They used to have a low profile, but not any more. Turkish construction companies are keen to grab a bigger slice of the action after moving into the MENA region more than a decade ago. The Turkish government is also counting on them to land contracts in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Syria, Libya and Iraq in deals worth up to US$50 billion (Dh183.65bn) by 2015.
Gocay Construction, a highway specialist, is one of dozens of Turkish companies striving to help achieve this target. For Mustafa Silcuk, the assistant general manager of Gocay, MENA offers great opportunities at a time when the construction sector in his native country is sluggish. "Contractors have started to look for new work outside because in our country the big projects are very limited," Mr Silcuk says.
Last year, Turkish builders won overseas projects worth $18.1bn, figures from the Turkish Contractors Association (TCA) show. Erdal Eren, the president of the TCA, says he expects the industry to beat that figure this year, pointing to major projects in Russia, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. At the same time, Turkish companies are involved in about 26 projects in the UAE, including the Dubai Metro, which cost $4bn to build. They won these contracts before the slowdown in 2008.
Charging less than their foreign rivals, contractors from Turkey descended on the Emirates as the building boom took off five years ago. The biggest job went to Yapi Merkezi in 2005 when it was awarded a contract to build the Dubai Metro as part of a consortium led by Japan's Mitsubishi. Meanwhile, Nurol Construction was flexing its engineering muscles in Abu Dhabi when it was awarded a $60.7 million contract in 2007 to build a number of bridges for Shams Abu Dhabi, while Sumbol Construction was building the Nakheel sales centre.
Paul Barry, an international construction analyst at Navigant Consulting in London, says Turkish contractors, particularly those with experience in infrastructure projects, have grown in confidence. "We started to see them crop up as part of joint ventures in the Middle East about five years ago," Mr Barry says. "And now they've got lead roles in projects like Dubai Metro alongside some really big hitters from Japan.
"I think they've still got a little bit of a way to go before they take on bigger contracts on their own, but they are better than they were in the past when their record keeping was fairly unsophisticated, but they were cheap." While Turkey is keen to strengthen its presence in the Gulf, intense competition is making Libya a more attractive option for expansion. The country owns 40 per cent of Africa's total known oil reserves and has set aside about $60bn for infrastructure projects in the next three years.
Libya's government is also offering tax incentives on materials imported to attract foreign companies. Turkish contractors are involved in 36 projects there, including a number of shopping malls and entertainment centres in Tripoli. The Turkish government recently signed a bilateral agreement with Libya to waive entry visas, making travel and trade easier. "We're trying to develop projects in north Africa, especially Libya because there are a lot investment opportunities there and we have good political ties with the country," says Mr Silcuk.
Apart from the Turkish connection, other major foreign contractors are trying to strengthen their ties in the region's wide-ranging construction sector. South Korean industrial engineering companies won billions of dollars of work in the Gulf last year. And Samsung Engineering recently linked up with the Italian company Tecnimont to build a production line on behalf of the Abu Dhabi plastics company Borouge in a deal worth $1.2bn.
"Turkey is where the South Koreans were a few years ago," says Mr Barry. "In their evolution they [South Koreans contractors] can take a lot of these big projects on and take the lead." Singaporean companies are focusing on the growing sector for wastewater treatment plants. Salcon, a wing of Singapore's Boustead, in June won a $21m contract to build a water-recycling plant in Abu Dhabi as part of the emirate's water conservation plan.
It was the company's first contract in the UAE and includes a five-year operations and management deal. "This is a very important start for us and we will be using this project as a backdrop to pursue others," says Tan Kwee Kok, the chief executive of Salcon. "We are in talks with the Abu Dhabi Government about other projects and we are also looking at Qatar." email@example.com