeply researched this Belgian business presence in the Middle East, and I visited a lot of these companies in the Gulf during a memorable trip. My newspaper kindly allowed for pages and pages to cover these developments, which were groundbreaking indeed.

In those days, the Saudi-Arabian capital Riyadh was but a swarmed-out regional city with sandy streets (the main boulevard was called "Badha" for Sand Street); Dammam was mainly known for its nomad camel market; and delays in the port of Jeddah mounted up to 200 days, with congestion supplements being charged of up to 75 percent. Quay wall and handling capacity was extremely limited, compelling Belgian truck drivers to long and adventurous journeys over risky roads - often ending in an evil Turkish prison.

I was a young journalist at that time, and this series of reportages sometimes reflects the long professional road I still had to go myself. Some stories are bluntly pedantic but then, this was a completely new world for all of us at that time. And yet, having recorded these developments in the mid 1970's yields some lasting value - or so I want to believe. In retrospect, I also realize that I should have put these articles in a broader perspective: the rush to the new markets in the Middle East may have been a new phenomenon, but the presence of Belgian general contractors abroad is well documented over no less than 150 years - in Russia, in Egypt, in Argentine, in the Far East, in Africa, and in so many other places.

Maybe one day, I will write that history of corporate Belgium - and I will then start with the huge infrastructure projects in the Middle East in the early 21st century, in which Belgian contractors are now involved.


Not an every day sight in Saudi Arabia: a Christian saint makes his entry in the desert. Dredging International invited Santa Claus in its "Belgian compound" in Dammam.


Five kilometres beyond the 1976 city borders of Riyad, the Belgian company M + R International designed the satellite town project of Al Khureis, featuring some 1.000 new houses. Nowadays, the district runs into Riyad and is an integral part of the Saudi capital.


Back in 1976, the Belgian company Dumon-Van der Vin installed more than 200 km of sewerage in Riyad. The sewer pipes were produced by the Belgian company Keramo.


The Al Khureis town project development in Riyad, for which M + R International did the planning and the design. In view of the double-digit price increases of building materials, Saudi public authorities intervened to stabilize the price of steel.


Prior to vaulting, a 5 metres wide and 3 metres deep open sewer was still a gaping rift along Riyads' main boulevard, the Badha. In 1976, the sandy side streets of Badha were not hardened yet.


In 1976, these were the outskirts of Riyad - nowadays a booming and busy district. Installation of sewers by the Belgian company Dumon-Van der Vin in Riyad.


For the benefit of families and staff, Dredging International built an attractive swimming pool in its compound at Dammam.