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Fighting back

To reconstruct a city destroyed by conflict requires more than just bricks and mortar. It also takes surveyors of extraordinary courage, drive and vision.

Roxanne McKeeken
26 September 2017

As the aeroplane started its approach, Richard Thorpe MRICS looked down for the first time on Kabul. Mysterious white spots dotted the landscape. “I realised what I saw were white flags indicating land mines. They were everywhere. At that point I thought, ‘What have I done?’” 

That was in 2006, and Thorpe, a partner at UK-based consultant Ridge & Partners, has returned several times to Afghanistan since. He is one of a number of RICS professionals who are willing to sacrifice their personal comfort and safety to help cities recover from conflict. What keeps surveyors like Thorpe going back, despite the risks, they say, is that the work is the most satisfying of their careers. And because the work can involve much more than just rebuilding shelter and infrastructure, an array of surveying disciplines are involved. 

Danijela Ilić FRICS is President of the National Association of Valuers of Serbia (NAVS) and is based in Belgrade. She says that, in a post-conflict city, before much physical reconstruction can happen, wary investors must be won over, and surveyors can play a pivotal role in this. “After a war, countries are typically poor and not very stable politically, so they have to rely on private investment. However, investors must have confidence that what they buy is fairly valued. If the tax authority controls the valuation of state assets, for example, investors will not want to know.” 

Property professionals and standard methods of valuation can, therefore, provide the transparency that is essential to attracting investment. Ilić is leading NAVS’ drive to help promote international valuation standards in Serbia. She explains: “Countries with a professional and legal framework for valuation recover faster, so our work is a very important part of the recovery process.”

If investors can be tempted to consider a post-conflict city, the next challenge is to find appropriate opportunities. This is where surveyors such as James Whitmee MRICS, Director at EMC Real Estate, come in. Whitmee conducts feasibility studies for developers in African post-conflict cities such as Abidjan, the capital of Côte d’Ivoire, which has seen two civil wars in the last 15 years. “During the time when Abidjan was unstable [it was] difficult for investors and corporates to make long-term commitments to locations that might be declared unsafe,” he says. Often the only options were near the airport, which was where the French military was based and therefore considered to be better protected. However, Abidjan has become more stable in the past two years, which is opening up a much wider range of opportunities.  

For would-be tenants, though, identifying potential buildings to rent is not easy in a post-conflict city. Whitmee often has to rely on some more old-fashioned agent skills. “You won’t find ‘to let’ signs on buildings. Instead, you have to pace the city streets and look around. You might have to talk to a security guard, find out if any offices are empty and ask for the landlord’s number.” 

The work that surveyors do to get an initial project off the ground can, in itself, help to attract investment by providing evidence of market transparency and economic growth. One such example is the Basra International Oil and Gas Hub (BIOGH) in Iraq, an 11km2 tax-free zone comprising oil and gas storage and industrial, commercial and residential space. 

Richard Cotton FRICS, Commercial Adviser at the Iraq Britain Business Council and former non-executive member of the RICS Management Board, is leading BIOGH’s marketing and leasing. He says: “The project aims to attract foreign companies to an area where there is no capital gains or corporation tax, no restrictions on who you employ and freedom to repatriate profit.” Cotton believes that the construction project will create 20,000-30,000 jobs for Iraqis, who will also benefit from training. In addition, the foreign companies that Cotton expects BIOGH to attract will, he says, help to promote transparency in Iraq. “All international companies need to comply with anti-bribery rules, so they’ll lead by example in BIOGH.” 

“Any visible reconstruction helps,” adds Fuad George MRICS, a Lebanese-British senior project manager at DG Jones in Lebanon. “The very sight of cranes in Beirut rebuilds confidence and attracts investors.”

“I have developed a philosophical stance that this is what I want to do and, if the worst happens, then that day had my number on it”  - Richard Cotton FRICS, Iraq Britain Business Council

In Iraq, Cotton says that the public sector often lacks “even basic skills, such as procuring contracts or writing tenders – it’s a desperate situation”. Surveyors can, Ilić adds, play a critical role by “coming in, working alongside local people and teaching how things should be done”. 

Although professional standards should not change, construction projects in post-conflict cities tend to be radically different. Often, security is a much more significant consideration, especially for cities such as Kabul and Basra, where unrest remains close by and insurgent attacks are a daily threat. This has a huge impact on budgets. Cotton cites oil and gas infrastructure projects in Iraq on which security represents about one-third of all costs. 

The security requirements for developments in Iraq include costly, high-security fencing. “As a rule, such fences need to be able to stop a three-tonne truck driving at 50kph,” says Cotton. Plots also have to be cleared of exploded and unexploded ordnance. Neither do the buildings being constructed bear much resemblance to those of conflict-free regions. “Your sophisticated high-rise is just not being built – there’s no demand for that.” Instead, designs must be blast resistant and account for the lack of skills available for maintenance and the need to import a high proportion of materials and skills. As a result, most construction involves imported prefabricated units, frequently from Turkey. Shipping containers are also commonly used. 

Surveyors may also need to take an alternative approach to dispute resolution. George explains that flare-ups between clients and contractors in Beirut must be resolved rapidly because if a project slows down it runs the risk of spooking its investors and even damaging the Lebanese economy. “We resolve disputes quickly by showing both the owner and the contractor the advantages of a swift conclusion. It usually involves an intensive period of lengthy meetings in which we explain the contract in detail.”

While post-conflict projects present different types of professional challenges for surveyors, by far the most alarming is the threat to their personal safety. Cotton, who is based in Erbil, the capital of Kurdistani Iraq, says: “It feels safe here but you usually find yourself in a building surrounded by razor wire with armed guards and sniffer dogs, which demonstrates a certain threat level, and Islamic State is only 50 miles away.” 

For construction surveyors, building sites are particularly risky places on which to spend time. DG Jones was involved with Sama Beirut, a 50-storey, mixed-use development that completed in late 2016. The skyscraper is seen as a potential terrorist target and so the construction site was patrolled by the police with sniffer dogs to detect explosives. The compound was also protected by security guards and anyone entering the site was searched for weapons. George says: “Lebanon is surrounded by conflict and about 80% of the labourers on the site were Syrians. Many carried the conflict with them and we had fights between gangs, which we had to call the police to resolve.” 

Logistics is also a headache, particularly with the need to import building materials and skills. George recalls a consignment that was delayed because the captain of the ship was unwilling to dock in the Port of Beirut because of troubles on the Lebanese-Syrian border. “We had to arrange for the ship to go to Greece and transfer the cargo to a boat that was willing to unload here.” George is used to such delays, however, and mitigates them by factoring longer lead times into schedules. 

Even with these safeguards, a project has no guarantee of success if the infrastructure is not up to scratch. It is a decade since Lebanon’s last conflict, with Israel, and the 15-year Lebanese civil war ended in 1990, but there are still power cuts in Beirut daily. George says: “In those years of conflict we did not invest in the power network and, as a result, we still regularly have power cuts. Drainage and water systems also sometimes fail to support the city properly.” 

In addition, “the absence of a reliable judiciary is a key problem for post-conflict states”, says Ilić. Judicial institutions were likely to have been breaking down even before the war, she says, so restoring them takes time. This can be another stumbling block, both for investors’ confidence and for surveyors attempting to resolve disputes.

Then there is the image problem that post-conflict cities inevitably face. Damian Harrington MRICS, Head of EMEA Research at Colliers International, says of Belgrade: “The city can suffer because the past conflict is still fresh in the minds of some investors.” 

However, surveyors working in post-conflict cities tend to believe challenges can be overcome. Harrington sees “huge growth potential” in Belgrade. He says: “There are still vast numbers of jobs around the world that need to be outsourced” and Serbia’s lower salaries and educated population make it ripe for meeting that demand. Belgrade is also geographically well-placed to act as a logistics centre for south-eastern Europe. 

Perhaps such faith is necessary for the professionals that take on the challenges of working in post-conflict cities. As for the personal risk, those that do it tend to be sanguine. Cotton says: “I have worked in the Middle East for a long time and I have developed a philosophical stance that this is what I want to do and, if the worst happens, then that day had my number on it. Admittedly, my friends think I’m a lunatic. But the Iraqis are remarkable people, and I want to help them.” 

And despite his apprehension on flying into Kabul, Thorpe is under no doubt that: “My work there was the most rewarding I’ve ever done.” 

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