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Editor: Rod Sweet

Interviews & writing: Rod Sweet, Sarah Chalabi
Graphic Design: Dana Zabalawi
Research & coordination: Dana Zabalawi, Nansy Kahala, Waleed Shaalan
Thanks also to

Center for Research and Studies on Kuwait (CRSK) - Dr. Abdullah Al-Ghunaim
Kuwait Oil Company
Ministry of Information
Bashar al-Essa
Divya Menon
Enrico Canosa
Enric Ruiz-Geli
Siby George
Dr. Tarek Kazzaz

Printed and bound: Al-Khat Printing Press, Kuwait

Vol. 1.0

1. 1960s: Youth, creativity, ambition

5. 1990s: Reconstruction and hope


2. 1970s: Growing out, growing up


6. 2000s: Maturity and experience


3. 1980s: Golden decade


7. The next 50
142 New opportunities, new

4. Invasion

Our people
159 People and moments
SSH Timeline
191 A glance back

By George Abi-Hanna

n 2011 we celebrated an important double birthday: the

50th anniversary both of the founding of the independent
State of Kuwait, and of the architectural practice by Sabah
Abi-Hanna that would come to be known as SSH.
In 1961 Kuwait negotiated a formal end to its status as a British protectorate.
Its birth as an independent nation state came amidst a dramatic transformation,
occasioned by the start of oil exports in 1946, from a pre-industrial walled
town of low, mud-brick buildings into the vibrant and modern city state we
see today. The remarkable burgeoning is captured by the Palestinian architect
Saba George Shiber in his 1964 book, Kuwait Urbanisation: The discovery of
oil in Kuwait impinged with potent, sudden, and great force on the desert.
Conventional urban growth patterns were shattered. The harshness of the
desert succumbed to the forces of the machine.
Sabah was just 22 when he opened his practice in 1961. He threw himself into
his work with passion, skill and commitment. From the start he distinguished
himself with technical innovations, the use of sustainable, local materials, bold
new forms and sensitive recasting of traditional ones. As a result, he has had
a lasting influence on the physical face of Kuwait. He also had a vision that
encompassed uncompromising professionalism and ethics. It was a vision that
drew remarkable people, both colleagues and clients, who in turn expanded
the vision in new ways. Key among these were Salem al-Marzouk, firebrand
reforming politician and talented engineer, and the pioneering planner Charles
Bosel. Fifty years on, this vision continues to animate SSH.
The two narratives of the country and of the company are intertwined.
SSH enabled the development of Kuwait, its buildings, infrastructure and
development plans, and in turn Kuwait enabled the development of SSH by
providing major opportunities and historic challenges. In these pages weve
tried to capture and reflect on this fascinating dynamic as we prepare for the
next 50 years.


Before oil, Kuwaiti merchants pearled and traded across the Indian ocean in their unique dhows, which gave them a competitive edge (Kuwait Oil
Company archives)

Merchants counting money in what used to be one of the most active trading and pearl diving hubs in the region (Kuwait Oil Company)



Youth, creativity,

Early life, education and a brush with destiny

Young Sabah Abi-Hanna receiving his high school

diploma on graduation day

First Year AUB Engineering Summer Camp,

resting with classmates after a days field
activities, Zgharta , 1954


abah was born the youngest of five children to a family

of modest means in Hamat, a seaside village in northern
Lebanon. Three older brothers had emigrated to Australia
in the 1950s and they sent money to help pay for his
education. He applied himself rigorously, at one point in high school completing
three academic years in the space of 12 calendar months. He was readily accepted
into the American University of Beirut (AUB), the top university in the Middle
East at the time.
To say that Sabah had been consumed from birth by a passion for architecture
would be picturesque and useful for the telling of this story, but it would not be
true. He enrolled in a general engineering degree, and then sort of fell into it.
Here is how he describes it: During the first summer we went to the Zgharta
district to do some surveying. We camped under the olive trees, measuring with
the rudimentary equipment. A week before the end of the programme, there was
a posting on the board: Any student who wants to sign up for the architecture
department, write your name here. I had no guidance. I put my name down. I
was one of ten students.
Sabah is equally candid about his first brush with architectural instruction: I
remember it well. Our teacher, Professor Assem Salam, was a comfortable man
and made us very comfortable. Our first assignment was to draw the basic design
for a log house that could be built with only a saw, hammer and nails. I did not
know how to design so I made a simple box shape.
I was never an artist by nature. What skill I have in architecture and design,
I acquired.
He was drawn to the work of Richard Neutra, a Viennese modernist architect
who had risen to fame in California designing homes with stark geometries and
integrated landscapes. When his works inspired me, I earned a lot of praise
from my teachers, Sabah says.
In his third year he failed mathematics, which in those days meant forfeiting
the whole academic year. Looking back he attributes this bump to his young
age relative to his classmates and to the accumulating pressure of the workload.
It was a blow, but the setback turned to his advantage. That year Lebanon
suffered an earthquake and with the universitys help he found a position with a
government reconstruction company.
I worked there until I could resume my studies, he recalls. I had an
Armenian boss, an engineer, and I went with him to the villages to help people
assess the damage. It was a very interesting experience and it was good to have
a responsible, professional job. I earned a decent salary and my first pay cheque
I gave to my father. It was a big feeling. It meant a lot to me even if later I
continued to receive money from my brothers.

Young Sabah Abi-Hanna, summer internship in Kuwait, 1958


Sabah Abi-Hanna, second from the left, with his collegues during graduation from the American University of Beirut (AUB) 1959


Sabah in front of the main entrance of the Bechtel School of Engineering and Architecture, AUB, 1956

In the summer of 1958 Sabah got his first glimpse of the world outside
Lebanon. He and six other students from AUB flew in a twin-prop DC-3 Dakota
to Kuwait to participate in a summer internship with the public works department.
He had barely heard of Kuwait before. I was young, and felt very little fear. It
was the start of a new life and I was happy to let things happen, he says.
He spent the summer attached to the design section, run by two British
architects. He worked on designing a clock for Safat Square and visited a few
villas under construction. A Palestinian architect, Mr. al-Khateeb, the man in
charge of designing and detailing all joinery and woodwork for government
projects, made a big impression. He was so effective, Sabah recalls, that he did
single-handedly and without computers what would normally take a whole team
to do. It was a pleasant time, Sabahs first stint away from home, and he made
friends, particularly with senior engineer Yehya Mazboudy, also from Lebanon.
When the summer ended, he boarded the Dakota to fly home to complete his
studies. He may have thought that was the end of his association with Kuwait.
But I like to imagine the desert wind whipping up a little sand dervish to grab at
his shoe as he mounted the steps to the plane, because that wasnt the end at all.


I went with
my boss to
the villages to
help people
assess the
damage. It was
good to have a
responsible job.
Sabah Abi-Hanna


Sabah, second from left, as an intern at the Department of Public Works, Kuwait, summer 1958. On either
side are fellow AUB interns, Fawzi Germanus and Souhayl Bathish. With them are engineer, Negroni, and
architects, Khateeb and Nielson



A world tour costs Sabah his job, but its the chance he has been waiting for

First sea-loading line laid in 1946 (Kuwait Oil



fter graduating in 1959, Sabah idled around the

university, wondering what to do next. Australia was a
possibility. His brothers were there. He had written to
Harry Seidler, an architect in Sydney from the Bauhaus
school, who replied with an offer of a job, but without a salary. Then one day at the
famous restaurant near the university gate, Faisals, he ran into Yehya Mazboudy,
the senior engineer hed met in Kuwait. It was a happy reunion, and a fateful one.
It turned out Mazboudy was in Beirut precisely to recruit young engineers and
architects for the public works department in Kuwait. An offer of a job with a
salary of 1,600 Gulf rupees (the currency in Kuwait pre-independence) soon
arrived in his university mailbox.
Sabah leaned towards Australia, but he needed advice. With his two offers
in hand he went to his professor (later dean), Raymond Ghosn, who was an
established architect in his own right. But Ghosn only confused matters.
He told me I actually had three offers because he was considering me for a
post in his office. This was difficult. He was a good designer. But then he advised
me to go to Kuwait. He said opportunities like that dont come very often and
that Id improve more in Kuwait than in Australia or Lebanon.
What Sabah may not have fully appreciated during his previous summer was
just how much and how rapidly Kuwait was changing. Since its first commercial
shipments of oil in 1946, Kuwait had increased production exponentially and was
now very rich. The Amir, Sheikh Abdullah al-Salem al-Sabah, was determined to
distribute that wealth. The government bought vast tracts of land at high prices,
both inside and outside the wall surrounding the old town, and sold it back to
Kuwaitis at discounted prices, causing a tidal wave of residential and commercial
property development. Roads, schools, hospitals and factories were also being
built, and the population was expanding rapidly.
Against this backdrop, Sabah returned, taking up his post with the Department
of Public Works on 5 October 1959. He was assigned to planning, and a few
months later the planning department, with Sabah in it, was moved over to
the Kuwait Municipality. There he checked development applications against
building regulations.
For only one year would Sabah remain a faithful cog in the machinery of
government. He was eager to see the world. In the autumn of 1960, having saved
some money and some holiday time, he took a trip to Australia.
It was an eye-opener for the young designer, giving him first-hand exposure
to architectural flair of an international standard. In Sydney, construction of
Harry Seidlers iconic Australia Square was about to start. It was to be the
citys tallest building and the worlds tallest lightweight concrete building. And
controversy over the Sydney Opera House was raging, with British engineers

Sydney Opera House under construction

Ove Arup frantically trying to work out how to build the roof shells, the hallmark
of Danish architect Jrn Utzons design. Sabah was riveted. He bought and read
everything he could on the subject. (Six years later Utzon would be driven from
the embattled project by the state government. Tantalisingly for Sabah, Utzon
would go on to design Kuwaits new National Assembly building, completed in
It was my first trip to a faraway land, Sabah says, a big leap for a simple
villager. Having caught the travel bug he extended his itinerary, taking in Manila
next and then Tokyo.
He was late getting back to the office at the beginning of 1961: 17 days late,
to be exact! Meanwhile his employer, the old Kuwait Municipality, was strict,
and had policies for everything, including how to deal with junior staff who go
missing for 17 days without explaining why. It counted as a resignation. They
were nice about it, though. When he went to get his final pay they told him he
could contest his dismissal and get his job back, but something stopped him. In
his mind he heard a creak. It was the opening of the gate of opportunity, foretold
by Professor Ghosn. On the spur of the moment he decided he would set up his
own practice. He was 22.
On 19 June 1961, Kuwait formally gained its independence. In December of
that year elections were held for a 20-member council tasked with drafting the
constitution. In January 1963 Kuwaitis elected their first 50-member National
Assembly, which had genuine legislative powers. The most democratic state in
the Gulf was born.
Young Sabah paid only fleeting attention to these momentous events, because
he was busy. Staying for a time as a guest in the apartment of a friend, his office
his friends dining room table, Sabah landed his first fee-paying job: to prepare



Al-Jahra Gate, from the east, the fourth of five Gates within the third wall of Kuwait during the 18th century. The wall has been demolished, but al-Jahra Gate
is still standing in what is known today as the Sheraton roundabout (Kuwait Oil Company)


Old Kuwaiti traditional houses moulding

the narrow street topography, pre 1960s
(Kuwait Oil Company)

Aerial view of Kuwait city in the early 1960s.

Modern multi-storey buildings emerging
among clusters of old-style courtyard houses
(Kuwait Oil Company)


drawings of the layouts and elevations for the renovation of White Palace, the
home compound of the late Sheikh Abdullah Mubarak al-Sabah. From then on
he was never out of work.
Kuwait was a great place for construction at the time. The old town, an
organic complex of low, mud-brick buildings, was bursting out through the
old wall. It was during this time that Palestinian architect Saba George Shiber,
whom we quoted earlier, was brought in by the government to try and instil some
planning discipline and limit the damage of rampant development. Shiber could
be described as the grandfather of planning in Kuwait. As the 1960s wore on
practically every street corner sprouted a new design or engineering consultancy.
Few, however, were to last out that first decade, let alone subsequent ones. Sabah
had a gift for selecting upwards. He chose projects well, with a view to making
not only a mark on the burgeoning cityscape, but fruitful, long-term relationships
as well. The circle of my acquaintances widened very fast, Sabah says.
The White Palace job shows this fertile web in bud form. He was in close touch
with the professional team at the Department of Public Works. Through a friend
there, a Lebanese civil engineer, he was introduced to Najib Najjar, founding
partner of Ahmadiah Contracting Company, a prominent firm in Kuwait to this
day. Ahmadiah had been approached by the Sheikh Adbullah Mubarak family to
renovate the palace, and Najjar decided to give Sabah a try.
Sabah quickly moved up in the world. He opened an office, and got himself
a place to live.
I stayed in the Carlton Hotel downtown because my office was next door. I
thought it would be easier, but I couldnt cope with being on call 24 hours a day,
like a doctor. It was like a diwaniyah, with people dropping in to chat whether to
do with work or not.
He bought his first car, a Fiat, and, on his first drive, on Abdul Nasser Street,
disaster struck.
I hit a goat! he recalls with genuine dismay nearly 50 years later. The goat
died on the spot. Sabah was mortified. He made the owner go with him straight
to the police station at Shuwaikh. Seeing how upset Sabah was, the duty officer
set a fine of 30 rupees and the goats death was absolved.
The story resonates for me because it shows two things. First, it shows the
clash of eras as the goat-owning Kuwaiti householder is rudely confronted by
the age of the automobile, in the form of an Italian car driven by a Lebanese
expat. (The incidence of road accidents was skyrocketing during this time, and
would continue to rise.) Second, it provides a glimpse of the moral hard-wiring
of the young man: a conscientiousness and sense of accountability that would
likewise be hard-wired into the growing firm. This would set the firm apart but
also cost it.
One more story of the young Sabah bumping sharply against life:
I bought a motor boat, a simple one for fishing and waterskiing. I took my
friends one day to the island of Failaka. We tied it to the jetty among the boats
of the fishermen. It was high tide. In the afternoon we came back and the boat
was dangling straight down. The tide had gone out and my rope was too short.
I asked the fishermen why they didnt do anything. They explained that it was a
code of honour not to touch a boat unless asked. We had to wait hours for the
tide to come back so we could get off the island. My lack of experience showed
again. The week after, we tried the boat and the engine seized up. It was was all
rusted. Nobody had told me that when you use an inboard motor in the sea you
have to rinse it with fresh water to remove the salt.

HH the late Sheikh Abdullah al-Salem al-Sabah signing the independence agreement in 1961 (Kuwait Oil Company)


With a skeleton staff, drawing by hand, the practices workload quadruples

uwaits Central Statistical Office records that the

total number of buildings in Kuwait nearly doubled
between 1965 and 1975, from 72,464 to 137,639.
Sabahs fledgling practice was capturing an increasing
share of that activity. He had 26 commissions in 1965, and the following year, 76.
As Kuwaitis from the entire social spectrum started benefitting from land, loans
and outright grants from the government, it was natural that villas and apartment
buildings would form the bulk of his work during this period. However, Sabah
was marked out for distinction. That year Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Jaber alSabah, a key member of the ruling family, Prime Minister at the time and, later,
Amir, appointed him for works on the Jawhara Palace, his residence in Dasman.
It was a success and Sabah would go on to receive many commissions from the
large and influential al-Sabah family.
Other key, long-term relationships formed that year. The National Bank of
Kuwait (NBK) approached him to design new rented spaces for its quicklymultiplying branches. And the Kuwait Transportation Company asked him to
design a series of bus stops, his first foray into the realm of the public space.
In the commercial sector, the government had given land in Mirqab to the
Association of Cloth Merchants, and money to build a new market. Before the
mall came to Kuwait, the qaysariyah, or covered market, was the traditional way to
offer specialised goods a shopping arcade under one roof. Sabah updated the
qaysariyah concept by giving it four levels: basement, shops opening onto a central
courtyard, a mezzanine plus an upper gallery, all covered. Abdul Aziz al-Masaid,
owner of the influential daily newspaper, al-Rai al-Am, asked Sabah to design
a new headquarters with an integrated printing press. He drew a factory design
for the Kuwait Packaging Company. His first significant parcelling and planning
project was in the area of Furjah, what is now Salwa.
And, at the behest of Sheikha Badriya al-Sabah, he designed a mosque. I had
not designed a mosque before, Sabah admits. Sketching freehand, he gamely
started drawing according to requirements given by the sheikha, who had been
inspired by travels to Egypt: columns, square minarets, a dome and so on. An
assistant at the time helpfully pointed out a problem: six arches for the entrance
porch. It would be better, the assistant suggested, to have an odd number of
arches to avoid having to put a column in the middle. I learned a golden rule
of classical architecture! says Sabah, to this day an ardent believer in learning
on the job.
Two other lessons were learned with the Sheikha Badriya mosque. One had to
do with a word in fashion today, but not then: buildability. Sabah had specified
a dome made of reinforced fibre composite fibreglass, in essence. It had to
be manufactured in Lebanon, but how would this large thing be transported

Classical faade of an NBK branch, mid 1970s. The rapidly expanding bank was a loyal client of Sabahs for over 30 years


Jassim Mayahi joined the busy office in 1967,

and is still an indispensable part of the team


and installed? Cranes were scarce in those days. After much head-scratching
he decided the dome should be manufactured in four sections, like a quartered
orange peel, which could then be welded together on site. On top of the dome
was installed the crescent, and there lay the other lesson. When they thought
it was finished someone noticed that the crescent was pointing in the wrong
direction, away from Mecca. A hasty operation had to be launched to un-install
the crescent and get it pointing the correct way. The mosque remains an icon.
A word about Sabahs style: I believe his success from such an early age
stemmed from his insistence on quality, which meant, for him, avoiding flashy
design for its own sake. I never set out to be a signature architect, he says. I
followed trends, but carefully. I was often stubborn in my ideas. I always designed
from the inside out, from function to concept. I start thinking of the function,
then I dress it. Many signature architects are poets. They think of the form, the
material, from the outside. Ive always started with the body.
The volume of work in that decade peaked in 1968 at 93 jobs, nearly
quadruple the volume of three years earlier. Yet he still ran a skeleton staff of
mostly freelance draughtsmen and one engineer. All the drawings were done by
hand, down to the minutest detail.
A very important addition to the team came in 1967, in the form of a 17-yearold administrative assistant, Jassim Mayahi. Jassim spent every hour of his spare
time studying, first to get his high school diploma in the evenings, then to learn
English at the Polyglot Language Institute. He quickly made himself indispensable
to the busy firm. (Forty-six years later, Jassim Mayahi is still indispensable to the
busy firm.) From Jassim we get a glimpse of the hectic office. Sabah, a strict
perfectionist, had to be a team player. He was very close to them, Jassim says.
He gave his opinion on a regular basis. He gave constructive criticism and
encouragement in equal measure. He also worked like crazy. Says Jassim: Youd
come to the office at 6 am, he was there. Youd come at 5 pm, he was there.
Youd pass by at 10 pm, he was there. At one in the morning, he was there. That
is a persistently energetic, hard-working man. I put this to Sabah recently. He
admitted: I dont understand how we handled so many projects with no mass
production. But then he shrugged. I dont remember the pressure. It felt easy
at the time.

Sheikha Badriya al-Sabah Mosque, Salmiya, with square minarets inspired by the Sheikhas travels to Egypt, designed by Sabah


He gave
criticism and
in equal measure.
Jassim Mayahi


Fahd al-Salem Street, Kuwait, 1960s. The governments land redistribution policies led to a boom in
commercial and residential property development (Kuwait Oil Company)



Building regulations rush to keep up as Sabah makes his mark on the landscape

ome of us are lucky in life to be founders of something

new and worthwhile, which, I expect, might go some way
toward explaining Sabahs remarkable energy during this
time. He would need it. The first decade was drawing to a
close, but there was a lot more for the young designer to experience and achieve.
His fame grew. An important client of Sabahs, the government minister,
developer and entrepreneur, Khaled al-Issa al-Saleh, travelled the world and often
came back inspired by new concepts. Returning from Italy, he dreamed of having
an equivalent of the Galleria, the famous shopping arcade in Milan. Sabah, we
will recall, was a function-first architect, so he listened to what Khaled wanted,
accounted for the setting Salmiyah, Kuwait, not Milan and designed the alRiyadi Showroom, a bold, u-shaped building which maximised street-fronting
retail display space, and which was nothing at all like the Galleria. It drew wellknown anchor tenants immediately and Khaled and Sabah could congratulate
themselves for creating one of Kuwaits first prestigious retail addresses.
Boundaries, first, those of his own technical capabilities, had to be pushed. In
1968 he designed The New House (al-Bait al-Jadeed) and for the louvres specified
something very untraditional yellow and silver stainless steel. Today we might
ask what the big deal was, because today a great deal of a buildings design is
delegated to highly-skilled and expert specialist suppliers, be it cladding, curtainwalling, glazing, lifts, ventilation, whatever. Not so in those days in Kuwait.
We had very little support from the construction supply chain, Sabah
remembers. If you did something even a little non-standard you had to start
from scratch. Search the world for samples, work with them to test their viability,
all through trial and error, until you got the result you wanted. Our expectations
were modest. But the louvres worked. They retained their colour for years.
Explosives came next. The National Industries Company asked Sabah to
design a warehouse for explosives in the oil-producing enclave of Ahmadi.
Quickly, he had to come to grips with a completely new design paradigm. How
do you design a building that prevents bombs exploding, and if they do explode
how can the structure best protect the people and property around it? He had to
scour every reference book he could lay his hands on for the right specifications.
His influence on the character of Kuwaits built environment grew. Some of
this influence was subtle. The National Industries Company had come round
to his view that sand-lime bricks, al-tabouk al-jeeree, could and should be used in
the facade of high-end residential buildings. For one thing, they actually looked
quite nice. For another, they withstood the sandblasting of Kuwaits desert
winds. And finally, a growing market in such bricks would provide a viable local
manufacturing venture. So the company asked Sabah to research and write a
technical guide explaining and promoting the use of the bricks, which he did.

Issa al-Saleh Commercial Galleria in Salmiya, early 1970s. Inspired by Milans Galleria, it was one of Kuwaits first prestigious retail addresses


Some of this influence was not subtle at all. For instance, Kuwaiti officialdom
at the time was not ready for tall buildings. Regulations limited structures
outside the city to three storeys, but one client, Khalid al-Marzouk, an influential
developer who owned a point of land in Salmiyah, wanted something taller. In
1968 he and Sabah came up with the idea of making each storey split level, which
obeyed the rules technically but in practical terms doubled the allowable height.
When complete in 1971 the al-Marzouk Pearl was indeed the tallest building
outside the city. The regulations actually had to scramble to catch up with us,
Sabah says. Its still an important reference point in Kuwaits built heritage.
The al-Marzouk Pearl was fateful for another important reason, but well
come to that. First, the most resounding mark young Sabah made on young
Kuwait in that seminal decade was the Messilah Beach Hotel at al-Bida.
With more time and money at their disposal Kuwaitis were starting to enjoy
themselves. Pre-oil, the sea had been a cruel taskmaster, a raw, elemental force
that only reluctantly gave up its pearls and smashed, sunk or becalmed their
ships. Now it was fun to swim in. Developer Mubarak al-Hassawi envisaged
something new to Kuwait: a luxury resort, with chalets and full amenities, right
on the beach. He went to Sabah.
As with the explosives warehouse, the design constraints for the resort were
new. The developer wanted the maximum number of units possible but, at the
same time, for each unit to feel private and secluded in the lush gardens. Zoning
rules allowed only two storeys. Sabah arrived at an innovative solution. He settled
on a grid star system of hexagonal units, arranged in hexagonal clusters of units,
which allowed windows to be placed so that none faced the window of another
chalet. Incidentally, he used sand-lime bricks prevalently, complimenting the
cool feeling of the cluster courtyards. It was the largest multi-use project hed
been commissioned to date, and upon opening in 1974 it became a magnet for
sea-and-sand seeking locals and expatriates.
Its natural for architects to want permanence for the structures they
conceive, but the Messilah Beach Hotel is gone. Badly damaged in the war
to liberate Kuwait in 1991, it struggled to make a comeback amid the taller
hotels and resorts which new zoning regulations allowed on that prime piece of
waterfront. Looking at it through the prism of today I still find the geometry
almost unsettlingly modern, but by Kuwaiti standards it was old, and had to
go. The resort, renamed the Golden Tulip Messilah Beach Resort in the 1980s,
closed in 2002 and was demolished in 2004 to make way for the Jumeirah
Messilah Beach Kuwait Hotel & Spa.


With its grid star system of hexagonal units, Sabahs strikingly modern Messilah Beach Hotel at al-Bida, which opened in 1974, was
one of Kuwaits first beach resorts


With the al-Marzouk Pearl Building in Ras Salmiya, built in 1971, Sabah skirted height restrictions by making each story split-level




Sabahs first attempt to expand overseas leads to overstretch

s the 1960s drew to a close, Sabah was riding the

crest of a wave. He had succeeded in the first tests
of his technical and artistic capabilities, and demand
for his services was growing. Now he wanted to go
international. If I felt pressure at all in those days
it was more about expanding out of the box and seeking new opportunities,
he says. The chance came when the Messilah Beach Hotel developer, Mubarak
al-Hassawi, lined him up to design his next project, the Sharjah Carlton Hotel,
in the Emirate of Sharjah. So in 1970 he opened an office in neighbouring
Dubai. Before long Sabah received commissions to design a hotel in Abu Dhabi
for Sheikh Saif bin Mohammed al-Nahyan, and modern villas for the famous
ruler of Dubai, His Highness Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al-Maktoum, the man
who articulated the vision, and set it in motion, of turning Dubai into a global
commercial and transport hub.
Thats when it went wrong. It was okay with projects for Kuwaiti clients,
Sabah recalls. I knew the owners and I could follow up project-related matters
partly in Kuwait. But for Dubai-owned projects, and government-owned at
that, it required substantial presence and follow-up on my part. In the case of
the villas, I started enthusiastically, and my team in Kuwait spent 24-hour days
preparing the presentation boards A0 colour drawings, hand drafted, rendered
and glued to styropor boards over a metre wide. It was exciting. I had my chance
of presenting the proposal to His Highness the Ruler, but then there was a long
wait for any kind of a feedback, which I could not afford. This pattern eroded
all the enthusiasm. To cope with on-site supervision of the projects under
construction I employed a team of four engineers and architects. Controlling
their performance by only telephone was itself a difficult affair, and I lost a lot
of money when clients would not settle final fee payments.
He learned an important lesson about his personal limits, and also this
universal truth: that with architecture as with any trade or art, being good is
one thing, but making a profit in its pursuit is quite another. These lessons were
timely. Its 1971. For Kuwait and for him, things are about to really kick off.


A commission to design the Carlton Hotel, in Sharjah (built in 1971), led to a premature attempt to expand overseas



Growing out,
growing up


Enter Salem al-Marzouk, engineer and firebrand reformer

alem al-Marzouk was born into a leading merchant family

in 1941 that traced its origins back to the founding of
Kuwait: the original migration from the Nejd in the 18th
century. His father started in the pearling business in the
early 1900s and then made his fortune shipping foodstuffs and timber from Africa
and India. Salems upbringing was cosmopolitan by unfortunate necessity: at the
age of three he was taken to Karachi and then to Bombay for the treatment of
polio. When he came back in 1945 he had to learn Arabic from scratch because
he spoke only Hindi.
The Kuwait of his boyhood and teenage years was changing rapidly both
physically, as roads and buildings sprang up everywhere, and culturally, as the
country modernised and looked outward. His father, unlike many of his peers,
didnt grumble about the changes but embraced them enthusiastically. He didnt
object when Salems sisters started going out without a veil or the abaya, and
even allowed one sister to attend university in Egypt and the UK. Inspired by
the metamorphosis of the country around him, Salem decided to study civil
engineering in America. He went first to Parsons College in Iowa, and then to
Iowa State University, where he got his degree.
My father said: Why study engineering? he recalls. Youll be there four or
five years and by the time you get back everything will be finished!
Of course it wasnt, and when he returned as a graduate he joined Kuwaits
Ministry of Public Works in 1966 as a highway engineer in the roads and drainage
department. This was not a happy time. All around him in the ministry he saw
bureaucracy and corruption, a dismal affront to this young man of ideals. It
caused him to resign after two years, which led to a certain amount of publicity.
1971 was an election year, only the third for the young National Assembly.
Twenty-four hours before the registration of candidates closed, a group of
friends and associates rushed to him with the news that one of the political blocs
was boycotting the election, thereby creating an opportunity for them. They
wanted him to run, and said he must register as a candidate right away.
I laughed, Salem says. That was my first reaction. I said Why dont you
ask somebody else? Standing for election to the National Assembly was the
furthest thing from my mind.
But his friends insisted. An argument ensued. Finally they convinced him
to register as a candidate and if he changed his mind later he could withdraw.
So he registered. And as soon as his name appeared in the newspapers he was
inundated with telephone calls and people dropping by to offer their support.
He found he couldnt withdraw. He was elected without a clear platform but
quickly found his political voice, becoming an outspoken critic of corruption,
landing blows over bribery and shoddy infrastructure work. He also pressed for

the preservation of Kuwaits lifeblood oil. The achievement he is proudest of

was a bill he introduced to limit production to the levels at the time, three million
barrels per day in 1971. The oil companies wanted to boost that to five million in
the short term and then to eight million. There was strong public support for his
bill and the government immediately enacted the limit.
I felt we needed to protect our reserves for future generations, he says.
Back then oil was two dollars per barrel. The price rose dramatically. Saving our
reserves translated into hundreds of billions of dollars for Kuwait.
Salem was also the first MP to present a bill giving women the right to vote.
That was going too far, however. Nobody took it seriously, he says. It wouldnt
be until 2006, 35 years later, that womens suffrage was finally granted.
I wasnt a natural politician, Salem admits. I was an engineer. When I see
problems I want to fix them and politics is a very blunt tool for that. I always had
this internal conflict going on.
It was this firebrand reformer that strode onto the beach one day in early
1972 to have a look at his cousin Khalids famous development, the al-Marzouk
Pearl, taking shape as the tallest building outside the old city. As usual Sabah, the
architect, was on site and Khalid introduced him. The two young men hit it off.
Sabah needed a Kuwaiti partner, but he couldnt have hoped for a match like this.
They immediately fell into discussions about joining forces and hammered out a
deal over the next 48 hours. It was as if God had sent him to me, recalls Sabah.
I was ready for this partnership and his style of thinking. And his ethics were
very close to mine.
All these years we argued over many issues, says Salem, looking back over
a partnership that spanned more than three decades. But not about ethics and
straight dealing with clients and staff. We worked on the company like brothers.

Sabah Abi-Hanna, left, with engineer and

reforming MP, Salem al-Marzouk. It was as if
God sent him to me, says Sabah


Sabah and Salem raise their sights from private villas to major government projects

n preparing for this book we took a trip down to the archives

and found, eventually, the carbon copy of the letter, headed
Sharikat Salem al-Marzouk and Sabah Abi-Hanna, (the
practice of Salem and Sabah), telling the Ministry of
Commerce, the Kuwait Municipality and the Engineering Association of Kuwait
about the creation of the new firm. Sabah marvelled as he held the crackly
old pink document up to the light. I was hard-headed about quality control
and tracking, he said. I imposed the rule that we keep a carbon copy of all
documents that went out of the office, from draft to final version. The letter
was typed by a young secretary, Mira Abu Jamra. She is still here. I mention
that because when Salem says straight dealing with clients and staff its not
just the usual our-people-are-our-most-important-asset stuff. They believed it.
We knew that behind the tools, behind the machines, and later, the computers,
there are people, says Salem, and they worked to nourish and recognise talent in
whatever form it took.
The company was no longer just an architectural practice based on one man.
It was now a multidisciplinary firm. And it was time to move away from what was
still the bread and butter of Sabahs practice: private villas. This was for a simple
reason, Salem says. Small villas had a small return and clients used to change
their minds a lot. They never understood that a line on a piece of paper costs
money. Changes in the design meant redoing the work once, twice, three times,
and the clients were always unhappy. We lost a lot on these villas.
In the early 1970s Sabah continued to attract clients needing commercial,
industrial and residential buildings. The National Bank of Kuwait was expanding
its office network and Sabah designed the Qadisiya branch. The United Real
Estate Company commissioned him to design its commercial and residential
complex in Hawalli, and it is still a prominent feature there. He designed a
furniture factory in a new industrial zone for Mahdi Habib & Bros. Occasionally
he would accept a commission for a villa in exceptional circumstances, such
as one in 1974 for client Basima Samuel Antar. But with Salem on board as a
civil engineer the pair charted a new strategic path for growth they would
target major public sector schemes: new towns, infrastructure, planning. They
also prepared to branch out from design to the supervision of major projects,
because it offered higher revenue potential.
The opportunity here was vast. Kuwait was bursting at the seams. Its
population more than doubled from 467,000 in 1965 to just over a million in
1975. This boom was of global significance. Between 1963 and 1972 Kuwaits
rate of population growth was surpassed only by very small populations in the
Western Sahara and on Ascension Island, as noted by the authors of Kuwaits
first review of its master plan in 1977 (the authors being Sabah Abi-Hanna

Villa designed by Sabah on Arabian Gulf Street, demolished recently to make room for high-rise development

The villas interior plan hand-drafted by Sabah with China ink on transparent paper


The letter, dated 3 April 1972, informing the

Kuwait Society of Engineers of the formation
of the new practice of Salem al-Marzouk and
Sabah Abi-Hanna. SSH is born


and Salem al-Marzouk, as it happens, in

partnership with British firm Shankland
Cox). There was a housing shortage caused
by the huge influx of expats but also by
government promises to house a swelling
number of naturalised tribal Beduin, who
were flocking to informal settlements.
Historian Jill Crystal records that by 1975
Kuwait had a shanty population of around
131,000 people, mostly Beduin.
This was not just a growing population
but a modernising and consuming one.
splitting up and going nuclear, increasing
demand for houses and flats. The master
plan review report warned that 16,000
new dwellings were needed each year to
meet the demand and ease overcrowding.
Between 1970 and 1975 the private
construction sector delivered only 6,840
per year and the public housing sector
hadnt yet started producing. Meanwhile,
car ownership was approaching saturation
point, so secondary roads had to be
upgraded to a network of expressways.
Rubbish was piling up on the streets,
attracting rats and flies and causing enteric
disease. Electricity demand nearly doubled
between 1970 and 1975, the master
plan review said, noting that an almost
continuous programme of power station
construction may be necessary to keep
pace with demand.
It was a very thirsty population, too. We see today how much expensivelyproduced fresh water goes on washing cars. Well, this wasteful trend began then.
In 1976 per capita consumption of water stood at 169 litres per day, more than
double what it was in 1965. It wasnt that people were drinking more, they were
just watering their new gardens. By 1976 the report said there were around 1,250
hectares of private gardens under irrigation, and that figure was expected to
more than double in 15 years. The rising demand for water meant increasing
demand for both effluent treatment capacity and seawater desalination plants. For
the latter, the report forecast distillation capacity to shoot up from 272 million
litres per day in 1977 to over 1,000 in the mid-1980s. That meant the design and
construction of desalination plants plus the pipelines to carry the water to the
new urban centres. Increased water consumption also meant increased sewerage
There was an awful lot to do!
As it turned out, the countrys growing infrastructure needs would coincide
with a huge boost in its oil revenues, so there was also the means to pay for it.
During the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Kuwait and other oil-producing Arab countries
announced that they would cut production by five per cent each month until

Israel withdrew from Arab territories occupied in the 1967 war. Oil prices tripled,
even quadrupled, as a result of the crisis, and the cash flowed in.
Salem and Sabah faced a problem, however. In those days there was a bias in
government toward foreign firms, as if Kuwaiti firms couldnt be trusted with
big jobs. Throughout 1973 Salem, ever the activist, went knocking on doors to
ask officials to require that foreign companies hire local firms at least as subconsultants. He reasoned that this would ensure that international expertise and
best practice would be transmitted to local firms and wouldnt just evaporate when
the job was finished and everybody went home. But everywhere he encountered
scepticism and a lack of confidence in home-grown talent. So he went higher.
He managed to secure an audience with Abdul Latif al-Hamad, government
minister with responsibility for finance and planning. Al-Hamad immediately saw
the sense of what Salem was saying and the next day he issued a circular to all
departments saying that from now on foreign firms had to team up with local
ones if they wanted to work in Kuwait.
Thanks to that decision, Salem believes, Kuwait developed over time the best
indigenous design and construction sectors of all the Arab countries. It certainly
helped SSH, as the firm was now being called. After ten years the pattern
reversed: instead of SSH working for big international consultants, it became the
main consultant of choice in its own right and relied on good foreign firms for
specialist assistance.
SSH was about to enter the big league.

Samples of technical report

covers designed and printed by
SSHs in-house graphic design
department, 1970s


The SabahSalem formula works, but their ethical code forces Salem to choose
between politics and business

or a long time Kuwaits master plan included a clear

vision of a corniche, a stately road following the subtle
curve of the Gulf from the old town down to Salmiyah
and beyond. Such a feature would provide access to the
sea and confer an orienting sense of place. Saba Shibers vision of 1964 called
for more: a grand corniche along the entire coast. The waterfront from the city
down to Salmiyah was already designed, with sea walls, reclamation of land
and pedestrian walkways already laid out. In 1975 the minister of public works,
Khaled al-Issa al-Saleh, decided it was time finally to send in the bulldozers.
The Kuwait Municipality appointed the team of Brian Colquhoun and Partners
(BCP) of the UK and SSH, which had about 40 staff at the time, to supervise the
first phase, known as The Waterfront, which featured four beaches and extended
from the Shaab roundabout down to the towers of Kuwait in Dasman.
Sabah registered the shift required as they moved from single-client architecture
commissions to infrastructure projects. When we went into government
projects, the client was no longer an individual but a group of decision-makers
with complicated webs of accountability. There were a lot of chain reactions to
monitor and more risk for us. We had to evolve our management system. The
better we recorded our implied expenses, the better chances we had of claiming
it back. Salems expertise, as a civil engineer, in the delivery of projects now
complemented Sabahs expertise in design. And they took care to learn from
the foreign firms, unravelling and absorbing standards and procedures that gave
them an edge. In 1976, the team of Shankland Cox of the UK and SSH were
appointed by the Kuwait Municipality to undertake planning studies for the
Second Major Centre at Fintas.
Their vision of expanding along with an expanding Kuwait seemed secure,
but there was a problem. It had to do with their code of ethics, a code that
included, among many things, the determination not to abuse influence. As a
well-known and popular politician hed been re-elected in 1975 Salem alMarzouk had influence, and it was getting awkward. When I was in the National
Assembly I had to be careful to avoid any conflict of interest situations. I didnt
try and get projects out of my seat. Obviously we knew that, but it had to appear
so as well. It didnt help that Salems brother, Jassem al-Marzouk, was rising in
government at the time. By then Jassem had become education minister, with
control over a large capital budget. SSH had politely to reject offers to tender for
any education-related work until Jassem moved on to another department.
It was clear that the office wouldnt be able to expand properly until I resigned
from parliament and we were able to make it on the market as an independent
entity, Salem says. As luck would have it, the matter would be decided for him.
The 1975 election had been hotly contested, with the largest ever number of

Fahaheel Residential Towers, built with an Outinord tunnel formwork system that allowed casting walls and slabs together (Late 1970s)

candidates competing for seats in the Assembly. Tensions in the Middle East
were running high, and were reflected in tensions between the Assembly and the
government. In 1976 the government dissolved the National Assembly, and MPs
were sent home. At last Salem was free to focus on the business. He was relieved.
I never really fit in with politics, he says.

Souk al-Salmiyah, retail shopping arcade designed by the al-Marzouk and Abi-Hanna office (Kuwait Oil Company)



Top planner Charles Bosel joins the team, creating a powerful new service offering

nother important development happened around this

time. In late December 1975 Sabah Abi-Hanna (hes
still only 37, remember) flew out to London where he
met senior figures of the Shankland Cox Partnership,
one of the top three international planning consultancies in the world at the time.
Shankland Cox had of course caught wind of what was going on in Kuwait and
was keen to get involved. Sitting down to the partners lunch on that drizzly winter
day was the lean, debonair and, by that time, slightly world-weary Australian,
Charles Bosel, senior partner responsible for SCPs global business.
Bosel had gone far, literally, in the relatively new field of urban planning.
Hed become interested in it while studying architecture at the University of
Queensland but found, when he graduated in 1960, that it was practically
unknown as a discipline in Australia. So in 1961 he went to the UK, enrolling
in the University of Liverpools renowned Master of Civic Design programme.
Before the start of the first term, however, he encountered a delightful problem.
He learned that he had been awarded the prestigious Rome Scholarship in
Architecture by the British School at Rome, an annual prize open since the early
1920s to all qualified architects in the British Commonwealth under the age of
30. He was the first Australian trained in an Australian university to get it.
The prize gave Charles the opportunity to spend a year in Rome, absorbing
Italian culture and architecture and studying the development of towns in the
Abruzzi hills. It meant he had to postpone his masters, but clearly it was worth
it. In 1962 he went back to Liverpool and completed his degree.
He was snapped up by the Shankland Cox Partnership after he graduated in
1964. In 1970 he became the senior partner, resident in Jamaica, for Shankland
Cox Overseas, leading major public sector planning jobs in the Caribbean and the
Americas. He returned to London in 1972 and became a partner in the main SCP
partnership. After that he had travelled the world, directing development projects
for a range of clients including the World Bank, the United Nations Development
Programme and the British Overseas Development Administration.
Kuwait, he knew, was special.
They were serious about planning, Charles recalls. The first professional
master plan for Kuwait was produced in the late 1950s by UK architects Minoprio
& Spenceley. They were of the garden city school prevalent in the UK after the
Second World War. Their plan produced a series of ring roads and radials but
thats as far as they went.
Charles goes on to relate how from the late 1960s a key figure in Kuwaits
development was Hamed al-Shuaib, chief architect for the Kuwait Municipality.
Charles knew him. Shuaib had studied architecture at Oxford Polytechnic in
England before enrolling in Liverpools Master of Civic Design at the same time

SSH people and moments, late 1970s to early 1980s

A hand-drawn architectural impression of a city center, early 1980s


Charles was there. Shuaib returned to Kuwait and in 1970 commissioned another
UK firm, Colin Buchanan & Partners, to build on the Minoprio & Spenceley
plan. Charles remains an admirer of that effort.
The Buchanan report was a fantastic piece of work, he says. In those days
it took two years, one year on good original research and the next year preparing
the proposals. These days it tends to be a six-month intuitive exercise. That was
the starting point of modern planning in Kuwait. It was the best basis for the
plan of any country Ive worked in.
Moreover, Charles could see that the time was right to get involved. After the
oil crisis of 1973 Kuwait was rolling in money and Shuaib had the foresight to
see that it would have a major impact on how Kuwait developed, either willy-nilly
at the whims of all the developers who wanted to do something, or in a fairly
controlled way. The challenge was keeping traffic out of sensitive residential or
historic areas. Buchanan had already started. Kuwaits history, built on mud-brick
technology, was fast disappearing. It became ridiculous what they would spend
their money on projects that were totally unnecessary. I remember a massive
development, a zoo under a glass dome. It never got built, but it was a bit like
Dubai later became.
1975 was a turning point for Kuwait. That was the attraction. Shuaib had a
good brain, and the money and the political will behind him.
Hence the meeting with Sabah, which followed a recommendation from a
UK engineering firm they knew in common. Shankland Coxs philosophy was
always to have a local associate, Charles says. Not just to tick boxes but because
we always believed there was a contribution they could make from their own local
knowledge. And of course Sabah worked his charm. Charles flew to Kuwait
in January 1976 to meet with potential client groups. He went again in midMarch and met with Ibrahim Shaheen at the newly-formed National Housing
Association (NHA). As a result of this visit SCP and SSH were awarded the
planning and design studies for the new Messilah District (now named the Sabah
al-Salem District). It was a big job. The work involved detailed plot subdivision
layouts, plus engineering, design and implementation recommendations for a
brand new town of 60,000 people, spread over 1,000 hectares. The contract was
signed on 10 April 1976 with Abdullah al-Dakheel, director general of the NHA.
Work started right away.
I enjoyed working with Sabah and Salem, Charles recalls. They were
receptive to the ideas we put forward and the old Arab business ethics prevailed
in all our dealings. We set up a joint office in a villa near the Dasman Palace and
it worked very very well.
The seeds had been sowed for a powerful triumvirate, but first the partnership
had to prove itself.


A growing SSH opens its new Qortoba office in 1985



The practice is now deeply involved in designing and planning the new Kuwait

uwaits development challenge fascinated Charles.

Good planning, a mystery to many people, is all about
the reasoned distribution of land use. Which land,
and how much, do you allocate for residential? How
much for commercial or industrial? Where do you put roads? And most of all,
why? The original Minoprio & Spenceley plan tried to do it but it was vague on
the detail, says Charles. Also, the ring road approach was probably wrong for a
growing, car-loving population because all the radial roads led to the city centre
where the commercial and industrial activity was. If everyone drove downtown
it would be gridlock. The Colin Buchanan plan, recognising even in 1970 that
Kuwaitis were unlikely to go for public transportation in a big way, addressed this
by trying to decentralise, to encourage the growth of alternative hubs, as in the
new Fintas Commercial Centre.
For Charles, on the other hand, the exercise shouldnt be too prescriptive.
He didnt see Kuwait as a vast blank slate on which to scrawl the latest planning
notion. His philosophy was to be sensitive to an areas potential and to encourage
organic growth.
At the time you had two types of planners, Charles says. Myles Wright,
the Lever Professor of Planning at Liverpool while I was there, had written a
book, The Planners Notebook, which aimed to define the standards according
to which you designed an urban space. It was all rather mathematical and cold.
The other group of planners, which I was part of, saw it differently: that you
created a physical and social framework in which towns can grow and evolve.
So when we came to Kuwait we didnt see it as a blank slate. The study by Colin
Buchanan was based on exactly the same theories of change and evolution to
meet the developing circumstances.
Charles was proud of how hed put this into practice on the beautiful island
of Hvar in the Adriatic Sea, off the coast of Yugoslavia (now Croatia). The
island has miles of sandy beaches, dense pine forests and four pretty towns
with architecture going back to Venetian times. Clearly Hvar had great tourism
potential but as he tells the story, Shankland Coxs Yugoslavian partner firm in
the master-planning project took this potential to its extreme and suggested
putting, right in the middle of the island, a big airport for jumbo jets, which were
just coming into commercial use.
They wanted to bring in thousands of tourists. They had already started
planning how to expand the towns and turn the place into a tourist paradise. And
we said no, thats the wrong thing to do. The people who come here are selective
tourists, they want the pine forests, the pretty little towns. You bring in thousands
who only want sun, sand and sea and youll lose it. Make it a bit difficult to get
to. My approach is that you look at what is inherently valuable in a place and

build on that. You dont try and impose preconceived ideas onto an area which is
totally inappropriate. One of the best planning victories Ive ever had is that they
never started landing jumbo jets on Hvar.
As it happens the NHA was not, perhaps, quite ready for the visionary
partnership of Sabah, Salem and Charles at Messilah. The proposals had many
innovative ideas which were not in the end implemented. The original plan
provided for a mixed neighbourhood with a range of dwellings from lower to
high socio-economic groups, says Charles, but the NHA decided to house
only limited income Kuwaitis there. We also proposed innovative architectural
solutions for the various buildings but the NHA went ahead with only standard
designs, leaving little architectural variety in the final project. We also suggested
using gatch pits in the area to create recreational lakes by pumping in seawater.
Some pits could also have been used to store rainwater to irrigate the extensive
landscaping proposed, but these ideas were abandoned by the NHA.
Nevertheless, the SCP SSH partnership went on to provide more major
planning studies for the NHA in 1976 and 1977, including for the new city of
Subiya across the bay to the north of the old city. The work included the site
location studies and the master planning of a new community for half a million
people, deemed necessary to accommodate the predicted metropolitan overspill.
They also returned to Fintas in the south, undertaking for Kuwait Municipality
planning and urban design studies for a major new shopping, commercial and
recreation centre incorporating some 500,000 square metres of building area on
a site of 70 hectares.
After this, Charles had had enough not of Kuwait, but of globetrotting. He
was still running Shankland Coxs global business and making working visits to
Kuwait. He had four children whom he never saw. In every ten weeks he was away
for eight. He resigned from Shankland Cox in March 1977 and was preparing to
return with his family to Australia where a settled life beckoned and a post as
professor of planning had been offered. When Sabah and Salem learned of his
plans they contacted him right away and pressed him to come back to Kuwait.
They needed his help developing SSH. He had the right experience, which they
lacked, of both executing major projects and operating a major consultancy.
I have no doubt he would have made a great teacher. Inspired by him,
generations of excellent planners would have fanned out over the globe. But it
was not to be.
Because I had enjoyed my time in Kuwait on the working visits, Charles
says, and because of the relationship I had developed with Salem and Sabah, I
agreed to a management consultancy agreement with SSH for a period of three


New discipline in management and finance, and expansion overseas at last

ith Salem now focussed one hundred per cent

on the business, and with Charles on board
and SSH having proved itself in the central
arena of Kuwaits development, it was time
for the company to grow up. The jobs were
getting bigger and they were bidding for everything. We were very aggressive.
We forced ourselves in, Sabah says. There were more directors and more staff:
the headcount was approaching 100 around 1977. It required better systems.
The old way of managing by personal attention and relationships, which worked
in the 1960s, could not continue, says Sabah. I knew about the people on
the projects I was in charge of, and so did Salem and Charles, but beyond that
ones visibility ended. Our liabilities were growing and so was the risk of serious
Their minds no doubt focussed by Kuwaits stock market crash of 1977, they
appointed as their first financial controller David Taylor, who worked for a UK
accounting firm. On regular trips to Kuwait he imposed discipline, collecting
data, calculating hidden costs and setting half-yearly and yearly budgets so they
wouldnt overspend on marketing and bidding. Taylor helped them make the
jump from basic accounting to strategic financial management. The financial
department was boosted in later years by legendary figures such as the tough
John Kinloch and Sabahs nephew, Stephen Abi-Hanna, a finance graduate.
They imposed a system for managing jobs as well. With the government
projects they appointed a supervising principal to oversee the project, monitor
fees and keep a closer eye on contractual rights and obligations.
Recruitment was a chronic problem. They literally had to scour the globe
for skilled, quality people. Having won the job of supervising construction
of the Sixth Brigades new military base at Mujailis in 1978 (a major project,
in partnership with an Italian contractor), Charles flew to India to round up
surveyors and engineers. The SSH team on any given project comprised up to 15
different nationalities. They had to rely on overseas recruitment agencies, as did
everyone else, but the results were mixed.
The Jahra-Ghazali Expressway project was huge 38 kilometres of expressway
cutting through the dense industrial area of Shuwaikh and needed a lot of
recruits. In 1979 SSH teamed up with Freeman Fox International to bid for the
job of carrying out conceptual studies, detailed design and contract document
preparation. They won the bid and would later go on to supervise construction
with Freeman Fox, applying a number of engineering breakthroughs on what
was, technically, a very challenging project.
This heady, late-70s mix of challenge and opportunity led Sabah, Salem and
Charles to make a move which even today strikes me as bold, unusual and really

SSH working practices evolve with technology in the 1970s and 1980s



In 1978 SSH designed and supervised the construction of its own materials testing laboratory in Subhan, which became the operational head office of SSH
in 2003

quite clever. Youd have thought that after his adventure in Dubai nearly a decade
before, Sabah would have been wary of expanding overseas. But by the time 1979
was over the triumvirate had set up an office in Bristol, England. Normally it
works the other way around: big Western firms setting up branches in developing
markets. But here was a punchy little firm from a developing market planting its
flag in the motherland. Why? The initiative had Charles fingerprints all over it,
so Ill let him explain: We found it increasingly difficult to recruit good quality,
experienced professionals from the UK. They saw Kuwait as risky in terms of
job security, overly conservative in lifestyle, and lacking in good schools. So we
decided to open a branch office in the UK and recruit senior staff to provide
design and cost consultancy for us from there. We were also working with several
major UK consultants now so an office in the UK made sense.
Nowadays we talk about the outsourcing of services, and it usually means
West to East, getting cheap talent in India to answer phones or develop software
for European and American firms. This is the only example of East to West
outsourcing I personally have heard of.
It made sense because the UK market was heading for recession at the time,
so wages were in a downward trend and there were plenty of designers, surveyors
and engineers looking for work. Bristol in particular was attractive because
property costs were 30 per cent lower than in London, it was only an hours drive
from Heathrow, and it had one of the highest percentages of professional staff
per capita of any major UK city. Oh, and one more thing they had trusted
alumni on the ground ready to run the office. Barry Robertson, former head of
the SSH building services department in Kuwait, had moved back to Bristol and
was available. He would later be joined on the board by Peter Plunkett, former
head of SSHs quantity surveying department in Kuwait. Esmond Murray, a
Bristol architect, was the third director of the start-up, which was called SSC.
SSCs first home was in Bristol city but it moved in 1980 to a beautiful but rundown Georgian mansion on the outskirts called St Georges Hall, which Salem,
Sabah and Charles bought and renovated to a high standard. Treated by the UK
tax authorities as a wholly-owned branch of an offshore company, SSC provided
much needed design services for its parent, but more than that, it became a locus
for assimilating new skills and technology, such as computer-aided design (CAD).
Farouk al-Hayek, an architect who joined the firm in 1976 and is still with us
now, went for training to the SSC office in 1980, after SSH had won the contract
to design the futuristic new headquarters of the National Bank of Kuwait. He
recalls: I brought with me the base drawings for the NBK headquarters and
with AutoCAD we were able to produce tender documents in six months.
Later in the 1980s SSC would start winning work on its own.



Golden decade

Despite war and security threats, Kuwait presses ahead with its development ambitions

John Abi-Hanna supervised construction of

the Jahra-Ghazali motorways project


he 1980s was a difficult decade. Irans Islamic

Revolution of 1979 sparked serious political unrest
at home in Kuwait. The eight-year Iran-Iraq War,
starting in 1980, saw attacks on Kuwaiti shipping
and generally heightened security concerns. Kuwaits
decision to give financial aid to Iraq in the war led to a spate of terrorist bomb
attacks, including attacks against the Amir. Kuwait also suffered a financial crisis
with the crash, in 1982, of the unregulated stock market known as the Souk
al-Manakh, which dampened the investment climate for several years. Despite
these difficulties, however, the 1980s would turn out to be the golden decade
for the physical development of Kuwait as the government pressed ahead with
ambitious improvement schemes. It was the golden decade for SSH, too, as we
pressed ahead along with it.
In April 1980 Sabah and Salem tore up Charles management consultancy
agreement and asked him to join them as a full partner. This he did. He was
ready to commit. Then, working together, but also from their unique centres of
expertise, the partners launched their three-pronged push into the 80s, focussing
on infrastructure, building design and planning.
Salem led the way on roads and infrastructure as SSH now had a hand in the
countrys biggest projects. In 1981 the Ministry of Public Works commissioned
SSH as the main consultant for the Outer Bypass and 7th Ring Road jobs,
approximately 80 kilometres of the overall planned expressway system of some
340 kilometres. SSH did route location studies, preliminary and final detail designs,
plus tender and contract documentation. We also supervised construction. This
wasnt just a few long, straight roads: there were 11 cloverleaf interchanges with
bridge structures to design and build. SSH appointed UK heavyweights Brian
Colquhoun and WS Atkins as subconsultants.
The team chalked up some great technical breakthroughs. On one spot
we found that the seawater table was very close to the surface, recalls Salem.
Engineers always want to stay away from water. Normally to cope you would
pour five meters of concrete. However, we pioneered in Kuwait the use of
stainless steel anchorage cables which permitted a pour of only 60cm. The
anchorage cables are non-oxidizing, non-breaking, guaranteed for 100 years. It
was a very economical and practical solution, but a design challenge for us.
Construction of the Jahra-Ghazali motorways was now underway as well,
giving one young civil engineer, John Abi-Hanna, his first taste of supervision
and technological advancement.
Technically this was an important project for SSH. To understand why, we
need to hear from engineer Ali al-Abdullah, who was in charge of roads at the
time for the Ministry of Public Works, and who would later play an important

A concrete pour for a highway project in the 1980s

role in the company. The Ghazali viaduct was constructed using a technique
known as match-cast segmental post-tensioning, Ali recalls. This was adopted
by the main consultant following a far more sophisticated application of the
technique in 1976-77 by French firm, Bouygues, in the design-build project of the
Bubiyan Bridge, crossing Khour Abdullah Channel. It was done as a space frame
in concrete for the first time without any scaffolds or support. Moreover, to
assess the suitability of the technique in the geological formation of Kuwaits
sub-strata, the Ministry commissioned independent entities to investigate the
suitability of ground anchors in Kuwait. Hence, it was applied.
Instead of the traditional in-situ pour, these complex structures could be
assembled like Lego, with segments manufactured off site and delivered just in
time for assembly, which vastly reduced disruption in the busy industrial area of
In 1981 SSH submitted designs for Kuwaits first major sewerage renovations.
This was done with a UK firm as the main consultant, but SSH ended up
completing the project on its own. Carried out under the direct supervision

SSH consulted on the Mirqab Approach Roads project to integrate Kuwaits inner expressway network


Jahra-Ghazali motorways

of Salem, it was not only the largest project in Kuwait, but the largest of its
kind in the world at the time, and one of the most complicated and technically
sophisticated projects in Kuwaits history. To determine the condition of several
kilometres of the sewerage network, self-propelled CCTV cameras were used
to measure slopes and gather images and data. The actual renovation involved
either impregnated fabric inversion or the insertion of flexible pipes. The project
manager in charge from SSH was civil engineer Mr. Ridha Sukhni.
In 1982 main consultants WS Atkins appointed us as subconsultants on
the Mirqab Approach Roads, part of the 1st Ring Road project. This was an
ambitious project to link the ends of two major north-south radial motorways to
the Kuwait Inner Ring Motorway. The design work included 5.5 kilometres of
two- and three-lane motorways together with collector-distributor roads, ramps
and minor road junctions. The job involved two grade-separated interchanges,
three pedestrian footbridges, reinforced concrete pedestrian subways, along with
positive drainage and highway lighting systems.
Sabah led on building design, notching up many prestigious commissions that
deepened relationships with influential public and private clients, including a new
HQ complex for the National Bank of Kuwait (NBK) and for Kuwait Insurance.
For the new headquarters of the Organisation of Arab Petroleum Exporting
Countries (OAPEC), SSH submitted a proposal in partnership with German
firm, Wiedleplan Consulting. The design was fairly modern, with a double skin
for lighting and shading and a huge arch. Their entry came second, however,
mainly because finance minister Abdel Latif al-Hamad, who had helped SSH the
previous decade, disliked extravagance. This was the time of the Souk al-Manakh
crash, after all. He prioritised more conservative values of constructability
and ease of maintenance. This Sabah understood completely: I respected the
motivation behind these requirements. They are always in the best interest of a
project. When a project didnt land in our court I wished our competitors the
best and went looking for opportunities elsewhere.

A bold vision to get people out of their cars


In 1982, when designing the new VIP terminal at Kuwait International Airport,
Sabah interpreted the brief as requiring big entrances and ornate decoration, at
a cost, which he thought modest enough, of 18 million dinars. In Saudi Arabia
at the time they paid 100 million for their VIP terminal, so we thought we were
okay, he says. But the design died on the desk of al-Hamad, who would not be
budged from his budget of five million. Sabah adds that ministers were actually
very keen back then not to emulate the oil-fuelled largesse evident in Saudi.
Kuwait Insurance had been assigned a site in the old city to build its
headquarters and they asked SSH for a design. With the help of Canadian firm
Arthur Erickson Associates, SSH put forward a concept of four 10- to 12-storey
buildings situated around a plaza, a reference to Kuwaits traditional courtyard
houses that were closed to the harsh light, heat and dust of the outside, with
rooms opening in to the quiet, shady interior. It would have been a modern
building in a regional setting, says Sabah.
Its the nature of architecture that much of ones fee-paying output is never
built. The same is true for planning. Architects and planners are called in to give
shape to a clients impulse, but many factors affect how and even whether that
impulse is acted on. The Kuwait Insurance complex was an example of this, as
the SSH design was never built. Another example from the early 1980s sheds
fascinating insight into Kuwaits conflicting responses to its own development
challenges. Invited by the Kuwait Municipality and the Ministry of Planning,
SSH and WS Atkins submitted plans for the ambitious Mirqab Transportation
I mentioned earlier that we worked with Atkins on upgrading two major
radials into the old city. At some point officials realised that this would be like
pointing two huge traffic hosepipes directly at the metropolitan area and opening
wide the valves. So they entertained a radical idea, a massive park-and-ride facility
where more than 5,000 people at a time could drop off their cars and be shuttled
by bus to their work or shopping destination. SSH submitted designs for the
proposed and somewhat futuristic Mirqab Transportation Centre as early as 1980.
But Kuwaits love of the car and ambivalence to public transport prevailed. The
transportation centre plan was still on the cards in the 1983 review of Kuwaits
master plan but, along with even earlier mooted plans for mass rail transit, it
gathered dust on the shelves.
In planning, led by Charles, SSH continued to lead in the articulation of
innovative responses to Kuwaits development challenge. In 1981 we submitted
plans and design studies for the proposed new city of Subiya, across the bay from
the old town. However, the second review of Kuwaits master plan (KMPR2),
done in 1983 by Colin Buchanan and Ove Arup, cast doubt on the Subiya plan.
Based on population growth that was somewhat lower than predicted in the last
review, in 1977, and on the direction of development since then, the authors of
KMPR2 questioned the ability of Subiya to attract enough basic employment to
make it a viable alternative home for people in the fast-filling metropolitan area.
Another new town at al-Khiran, down on the southern coast, was identified as
more in line with Kuwaits main development axis, with major infrastructure
elements already close by. So, attention switched to al-Khiran, and we would play
a major role in its development later in the decade.

In 1981 SSH was appointed as the main consultant on the 7th Ring Road expressway development project. Now, major international
firms were working for SSH



SSH is selected to help design and build Bayan Palace for the Fifth Islamic Summit
Conference, and given just over two years to deliver

ate in 1983 the Amir HH Sheikh Jaber offered to host

the Fifth Islamic Summit Conference in 1987. Attending
would be over one hundred heads of state representing
just under a quarter of the worlds population. It was a
moment of pride for the young nation, but there was a problem: Kuwait had no
suitable facilities for a conference of that scale and importance. With the event
scheduled for January 1987, the government had, effectively, little more than
two years to get such a world-class facility conceived, designed, built, tested and
handed over. And, as a point of honour, the government wanted Kuwaiti firms
to do it.
The Bayan Palace project was negotiated, starting in January 1984, with a
very high level of skill by the Ministry of Public Works. The minister, Abdullah
al-Dakheel, wanted it done by Kuwaiti firms, but there were only three big firms
at the time: us, KEO and Pan-Arab Consulting Engineers (PACE). So he called
all three into a meeting and said, and I paraphrase, Forget about competing for
this job, its too big for any of you alone. Form a consortium, figure out how
youre going to split the work and get on with it. And thats what we did. KEO
had project management capability, while SSH and PACE were mostly designers.
So KEO did the project and construction management and PACE and SSH split
roughly in half the design of the buildings and SSH did the master plan. SSH and
PACE supervised construction as well. Construction began later that summer.
Phase One of Bayan Palace (initially called the Kuwait Conference Centre)
consisted of a residential complex of 18 buildings for 108 heads of state to stay
in, plus the main conference building and assorted buildings for security and
staff. It worked beautifully. It was a marriage of convenience because outside this
job we were fierce competitors, but it was the biggest job in Kuwait and we were
honoured that the minister had come to us instead of bringing in a foreign firm.
For Sabah it was a lot of pressure. It was a mammoth job, he says. There
were thousands of pieces to pull together, right down to the person designing
the forks and spoons. Six months to handover the contractor suddenly ran
into trouble procuring marble from Italy, so the minister requisitioned a small
plane from Kuwait Airways for Sabah and a small team to fly to Pisa in order,
as he describes it, to expedite the matter. This was one of several trips to
European cities Prague, Vienna, Cologne, Seville to pre-qualify suppliers and
manufacturers of high-quality furniture, materials and accessories and to check
quality prior to shipping.
In that job, we acquired a whole new set of skills in design and contracting,
Sabah recalls. Planning an entire complex, designing for heads of state, interiors,
furniture, chandeliers and other fixtures, glassware even linen. I dont think Ive
ever been prouder than when we handed it over on time.

Sabah, centre, with members of the Bayan Palace project team, about to fly to Europe in 1986 to expedite supply of materials and furniture


On a personal note, I count myself fortunate to have joined SSH in January

1984, just in time to participate in the Bayan Palace project. Admittedly, I had
joined somewhat reluctantly. Following high school in Kuwait I studied electrical
engineering at the University of New South Wales, in Sydney, Australia. After I
graduated in 1983, Sabah and my parents tried to persuade me to join SSH, as
my cousins Stephen and John had done. I resisted because my specialty was in
electronic communications systems, and I had done my thesis on fibre optics. I
pictured a career in telecommunications, not construction. But my resistance was
weakened by the fact that Australia was in recession at the time and telecoms
jobs were scarce. Then Sabah sent me the specifications for the new Operations
Centre of the National Bank of Kuwait, which SSH was designing.
Read that and tell me if it doesnt impress you, he said.
It did. I hadnt realised that buildings could be smart, to employ an overused term of today that cooling, lighting, ventilation, security and other systems
could be controlled centrally with a rudimentary form of intelligence. In this
building the security system alone used three different technologies for access
control and motion detection: infrared, microwave, and ultrasonic. I decided to
take the plunge, joining SSH in 1984. I worked on the NBK Operations Centre
and then in August that year I went to Bristol and worked for three months as a
junior electrical engineer on security, fire alarm, telephone, intercom and nursecall systems for Residence Buildings.

The NBK Operations Centre employed cutting-edge building control technology


Bayan Palace interior, residential complex



Confidence returns with the end of the Iran war, and nobody pays attention to the Iraqi
troops massing on the border

he latter half of the 1980s was a period of continuing

growth and diversification for SSH. It meant a lot
of headaches for Jassim Mayahi who was in charge
of managing the affairs of a workforce that had
grown to include around 175 people. They needed
visas, places to live and means of getting around. We had something like 80
apartments under management at the time, and about 70 cars, recalls Jassim.
We would buy the cars and rent the apartments. There were a lot of things to
keep track of. In 1985 SSH opened a second office in Qortoba.
As the Bayan Palace project was wrapping up, SSH continued to offer
planning, design and consultancy services for projects that were central to the
nations development. For the Ministry of Planning and the Directorate General
of Civil Aviation we prepared a comprehensive master-plan study for Kuwait
International Airport, comprising traffic projections and development plans
for the next 20 years. We prepared a handbook on the rules and regulations
governing the connection of buildings to sewer mains. We had teams working
abroad as well, providing design of accommodation for the new Kuwaiti embassy
in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and, thanks to Charles Bosel, we provided preliminary
design and some project and construction management for a resort in the US,
at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. It was not an easy time for Kuwait. There were
security concerns as the Iran-Iraq war dragged on, and financial concerns as
the government increased levels of aid to Iraq at a time when the price of oil
dropped below $10 a barrel. However, Kuwait held its course and pushed on
with major infrastructure projects.
One of these ambitious plans highlighted the unique challenge Kuwait
faces. Although oil is abundant in Kuwait, water is scarce. In 1953 the first
desalination plant was functioning at full capacity and water has been on top
of the countrys agenda ever since. In 1986 SSH, in association with French
engineers Sogreah, made a study of conveying into Kuwait hundreds of millions
of gallons of water per day for both drinking and irrigation from the Shatt alArab waterway, formed by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in
southern Iraq. We did the preliminary study with Sogreah, and they had to liaise
with the Iraqi government, recalls my cousin, John Abi-Hanna. A project of
this magnitude was a new challenge for SSH. We helped work up a master plan
including route surveys, preliminary design of installations, pumping stations,
the pipeline, reservoirs and treatment plants. As exciting as this was, however,
the plan remained on the shelf. A deep reluctance on the part of the Kuwaiti
government to become dependent on Iraq reasserted itself. Iraq had tried to
use water to manipulate Kuwait before. In 1956 Sheikh Abdullah al-Salem had
rejected a similar water conveyancing project on precisely these grounds.

Emad al-Jaouni: I heard SSH was doing the

master plan for Khiran. I knew this was my

Just as Kuwait sought life-sustaining water, SSH continued to search for the
finest talent. Recruiting and bidding for new projects is an ongoing, dynamic
process that leads to the gathering in of highly-specialised skills. An example of
this came in 1986 with the arrival of Emad al-Jaouni, who had recently graduated
with a masters degree in transport engineering and planning from the University
of Salford in the United Kingdom. At the time he was searching hard in Kuwait
among the ministries, the municipality and the big consulting firms for a position
where he could practise his specialty, a relatively new discipline.
I had heard that SSH had been awarded the contract to develop the master
plan for Khiran, a new town for a population that was planned to eventually
reach 500,000. I knew this was my chance, recalls Emad who, as business
development manager, is still part of the SSH family. The late Hamed Shuaib,
chief architect for Kuwait Municipality until 1984 and a partner in Pan Arab
Consulting Engineers, recommended him to Charles. He got the job. It was a
privilege to be on board with Charles Bosel, who had over 20 years of planning
experience and an outstanding reputation, says Emad. I was immediately put
on the job. It was Christmas time and they said to me, please Emad, we have a
submission to do, and left me with the work. I used a new software simulation
tool to assess road networks, junction capacity, synchronization of traffic signals,
road signage, and the overall optimisation of movement. It was interesting to do
it on my own, and a joy to work on a design and to see it implemented.
In January 1987, 44 nations attended the Fifth Islamic Summit Conference
at Bayan Palace. It was an exciting time and the venues performed well. To
have played a major role in designing and building such a world-class facility in
36 months made us proud. When it was over we entered discussions with the
Ministry of Public Works for the next phase, which was to develop a site to the
west of the conference centre, creating a Guest Palace, a Banquet Hall for 1,500
people, a mosque for 1,000 people and accommodation for 3,200 security and
support staff. Again, we worked on this with KEO and PACE.
The end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988 ushered in a new period of confidence
in Kuwait. With the war now over, and with oil prices on the rise, the government
could turn to major public projects with renewed vigour.
The end of SSHs third decade saw it busier than ever and with a spreading
reputation. Serge Khalaf joined during this period. I met and worked with Sabah
back in the early 1980s in Lebanon, he says. He was famous in the architecture
school of the American University of Beirut as a pioneer who went to Kuwait
and succeeded in establishing himself. When he wasnt jetting around Europe
and North Africa to source fixtures and materials for the next phase of Bayan
Palace, Sabah was leading major design projects. SSH had won a contract with
the Canadian firm Arthur Erickson Associates to design and supervise the new

Al-Khiran New Town Master Plan, 1980s. SSH

is now helping to set out a new direction for
Kuwaits urbanisation


headquarters for the Kuwait Petroleum Corporation. Salem was busy leading
major infrastructure projects, such as the upgrade of the second and third ring
roads to motorways. And Charles had established SSHs name in the world of
planning. We were conducting the third review of the Kuwait master plan and
preparing new plans, including the National Physical Plan, the Metropolitan
Structure Plan, and the City Structure Plan. The strategic study for the expansion
of the city involved thorough analysis of demographics and population data and
land use.
For me personally it was a manic time. Sabah was very keen that I should
develop properly, and fast. He threw me into the deep end time and time again.
I have faith in you, but be ready, he would say. In 1989, with just five years
under my belt, I was appointed project manager on a contract to renovate a
branch building for the National Bank of Kuwait. At the time I was also on
the team doing electrical design for the Bayan Guest Palace, where construction
began in 1990.
This takes us up to the summer of 1990. Ive tried to provide a snapshot of
the time: the country, and us as a company, proceeding full steam ahead. The
future looked busy and bright.
Its true that Saddam was pressing in on us with threats and demands. Iraq
was billions of dollars in debt after the war with Iran, and Kuwait was one of
its principle creditors. At the same time, so Saddam claimed, Kuwait and other
Arab countries were producing too much oil, keeping prices low and severely
restricting Iraqs desperately-needed revenues. There were also claims that Kuwait
was slant-drilling to steal Iraqi oil. Troops were massing on the border, but we
were able somehow to push this to the backs of our minds. It never occurred
to anyone that an Arab state would invade another neighbouring Arab state. We
knew Saddam was a very aggressive player but we thought he was just flexing his
muscles, trying to get Kuwait to waive the loan. Plus, wed just been through eight
years of a major war in our own neighbourhood that often affected us directly.
In this part of the world, amid war and rumours of war, you just get on with it.

Al-Khiran New Town. Hand-drawn architects impression of the city centre




At the end of the war, around 700 oil wells were left burning, with 80 more flowing out of control (Kuwait Oil Company)



The raging fires would make the sky black at any time of the day, recalls Charles Bosel (Kuwait Oil Company)



Somehow, we thought, it would all blow over. Then the nightmare became real

ugust is a time when pretty much anyone who can,

leaves Kuwait to escape the heat, but on 1 August
1990 Sabah was doing his best to get back. He had
been to Morocco and Spain with a team from KEO
and PACE to visit factories supplying specialist tiles
for the Bayan Guest Palace. Zillij is a mosaic created from enamelled terracotta
tile or marble, cut by hand and inserted in a plaster base before setting on the wall.
Sabah and the others were checking the suppliers quality control procedures. They
finished in Valencia, and Sabah searched for a direct flight back to Kuwait. There
were none. The best he could do was fly to Heathrow and try and make a tight
connection there with a British Airways flight bound for Malaysia that stopped in
Kuwait. At Heathrow he rushed to make the connection, only to be made to wait
for several hours. The reason for the delay? Some technical issue, to do with the air
conditioning, he was told. Later it was reported that the airline was assessing the
situation in Kuwait.
Eventually the flight took off. Six hours later, around three in the morning
Kuwait time, a bleary Sabah and the other Kuwait-bound passengers disembarked.
He had his passport stamped. Then he discovered that his suitcase was missing.
Irritably, he filled in the forms. As he made his way home, behind him just out of
earshot, Iraqi jets attacked the airport. As he unlocked his apartment and headed for
bed, the remaining passengers and crew on the now-grounded plane were herded
off by Iraqi soldiers and detained. Some were later taken to Iraq to be used as human
shields. The plane was stripped of its engines and destroyed. British Airways Flight
149 was to be the last civilian flight into Kuwait until the country was liberated.
Around dawn his sleep was disturbed by helicopter gunships thumping overhead.
Then came the call from his nephew, John, who was working on Bayan Palace.
Our project has been taken over by the Iraqi army, he said.
The Iraqi plan, launched just after midnight, was to take control of a functioning
country as quickly and efficiently as possible, to keep power stations, water plants
and oil refineries running smoothly. It had worked. The Kuwaiti armed forces, vastly
outnumbered and outgunned, were caught by surprise. There were pockets of brave
resistance at Dasman Palace, for instance, and at the Battle of the Bridges near
Jahra but by the time we woke up it was basically over. Those Kuwaiti soldiers not
scattered or killed had been captured. The Iraqis were rounding up Kuwaiti police,
government officials, anybody they thought might not cooperate.


The invasion and subsequent war caused widespread loss and damage to property (Kuwait Oil Company)


I couldnt
tear my minds
eye away from
the falling apart
of the company I
had built up and
Sabah Abi-Hanna



By Sabah Abi-Hanna

his was a time of deep crisis for me on every level. To that point in my life I had been lucky.
Disorder and violence had always been at least one border away. Now they had arrived to greet
me face to face. Nothing worked. Banks were being run by Iraqi managers. You could not
withdraw money. Telephones didnt work. Ones normal web of resources had disintegrated.
Safety and survival became the paramount concerns. The insolence, brutality and lawlessness
of Saddam and his soldiers stupefied us. Thousands of Kuwaitis and people of all nationalities were seized and taken
to Iraq. Many were killed and tortured: innocent young men and women swallowed up forever by the rapacious Iraqi
machine. The installing of Alaa Hussein Ali, formerly a mere lieutenant in the Kuwaiti army, as Prime Minister of the
new Republic of Kuwait was a grotesque charade, as were all of Saddams postures and lies. At the same time I couldnt
tear my minds eye away from the falling apart of the company I had built up and nurtured, as one would nurture a child,
over 30 years. It was more than just a company. It was a pocket of hard-won civilisation, a life work for many people, and
the impact of its collapse was too much to bear.
I was sick with worry for my wife and children in Lebanon. I had married late and my young family were so precious to
me. There was no way to reach them, to tell them I was alive. I was tormented by the thought that if anything happened
to me they would be left on their own. This provided a focus for me: escape.
On our third attempt we managed to get out of Kuwait. The border stations were abandoned. Our travel documents
were valid for one journey and for four weeks only. I prayed constantly. It took three days to drive through Iraq, a violent
police state at the best of times, now on a war footing, and hostile to us. It was equally fraught driving through Syria
and Jordan. Every border was a half-day ordeal of grillings and searches. Bribes had to be negotiated with all our wits,
as money was limited. Procuring fuel, water and food presented many challenges. In Daraa, Syria one of our cars broke
down and we lost a day repairing it. In Syria we were finally able to make calls, and I broke down as well, in tears, as I
made contact with my wife for the first time.
Many Kuwaitis and many foreign workers managed to flee. For those left behind it was a dangerous and confusing
time. There were many instances of selfless actions. I witnessed Kuwaiti women forming committees at supermarkets
to prevent panic buying and to ensure everyone got essentials. Young Kuwaitis organised work teams to collect rubbish.
Non-government cooperative societies took on a range of other self-help activities. An active and popular underground
resistance movement formed. It was the most tragic chapter in Kuwaits history, but in many ways it was its proudest. That
goes some way to explaining why it never occurred to me not to return at the earliest possible moment.


Chaos and destruction following the invasion and war of liberation (Kuwait Oil Company)



I would find
one person and
ask if they knew
where others
Charles Bosel


By Charles Bosel

hen the Iraqis invaded I was in Kuwait with my eldest daughter. She was departing
for university in the US in September and wanted to spend time with her Kuwaiti
friends. Many people fled in the first few days but we had two Filipino house staff,
cats and dogs, a whole household and wed been told by the British embassy to sit
tight because they were arranging an orderly evacuation. So we did, which we regretted

because they were slow to act.

The first period was okay. The Republican Guard was a trained, professional army, so as long as you didnt do anything
stupid you could get through the checkpoints. But then they moved down to the Saudi border and were replaced by the
Peoples Militia, a rag-tag, ill-disciplined, ill-trained bunch whose only interest was to rape and loot. Thats when it got
dangerous to drive around because when you got to a checkpoint, if they liked the look of your car, they would just order
you out and take it. If you protested youd get hit with the butt of a rifle or shot. In the second week they also began
looking for Australians after Australia joined the coalition movement. They had sealed the country by then. We were
Our escape was lucky. At that time the Eastern European countries were neutral in the conflict and Saddam wanted
to keep them that way, so the Iraqis treated them well. We had a friend with contacts at the Polish Embassy. When the
Russian and Polish Embassies got clearance to evacuate all their nationals from Kuwait in two bus convoys, our friend
was able to arrange places for us, posing as Polish citizens, on one of the convoys. So at the end of August we got on one
of the buses, Iraqi buses with Iraqi guards, and drove to Baghdad, and then to Amman in Jordan. From there we flew to
Frankfurt and then to London. I could write a book on that journey alone.
I made contact with Sabah, who was in Beirut, and Salem, who was in Spain, and it was decided that I would go to
Cyprus to set up the SSH office there. The point was threefold: to try and make contact with SSH staff, many of whom
had dispersed all over the world, and let them know what was happening; to promote ourselves for work in other parts
of the world; and finally to lobby US agencies to make sure there was a role for Kuwaiti consultancies in the eventual
reconstruction. The office was modest. An apartment in Limassol was made available to us by a friend from a Cypriot
firm wed done business with. I lived there with a fax machine and a telephone.
Cyprus was dead. The two army bases were within range of Saddams Scud missiles and no international airlines would
fly in. The hotels closed. To keep my sanity I created a rigid timetable. Get up at seven oclock. Breakfast seven to eight.
Buy the newspaper. Read the newspaper. Between nine and twelve go through faxes, write replies. It was all to give myself
the impression that I was doing something. I bought a map of Cyprus and put it on my wall and on weekends I would
explore. I drove every kilometre of road in southern Cyprus. I had to stay active.
I went once to Egypt to discuss the possibility of a job there. I made a trip to Washington and New York to keep tabs
on what would happen in Kuwait post-liberation. It was slow work tracking down SSH people. This was before Facebook,
of course, and I had to ration telephone use because it was expensive. The only money we had came from the rent on St.
Georges Hall, formerly the SSC office in Bristol. I would find one person and ask if they knew where others were. The
network extended very gradually.
I was there from mid-September to March and much of the time I felt useless.


Sabah was on the last commercial flight into Kuwait International Airport during the night of the Iraqi invasion (Kuwait Oil Company)




Sabah, Salem and Charles lose no time in returning but they find a dire situation staff
gone, their offices wrecked and Americans monopolising the work

y 27 February 1991 the Iraqis had been pounded out

of Kuwait by Operation Desert Storm, leaving behind
around 700 burning oil wells, around 80 more flowing
out of control, and much other destruction besides.
The war caused damage to infrastructure and buildings. Shortages of food and
medicine were critical. Power, water and oil production had been crippled.
Sabah, Salem and Charles lost no time getting back even though Kuwait was
still under martial law. The invasion was the saddest day of my life, liberation the
happiest, says Salem, who had been at his residence in Spain when the invasion
occurred. There he had become a kind of official spokesperson on the Kuwaiti
situation in the Spanish media. Within days of the Iraqi departure he contacted
the Kuwaiti embassy and obtained permission to fly himself and ten Spanish
journalists back to Kuwait at his own expense.
Charles, eager to get off Cyprus, had flown to Cairo where he caught a military
flight to Kuwait. He had been invited by Kuwaiti defence minister Sheikh Salem
al-Sabah, who wanted a structural assessment of his palace, which had been
burned and bombed by the Iraqis. Getting off the plane he hardly recognised the
country he had fled six months before.
It was a strange, eerie place, he says. First of all you had the fires. The sky
was constantly grey and when the wind stopped, the smoke would settle and
it would be midnight, no matter what time of day it was. Youd get covered in
droplets of oil and gas and you couldnt go outside without a face mask. There
was no traffic at all. There was very little petrol and the Iraqis had ransacked
whatever cars they could. The streets were desolate. There was widespread
damage caused by tanks and tank transporters. When it rained, it was black rain,
so all the buildings were stained black. There was dead vegetation and rubbish
strewn everywhere.
He went to the office in Qortoba and found it ransacked, its glass faade
smashed, paper strewn everywhere, computers stolen, SSHs fleet of vehicles,
even a Caterpillar generator, gone. Charles decided to stay. He made calls and
people began turning up to help set things in order.
We came in the morning wearing white dishdashas. We cleaned as much as
possible. And at the end of the day, the dishdashas were black from the dirt, smoke
and fumes, says Jassim Mayahi, who was among the first to return to Kuwait
after the liberation.
In many ways it was worse than starting from scratch. Sabah, Salem and
Charles agreed that their first priority would be to track down all former SSH
staff to find out who was prepared to return and who, if not, needed the backpay they were owed plus the severance package they were entitled to. Unlike most
other companies at the time SSH did not excuse itself, by claiming insolvency,

SSH Qortoba offices ransacked in 1990

from its obligation to the people who had made the company great. We tracked
down everyone over a period of time, Jassim says. We used what we could
to find them. It was a tediously long effort. But as soon as the company was
financially able, money was wired in batches.
There was also a pressing need to find fee-paying work. Defence minister
Sheikh Salem al-Sabah retained SSH to rehabilitate his palace, which, Charles
had concluded, was sound. But that would not keep them going for long. The
opportunities were scarce, in spite of the fact that much of the country needed
to be rebuilt. The Americans had moved in and were getting all the major work,
the Kuwaiti government no doubt feeling a keen obligation to them for having
given them back their country. American agencies such as the US Army Corps
of Engineers didnt want anything to do with local firms. But Sabah, Salem and
Charles persevered. They started with two symbolically important but, revenuewise, minor rehabilitation projects: the airport VIP terminal, and the National
Assembly building. There would be many of these. It became routine. We
would go in, do a damage survey, contract out the repair work and supervise the
When they were awarded the contract to rehabilitate Bayan Palace in May,
Sabah called me. I had gone back to Australia. I found a job right away, as a
project manager for GEC Alsthom, a large multinational conglomerate. What
Sabah had to say I didnt want to hear. We have signed a contract to rehabilitate
Bayan Palace. You are to be project manager. I took the call while watching
television news footage of the Kuwait oil fields still burning. Sabah continued:
Have faith that Kuwait will come back to its glory, and SSH will too. You need
to be here in two weeks.



and hope

A cynical and pessimistic frame of mind permeates a traumatised society, and the
appetite to build and invest has disappeared

may not have wanted to hear Sabahs message, but his

vision has always been hard to resist. Like many others in
1991 whom Sabah, Salem or Charles managed to reach, I
took the risk and went back.
Kuwait was much reduced. The government had
spent some US$20bn funding the war and there would be no oil revenue until
the fires were doused and the infrastructure rebuilt. Kuwait University, which
had served as barracks for Iraqi soldiers, had been devastated in the liberation.
Resident nationalities seen as collaborators were expelled. Many of them had
performed high-level administrative roles in government and their departure led
to dysfunction and the rapid spread of bureaucracy. A pessimistic and cynical
frame of mind permeated, the causes of which were understandable. The
country had been severely traumatised. Many households had not just property
and businesses destroyed and looted, but family members killed, captured and
tortured. The lesson from this trauma for many was this: what you had could be
snatched from you at any moment. The fact that Saddam was still in power across
the border, more desperate and isolated than ever, didnt help. An attitude of
short-termism replaced the earlier drive to build and invest. Wealth transferred
outside Kuwait. It was an especially difficult milieu for Sabah, Salem and Charles,
who would not relax their ethical stance.
This characterised much of the early 90s, which are remembered as the
wilderness years for SSH. We staggered on for two or three years, picking up
small bits of work but really it didnt sustain us much at all, says Charles. We
spent all our time trying to get working on projects wed been involved with preinvasion. The Oil Sector Complex in Shuwaikh, for example. Wed signed the
contract in July 1990, just before the invasion, but we didnt get that going again
until 1995. From the heyday pre-invasion, staff numbers were down to 20 or
30 people.
The nation took time to heal. The disruption triggered the need to review
Kuwaits master plan. In association with the international consulting firm WS
Atkins, SSH was appointed to review and prepare a new plan that took into
consideration needs for the future. We used the new geographic information
system (GIS), which helped in our data analysis and projections, says Emad alJaouni. GIS merges cartography, statistical analysis and data-mining.
The study, led by Derrick Hartley, project director at SSH, was of a new calibre.
Our study gave a clear picture of Kuwait as it was then and a projection 20 years
into the future, says John Abi-Hanna. What changed most were the building
regulations and the density of land use. The plan envisaged the 20-year period
from 1995 to 2015. The growth rate of Kuwaitis in proportion to expatriates
was a major concern, the main challenge being balance and ensuring Kuwaitis

Regrouping in the 1990s. From left: Charles Bosel, Sabah Abi-Hanna, Michael Cassidy, George Abi-Hanna, Ali al-Abdullah


participated in employment at all levels. In the mid-1970s the government had

encouraged a high birth rate through a range of policies, but the split of 39 per
cent Kuwaiti to 61 per cent expatriates looked set to remain throughout the 20year span. The next step was to work out where this influx of new people would
live, how they would get around and what their needs would be for education,
health and leisure.
This period saw an important addition to the partnership. A man of science
and a published poet, Ali al-Abdullah had been in charge of roads for the
Ministry of Public Works. A prominent Kuwaiti in exile during the occupation,
he had been called upon to set up a task force in Washington, D.C. to plan the
reconstruction of Kuwait post-liberation. It was the hardest job I ever had,
he says. We had no papers, no maps. The worst part was not knowing what
was happening in Kuwait and not being able to think of the future. In 1993
he decided to resign from the ministry because he felt there was a fundamental
change of vision within the roads department. When I started in the ministry
we designed and prepared documents. We were in charge, responsible. In 1993,
no one really designed, not even a pumping station. It had a different flavour
Salem heard of his resignation and went to him with a proposal for a
partnership at SSH. I had dealt with SSH as their client, and I knew exactly who
they were and what kind of work they produced. I had very high esteem for their
record, adds al-Abdullah. He spent more than ten years with SSH and describes
those years as the best of his career.


His vision has

always been hard
to resist. I took
the risk and went
George Abi-Hanna


Re-energised by the beautiful Bayan Palace mosque, the firm looks cautiously to
the future

lowly, things began to improve. New building regulations

were voted in allowing taller structures, which would lead
to a radical change in Kuwaits skyline. It also boosted
land profitability and investment revenue. The oil fields
are so extensive in Kuwait that in some communities the
only direction to grow is straight up.
Meanwhile, the Conference Centre at Bayan Palace was being rehabilitated
and Phase 2, including a guest palace, banqueting hall and a mosque had all come
back on stream, giving SSH a much-needed source of work. The new mosque
was a major project, says Serge Khalaf, architect in charge. It had to house
around 800 patrons and it had to be done in a record time of five months. The
mosque alone required 600 workers on site. The design was a Moroccan style with
a traditional zillij mosaic decorating the mosques wall and dome. Master architect
Hussein al-Hreichi, from Morocco, supervised the work. It was fascinating to
learn and see how this was executed, Serge remembers.
Much of the dome had to be built by hand, as were the carved and painted
wood for the doors and partitions. The geometric patterns of the zillij, each with
a specific name, were determined on the basis of the scale and resolution on a
repetitive grid with chipped coloured tiles. This was the traditional craftsmans
equivalent of todays dots-per-inch. The smaller the tiles, the higher the
resolution, and the higher the price. The domes external skin was covered with
a 24-carat gold mosaic, produced in Italy using a special technique in which gold
leaves are trapped between two sheets of glass, heated, and then broken to the
size required. The marble slabs used for the ceiling and floors were sourced and
checked for colour and purity in the mill in Italy before shipping.
Sabah Abi-Hannas strength was in mentoring and coaching a team through
a design and concept, says Serge. He could make each of us achieve to the best
of our capabilities. And he would not accept anything below average. It had to
be the best possible product with the best service.
The National Bank of Kuwait (NBK) had been a client of SSH since the
1960s. For the NBK headquarters, SSH had worked with the Bechtel Corporation
and architect Hugh Stubbins. Now that the height restrictions for buildings
downtown had been lifted, NBK, which needed more floor space, decided to
expand vertically. Cutting his teeth on the NBK project of 1993 was Omran
Hayat, who would go on to play a central role in the company. Central role
is an understatement: he is now, in fact, the majority shareholder of SSH. Back
then he was an ambitious young Kuwaiti of a new generation. Hed gotten his
bachelor of science in architectural engineering at the University of Miami,
and a masters in project management and finance from Bostons Northeastern
University. He then worked at the Kuwait Investment Office (KIO) in London,

SSH team lunch

Serge Khalaf, architect in charge of the Bayan

Palace mosque, a major project completed in
five months

part of the Kuwait Investment Authority. As assistant to the head of real estate,
he got a first-hand glimpse of the titans at play in the world of high-end property
investment. KIO was an elite and prestigious outfit, Omran recalls. It had
holdings in the top assets and companies of the world. The saying went that
when KIO picked up the phone, Merrill Lynch started shaking. However, I was
not actually doing much. It was a bit dull. After two years I was keen to get a
technical grounding and practise my skills in engineering.
He was only vaguely aware of SSH as one of the main Kuwaiti architecture,
engineering and planning offices, but he knew Ali al-Abdullah, who encouraged
him to submit a CV.
I came in and spoke my mind, he says. I had drive and energy but it was
no problem being a new guy. All of them were very open. I was surprised they
gave me the chance to speak up. I was pushed right out to site, to shadow Hanan
al-Sayed, time and cost engineer on the NBK project. The project assistant and
the resident engineer were these amazing senior guys. I learned loads. Later he
was to take over as time and cost engineer. I said to Charles, I dont know what
to do. Dont you have a head? he said. Go do it! That was an eye opener.
Around this time the directors diverted some of their focus away from working
in the business and started working on it. It was time to set up a governance
structure that could steer the company into the next growth phase, which
they could see coming. Also, they were not getting any younger. So they made
Omran and me Associates, a new position with heightened responsibility and
a stepping stone to becoming directors. The following year we were made nonequity directors. The shift in governance in just a few years from three managing
principals, Sabah, Salem and Charles, to a board of six directors those three
plus Ali al-Abdullah, Omran and me was subtle but profound. It took a while
for the metabolism of the company to reflect the shift. Id started an MBA from
Australias Deakin University at this time as well, distance learning, for leaders in
engineering and technology businesses.
In 1994 we saw a glimmer of returning confidence when the Touristic
Enterprises Company (TEC) decided it was time to rehabilitate its pioneering
leisure and fantasy park, Entertainment City, which opened in 1984 and had been
damaged in the invasion. TEC chose us to take on the role of client representative
to manage the rehabilitation of the park. It had rides and attractions with fun
themes from around the world, from cowboys and Sinbad the Sailor to Outer
Space. We forged good relations with TEC, who later gave SSH another leisure
project, Shaab Park.


The revival of big, pre-invasion projects sparks a burst of technical innovation

In 1995 Roger Baroudi joins SSH to develop

the firms mechanical engineering capabilities


t was heartening, starting in 1995, to get moving on

some more good, iconic structures. That year we started
working on the new headquarters complex for the Kuwait
Petroleum Corporation (KPC), for which we, with Arthur
Erickson, had submitted the design back in 1989. It threw
up some great technical challenges. The location was a difficult one, recalls Ali
al-Abdullah, who directed the project with Charles Bosel. The site was a former
chlorine and sodium chloride factory. Environmental tests showed that mercury
had contaminated the seabed. We had to do numerous tests and studies before
submitting the whole package to the environment agency. We designed a system
to control the pollution with monitoring points at various distances in the sea,
and we established criteria for the environmental impact studies, adds Ali. After
this work, the contaminated waterfront site was transformed into a landmark.
The complex occasioned another significant innovation: there was some
uncertainty over how the concave faade glazing would behave in the strong sea
breezes. High winds could have created a vacuum which might induce a smash,
so we had the glass structure tested in university laboratories in the United
Kingdom to ensure the proper angle, curve, weight and density.
The KPC building was also a chance to show off another key addition to the
SSH team. Engineers come in two types: the rigid ones and the ones who think
outside the box. So says Roger Baroudi, a mechanical engineer with a masters
in environmental design from the University of London. Mechanical engineering
(ME) in our context concerns the respiratory systems of a building, how it
regulates its temperature and circulation of air and water. With his background
in environmental design, Roger had an important edge. I interviewed him in
1995 and was keen to get him on board. Hed been a consultant in London
and was looking for a stepping stone into the region. He became head of our
ME department and the stepping stone proved a bit more permanent. Rogers
passion has always been that great design requires a blend of good architecture
and sound engineering a tricky mix to achieve, especially when egos get in the
way. When he arrived Roger was less than impressed with our ME department.
It was in an embryonic state, he says. We had barely five people. The
software was rudimentary, mostly for calculation and for selecting plant and
equipment. They had CAD but there were no standards across the company.
Design had to be improved. What we did met clients requirements but it was
heavy. It lacked finesse. There was plenty of room for streamlining.
The KPC complex had to be energy efficient because, as an energy company,
KPC had to show leadership. We proposed a system for using seawater for
cooling, Roger says. The water would cool the chillers and then be recycled
and used in a reflecting pool. It was unique but it hadnt been done in Kuwait

The SSH-designed new headquarters complex for the Kuwait Petroleum Corporation broke new ground in energy efficiency


before, so it was never adopted. Still, we were thinking outside the box, mixing
innovation with feasibility. Thats what helped us build a reputation for novel
Roger began a programme of gradual transformation of the ME department.
I still find it stirring when he describes how: We began to standardise how we
designed, how we drafted. We upgraded our software. We grew the department
carefully, with training and mentoring with senior engineers, not just in methods
and procedures but in team spirit. We deliberately fostered a proactive, dynamic,
helpful environment. We worked on powerful communication. We even worked
on our writing and editing so that proposals were of a higher quality.
Al-Fanar Mall in Salmiyah was another iconic structure. Architect Dino
Georgiou worked with SSH on the project and made the renderings freehand.
The suspended skylight system flooded all four floors with light, especially the
central atrium with its fountains and cafe.
A major project during this time was the new headquarters of the Public
Institution for Social Security (PIFSS), which we worked on with the Canadian
architectural firm WZMH. PIFSS was important because social welfare has long
been the key plank of the governments wealth redistribution strategy. The site
chosen was on a prominent intersection on the edge of Kuwait City. Retirees are
especially honoured as having paid their dues to Kuwaiti society, which led to an
uncommon focus on the parking lot. Emad al-Jaouni recalls: It started out as
a regular parking lot but then there was a great effort to make sure that retirees
enjoyed comfort and sensed recognition and appreciation from the parking area
and the underground link tunnel.
Roger notched up a success with PIFSS: The ME was a breakthrough, he
says. We had to provide a system that was energy efficient and also flexible
to allow partitions to be moved. We located plant rooms within the floors so
maintenance was easy and minimised disruption. Great design is deceptive:
achieving simplicity in the outcome requires long, complex work. All this was
new for Kuwait and boosted our reputation.


The new Kuwait Petroleum Corporation (KPC) Oil Sector Complex at night


simplicity in the
outcome requires
long, complex
Roger Baroudi


View from the new KPC Oil Sector Complex car park



The fourth decade ends with a triumph the Marina World waterfront development
but also a nightmare, as cracks appear in the Bayan Guest Palace

Marina Hotel


n 1997 we won the contract to master plan, design and

supervise the hugely ambitious Marina World waterfront
development in Salmiya. It remains one of our greatest
projects and is today a hugely popular destination featuring
a shopping centre, marina, hotel and resort, seafront public
park and cafes and restaurants. Visitors to Kuwait often remark how the place is
crowded well into the small hours with families and people of all ages playing,
picnicking, dining, strolling, conversing and just chilling out.
We fought hard to win that job. It was a build-operate-transfer (BOT) project
with Kuwait Municipality as the client. The United Real Estate Company (URC)
was invited with other major developers to submit proposals. URC picked us to
help develop its bid.
Ali al-Abdullah remembers it well: The study involved many disciplines,
including market research and financial viability. SSH was the only local firm
commissioned by URC to compete against four famous international names. The
person responsible for our bid, and the drive behind it, was Stuart Bosel, Charles
son. Charles himself and I were heavily involved as well. Our original agreement
included the supervision of the project if it was awarded to URC. During this
period Mr. Bader al-Bader was in charge on the URC side.
The day we learned wed won was a great one. Now we had to deliver, and here
we came face to face with none other than Omran Hayat, who, having gained the
technical grounding he sought, had left us in 1995 to join Kuwaiti developer, the
National Real Estate Company (NREC). He would go on to become managing
director of the United Real Estate Company (URC).
When SSH won the competition I ironed out the contract agreement,
Omran says. With me being on the client side, I came in saying, Right! Time
to live up to your standards! And they did, absolutely, but we fought a lot, too.
URC wanted the shopping mall to be finished first so it could generate income
for building the marina, which included a curved promenade with restaurants
and cafes. A hotel at the end of the reclaimed peninsula was the final addition.
A covered pedestrian bridge over the busy Arabian Gulf Road connects the mall
with the marina.
A year after, cracks appeared in the concrete beams bearing the dome of the
Guest Palace of the Bayan Conference Centre. It soon became evident that this
could be a major problem a nightmare for us as designers and supervisors.
Because it was a government project, under the Ministry of Public Works, it
went legal very quickly. Before we had the chance to get a technical report on
the problem they had put the project on hold, shut the site down, and raised a
legal case for damages. The government commissioned a couple of studies that
recommended demolishing the whole structure and rebuilding it. This was seen

Master plan for the ambitious Marina World waterfront

development. Contract won in 1997

as the easiest option so the bureaucratic momentum started rumbling in that

direction. Because there were contractors whose work had to be suspended our
potential liability was escalating very quickly. It was, without doubt, a companythreatening situation.
Salem and Sabah sought, and were granted, an audience with Crown Prince
Sheikh Saad. We insisted that demolishing the building was a drastic and
unnecessary course of action, recalls Sabah. We held up our hands and said
that if there had been a mistake we will fix it and pay for it. But we needed the
chance to study the problem and to explore a suitable correction. Sabah and
Salem reasoned that this would be far better than letting the issue drag on in the
courts, where SSH would be obliged to defend itself vigorously.
The Crown Prince said: Go ahead, make your proposal, but bring in an
international expert to verify it. Sheikh Saad instructed the Ministry of Public
Works to give us access to the site and, if it was backed by the international
consultant, to allow the proposed remedial work. We brought in the worldrenowned consultants Ove Arup to do the study. It found that there was a
construction deficiency and a design mistake, and the two compounded to cause
the problem. Just a few elements needed to be rectified or removed. We removed
the dome and stiffened some other elements and the project was put back on
track in 2001. The repair cost was nominal and was covered by our insurers.
It was a very tough period for me because I managed the process. It taught
me some lessons, not least how valuable a good reputation is, for if the Ministry
had not trusted us, we would never have been allowed back in to investigate and
fix the problem. It was a huge relief when it was over. If our plan had failed its
hard to see how SSH could have carried on. A great weight was lifted from our
shoulders, but then another one descended. That year, 2001, Sabah, Salem and
Charles announced that they wanted to retire.

Marina mall, the Crescent connected to the main building by the pedestrian bridge,
with a view on the harbor, sand beaches and extention

A pedestrian bridge over the busy Arabian Gulf Street leads from Marina Mall to the shops, restaurants and sandy beaches of the popular waterfront development




Maturity and


The principals offer their creation to a trusted former director, who is nervous at first

e have grown old, they told us. It is time for

new blood. So recalls Jassim Mayahi of a
meeting called by the principals to inform
staff of their decision. It had in fact been
brewing for some time. In the slow years after the invasion Sabah, Salem, Charles
and Ali had all begun developing other business and personal interests. The
cynicism and pessimism prevalent in the 1990s took its toll, sapping the vigour
and enthusiasm that drove them in the previous decades. Also, the company
itself had begun preparing for its next phase of development.
I started analysing our company structure during my MBA course, which was
designed specifically for business leaders in technology and engineering firms. It
was clear that SSH had evolved into the classic studio model in which each of the
three main service offerings was led by a strong, charismatic founder Sabah for
architecture and buildings, Salem for civil engineering and Charles for planning.
It worked and we were familiar with it but it risked the inefficient use of the skills
we had in the company. We needed to be far more integrated just to release the
skills and potentials we had.
Where I felt we needed to get to was called a balanced matrix by the
textbooks. This organised the firm in temporary project teams assembled from
the various permanent discipline departments. Most of the leadership could
see the sense of this approach. We all witnessed it at work in the big-name
international consultancies we rubbed shoulders with. However, there was a
certain amount of cultural resistance, if only because it was new. It took pretty
much the entire latter half of the 1990s for this organisational change to bed in.
The news that the founders wanted to retire, however, was still difficult. It
signalled the end of an era and the move into uncharted waters. However, true to
form, they had a cunning plan.
I received a call from Sabah, recalls Omran Hayat, at the time managing
director of the United Real Estate Company. They wanted to see me. All of
them. They came in, sat down and said they wanted me to take over SSH.
They had thought long and hard about their situation. They needed a Kuwaiti
buyer, but it was never a question of just going to the market and selling to the
highest bidder. It may not have made strict business sense, but their goal was to
bequeath to the right person a slice of history and a stake in the future.
Omran was the right person, Sabah says. He was young and ambitious,
well-travelled and with a broad perspective. And we knew him. He had worked
for us and then we had worked for him. He respected all that we were about. We
felt strongly that SSHs future lay with him. In effect we were giving him SSH,
not selling the practice.


SSH Subhan office, 2005

Omran was nervous at first. Architects and engineers have big egos. Because
of this, selling a practice is difficult. Why me? I asked. They said SSHs future lies
in me. Eventually throughout the discussions it dawned on me that it was not the
financial return they were most concerned with: they wanted to secure a bright
future for their creation. The idea began to inspire me. We worked together on a
purchase sale agreement and they did not negotiate for a better price.
I decided to bring in another partner, Omran continues. We had to have a
Kuwaiti leading on the board and I could not be involved in the daily operation of
the business. I needed someone talented in networking and getting new business.
That person was Sadoon al-Essa, now executive partner at SSH. Sadoon had
worked on the special projects administration at the Ministry of Public Works
on the Amiri Diwan (Sief Palace) project, and had held management positions in
major real estate companies. He was ideally placed to oversee our strategic and
business development.

SSH-designed VIP terminal at Kuwait International Airport




SSH becomes the first major Kuwaiti consultancy to navigate safely to secondgeneration ownership just in time for the financial crisis

he sale took some time to go through. There was a

comprehensive due diligence process to undertake,
plus we had to ensure our liabilities with the Guest
Palace court case issue were defined and dealt with.
As the new managing director during this period I
had many sleepless nights. Sabah, Salem, Charles and Ali were able to retire in
2003. Although they were on hand to help in whatever way we needed, generously
sharing their knowledge, wisdom and experience, each moved on with the next
phase of their lives, Sabah in Lebanon, Salem splitting his time between Kuwait
and Malaga, Spain, Charles retiring, at last, to his native Australia, and Ali here
in Kuwait.
The challenge didnt end after the ink dried on the sale agreement, however.
The transition from first- to second-generation ownership is a fraught process.
It took the market time to understand and accept that SSH was no longer Salem
al-Marzouk and Sabah Abi-Hanna, as the practice was known from the 1970s.
Salem and Sabah had long since stopped leading every single project personally,
but clients were still surprised to hear that theyd gone. The principals had created
a first-class brand and it may sound odd to say it but that made our job harder.
We carried on, however, focussing all our efforts on winning projects and doing
an excellent job on them.
At the same time we put a lot of energy and management resources into
modernising our corporate governance. We set up an audit committee and
created various checks and balances to identify risk and manage it in a way that is
transparent to the ownership so that the company could grow with some peace
of mind. There is risk in any sector and in any region, but history shows just
how risky this region is. Plus, the business has changed from the days when a
handshake sufficed to close a deal. Clients are more sophisticated, with in-house
project management teams. Contracts are more complex and allocate more risk
to the service provider. Their payment terms are more onerous. Overall, our
financial risks are higher than they were. Instituting an international standard of
governance was a necessary part of our move into second-generation ownership.
With family firms there is a tendency to feel that you dont need to do all this
because youre all in it together, but these days all it takes is one mishap, one big,
bad project, and you stare bankruptcy in the face. The process wasnt easy. In
some ways we had to go into a cocoon while we made the necessary changes. But
we came out stronger, and we were the first major Kuwaiti consultancy to make
the transition.
We emerged from our chrysalis into a decade that would turn out to be
every bit as challenging as the post-occupation 1990s. The markets attention
was diverted in 2003 as 100,000 American troops assembled in Kuwait for the

Canadian Consortium Architects, in association with SSH, were awarded the project to develop the master plan for the ambitious Kuwait
University New Campus in Shadadiyah


assault on Saddam. It was a relief to see the vicious aggressor finally deposed
but Iraqs descent into chaos and insurgency sapped private sector confidence.
In 2006 many major projects procured under the much-favoured build-operatetransfer (BOT) model were suspended by the government amid concerns over
the transparency of the process. Those projects remained on hold while the
government put new procurement and funding regulations in place. Our work
flow slowed considerably in this period, but when the global financial crisis
spread to the Gulf shores in 2008, it stopped altogether. The government acted
forcefully to prevent the collapse of banks but construction all but ceased as
property values plummeted and lending to the private sector dried up. Investment
companies were particularly hard hit: five of Kuwaits biggest defaulted on loans
totalling around US$10bn. Real estate companies had borrowed extensively
to develop office buildings and mixed use projects and many of these were in
progress when the crisis hit. With buildings half vacant and rents on the decline,
developers went into hibernation.
The ambitious projects we designed but which were abandoned by clients
in this period makes for a bittersweet roll-call. The Fintas Commercial Centre
was one of these. With its harsh climate, Kuwait took to the shopping mall
like the proverbial duck to water. It made sense here because it updated the
traditional covered souk by providing a flexible, cool and luxurious space in which
to socialise and shop. But it bothered us that mall design to date had unthinkingly
adopted the visual language of the West, so that once inside a mall you could be
in Kuwait, Kuala Lumpur or Kansas City. The Fintas Commercial Centre, a BOT
project commissioned by the Kuwait Municipality in 2003, set out to re-think
the mall for Kuwait by challenging this and creating a shopping experience that
resonated with Kuwaitis here, today. We worked with celebrated young Lebanese
architect Bernard Khoury on this design but sadly the project was abandoned.
Another was the Abdallah al-Ahmad Cultural and Entertainment Centre, an
ambitious BOT complex comprising a concert hall, cinemas, shops, restaurants,
recreational facilities, a business centre and a technology school. We won the
international design competition in association with the renowned Ateliers Jean
Nouvel but, again, the job was suspended.
This was discouraging, but when Kuwait did forge ahead with its development
ambitions we were ready. One of the most exciting examples of this is a brand
new campus for Kuwait University planned in Shadadiyah, scheduled to open in
2014. Canadian Consortium Architects in association with SSH were awarded the
project to develop the master plan. The university has a proud history in modern
Kuwait. It started in 1965 as a teacher training college, added a law department
in 1967, and has continued to expand ever since. In 2004, Kuwait University
identified the need for a campus spread over 535 hectares with separate mens
and womens campuses and a new medical faculty. It will accommodate 30,000
students and have a teaching staff of 2,800, with 7,700 support staff. Starting in
2004 this comprehensive plan absorbed a professional team of 72 people from 16
different disciplines for over a year. SSH also won the contract for infrastructure
and landscaping design at the campus, incorporating everything from roads and
walkways to telecommunications and water treatment.
In spite of the economic challenges of the Noughties we never stopped
innovating to create value for clients. The next project, the last well describe in
this book, is just one example of what can happen when you manage to create a
culture where great ideas emerge from anywhere in the team.


The new Public Institution for Social Security (PIFSS) headquarters saw a breakthrough in building services design


business has
changed from
the days when
a handshake
sufficed to close
a deal.
George Abi-Hanna


Interior, executive floors, Public Institution for Social Security (PIFSS) new headquarters


In 2004 SSH, in association with Whitby Bird & Partners, designed the new BMW and Land Rover showroom, bringing an airy, avant-garde touch to the
industrial zone of Kuwait


BMW interior and design rendering


BMW and Land Rover showroom interior




New talent allows SSH to think outside the box

With Ali Dahers help, SSH could make ICT

part of its service offering to clients


hen Ali Daher joined us in 2007, it was as IT

manager. His job was to improve the companys
internal ICT systems. But Ali was not just your
basic IT guy. Hed been an ICT infrastructure
solutions architect for companies such as IBM,
Inchcape and EDS, an entrepreneur, and also founder of an Internet service
provision company in Australia. He wanted to do more than just set up and
maintain internal systems.
Before I joined, our clients would contract third party ICT consultants for the
facilities we designed, Ali recalls. I started working on how we could turn ICT
into one of the services we offered, into a profit centre of its own. So Ali rewrote
his own job description: he became Chief Information Officer, and started active
ICT consultancy.
Now imagine a building that lets you turn your air conditioning off as youre
driving to the airport, that recognises you in the evening and adjusts the lights
and temperature automatically according to your preferences. Imagine being able
to relax while, through one widescreen AV display, you book a holiday, watch the
news, write an email, check whos at the door, answer the telephone, order a curry
and turn off the lights in the kids bedroom. Imagine also that commercial tenants
of this building can choose from an extensive menu of plug-and-play services
including security, telephony, high-speed Internet, data storage, video conferencing,
enterprise software applications anything requiring voice, data and video all
without having to call in a singe third-party provider.
This is not a scenario of the future, but a description of what life will be like for
residents and commercial tenants of the mixed-use, 60-storey United Tower, which
we are just finishing as we write this. It is Kuwaits smartest building. What makes it
so smart is that all the data systems that are usually separate in a modern building
telephony, network, security, entertainment, broadband, HVAC, lighting and other
building systems are unified in a fully converged fiber-optic network running over
Internet Protocol (IP), the same highway the Internet uses. On a practical level it
meant for United Tower that seven separate cabling systems could be replaced by
one and 17 subsystems could be fully integrated, allowing for efficient and central
control of the towers operational management.
Thats pretty smart, but even smarter is the fact that the client, the United Real
Estate Company, while providing tenants with the highest available standard of
living and convenience, can also develop revenue streams on top of rents by offering
this suite of on-demand services. Residential and commercial tenants specify their
own package and URC configures it and collects the fee, not third-party suppliers.
As Ali says: Quite often you have buildings with great technology, but the leap for
us was employing the technology so the client can use it as an additional revenue

At United Tower, all data systems telephony, network, security, entertainment, broadband and more are unified in a fully converged fibre-optic network

stream. That is something people arent generally thinking about yet.

I make it sound easy but of course, as Ali will attest, it wasnt all plain sailing.
The intention to make United Tower smart emerged late, after construction had
already started in 2006. Says Ali: Because it was late in the process we had to move
quickly, coordinate with other disciplines and revise some designs. We had to talk
to the electrical and mechanical contractors, find out what they were doing and
negotiate what they would be responsible for. We managed to pull some elements
out of the other contracts and formulate a new bid pack specifically for the ICT,
security and systems integration.
There was also some resistance among suppliers of the environmental and
home automation kit. Ali recalls: Vendors had to integrate with the building-wide
infrastructure already in place, but some had difficulty with that because it meant
theyd have to change their systems. We insisted, saying that they needed to make
sure that their systems worked with ours or we werent interested. The important
ones got on board and made the effort. In one instance we worked with a vendor
for about a month helping them develop the right protocols. Real innovation
requires a fundamental shift in mindset.
United Tower is a significant evolution in what a building can do, which we
believe will bring real benefits for its owners and users. Its also a significant
evolution for us, both in the way we think about the service we offer clients and
how we deliver it. This sounds grand but as the systems in United Tower were
being finished and tested I have to confess to a few collective forehead-smacking
moments as we asked ourselves: Why hadnt we done this before? After all, the
technology has been around for some time. Innovation is what weve been doing
for 50 years in one way or another but, as we enter our sixth decade, the need to do
it better and faster will get more acute.

We had to
move quickly,
coordinate with
other disciplines
and revise some
Ali Daher


SSH-designed United Tower allows the owner to tap into new, data-driven revenue streams


United Tower



The SSH-designed Universal Printing Press was shortlisted for the World Architecture Festival awards in 2011



It has been an incredible journey, but there is no room for complacency

o here we are. We started with Sabah stepping off

the plane on that summer night back in 1958. It has
been an incredible journey. The cast of characters has
grown from one to hundreds. The transformation of
the country is so complete that in the Central Business
District, hardly a trace of Old Kuwait remains amid the gleaming towers of glass
and steel. Weve come a long way together, the country and the firm, and while
we can be proud many challenges remain.
In February 2010 the government announced an astonishing KD35-billion
(US$104-billion), four-year development plan designed to boost investment in
health, education, and infrastructure and kickstart the sluggish private sector.
The first year of the plan alone envisaged up to 900 projects worth around KD5
billion. The overall plan even includes a railway. It also envisages significant
participation of the private sector through new public shareholding companies.
The underlying aims of the DP are sound. Oil is a finite resource and to
safeguard future generations Kuwait needs to shift from the classic petrowelfare-state model, with the vast majority of working Kuwaitis on an everexpanding state payroll, to a diverse, growing and sustainable economy. It is a
hugely ambitious plan but, as we write, two years after it was announced, red tape
and political gridlock have meant that only a small percentage of the projects
have begun. Having a plan and the money to pay for it is, for Kuwait, the easy
part. What it needs now is the political will to see it through, followed quickly
by a robust and transparent regulatory framework and streamlined procurement
And what about us? As we enter our next 50 years, we are big enough to
handle any sort of project but not so big that management doesnt know whats
going on in the trenches. This means we can make decisions fast and change
things that arent working. We have added International to our name, reflecting
our expanding regional presence with offices in Oman and the UAE. Weve got
a diverse top tier of leadership, Kuwaiti, Asian, Western, Arab, young and not
so young, which means we can relate comfortably with clients from around the
world. Weve gone through the tricky transition to second-generation ownership
and management with our credibility and brand as intact and fresh as ever.
But in this business there is nothing guaranteed about your place in the league
table. Youre only as good as the talent you retain, for instance, and while weve
been blessed with great people catching the SSH vision and making long-term,
even lifetime, commitments to us, professionals targeting the Gulf region are
usually in the market for short-term, high-return contracts. So, to grow and
safeguard our unique culture we are setting up an employee ownership model
whereby committed staff can look forward to a greater personal stake in the

Royal Opera House Cultural Souk, Muscat, Oman

company. There are technical challenges as well. The way of the future is BIM
(building information modelling). BIM stands to revolutionise the way buildings
are designed and put together, but its more than just whizzy new software. On
top of three- and four-dimensional design tools it incorporates new protocols
for sharing project information that challenge the traditional business model of
the construction supply chain. Its adoption will be a learning process across the
board. Finally, putting development on a sustainable path will be critical. We
need to help clients understand that energy and water are our two most precious
natural resources, and we need to get better at designing a new built environment
that recognises this.
Still, we can be proud. There is, however, a certain sense of dissatisfaction
at not having been able fully to capture it in these pages. I discussed this with
Sabah and, for once, he let me off the hook: Memories, he says, are not really
about dates, or the buildings and highways built in this or that year, or the money
earned, or the dramatic events or the staff numbers at particular times. You can
focus on these data but what you are searching for slips through your fingers.
The hardest thing to recapture when you look back on a life is intangible. Its the
energies and influences, the sparks of understanding and inspiration between
people. Its not so much the things youve done as what preceded them: the ideas,
the excitement, the shared sense of what is possible.



The next


New opportunities, new challenges

By Sadoon al-Essa

he team effort of capturing the milestones of the

last five decades has kindled a profound sense of
excitement among us. We salute Sabah, Salem and
Charles for the strong foundations they laid, and the
role they played in the development of architecture,
engineering and planning in Kuwait makes us grateful and proud.
SSH was not so much bought as a design practice as inherited, as was
evident during the transition phase which saw the founder-partners extend their
professional support and mentoring, which still continues today. This transition
phase saw SSH reflect on its past and gear up to compete in a new globalised
During the last eight years SSH has transformed itself from a studio culture
to a corporation able to support the creativity and expertise of its people with
underlying organisational systems based on professional best practice. We have
broadened our focus from a local to a regional perspective. We have embraced
technological advances in design and process re-engineering, and have adopted
best practices in corporate governance, empowering staff participation through
our partnership programme and progressively aiming to develop a unique firm
But life is about evolution and change, so what about the next fifty years?
What will be the shape, the challenges, the opportunities of life in 2061? And
how will SSH contribute and lead in meeting this challenge? Telling the future is
risky, but its equally true that our thoughts create tomorrow and that we wont
know what direction we should take unless we create a desirable vision to aim
for. The idea of the future has always tickled people to dream. Dreams transform
themselves into vision, which triggers the formulation of strategies, long-term
objectives and sustainable goals. If George Bernard Shaw were around, he would
have tweeted: We are made wise not by the recollection of our past, but by the
responsibility for our future.
As designers, engineers and planners we believe the best way to envision
the future is to review past and current trends, engage in research and to think
logically (even, sometimes, out-of-the-box), make calculative assumptions
and ask the right questions. In doing so we allow our inquisitiveness to lead us
into exploring what the future may hold. The purpose of this exercise is not to
attempt predictions for the future, but to highlight the key factors that have the
potential to shape the design and architecture of tomorrow, and with it the future
of SSH. So lets embark on a journey.
The challenges facing us in the Gulf region and indeed the world, we believe,
are serious and converging. We foresee that 2011, a year of widespread popular
unrest, will be identified as the year that necessitated a social shift between

governments and their peoples. The enduring societies of the next five decades
will be the ones who succeed in providing the foundations for full-spectrum
wellbeing, which includes housing, education, healthcare, water, energy, transport
and communications.
At the same time, societies will have to make their limited resources stretch
further. For all countries the deepening reality will be the rising prices of the
traditional forms of energy, and of essential commodities, metals and minerals,
as demand for these finite resources continues to be driven up by the rapidly
developing countries, whose growth, according to forecasters, will dramatically
outpace growth in the developed, wealthy nations of yesterday.
Demographically speaking, over the next 50 years the world will be a far more
crowded place. The UN estimates that by 2025 more than eight billion people will
inhabit our frail planet, up from roughly 6.9 billion today, and rising to 9.3 billion
in 2050. The population growth will trigger development of newer towns and

cities and the expansion of existing residential and commercial and social spaces,
which will generate demand and new business opportunities. The result will also
be even higher demand for the scarce, precious things that sustain us: water, food
and energy. It will also put extra pressure on cities because populations around
the world are shifting from rural to urban areas.
The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs predict
that 69 per cent of the worlds population will live in cities by 2050, up from
around 50 per cent in 2009. (See World Urbanization Prospects: The 2009
Revision.) Until 1975 there were just three megacities in the world: New York,
Tokyo and Mexico City. By 2025, the UN predicts, there will be 29, with most
new ones sprouting in Asia and Latin America. According to the United Nations
Population Fund (UNFPA) a billion people now live in urban slums, which are
typically overcrowded, polluted and dangerous, and lack basic services such as
clean water and sanitation. To fulfil their side of the social contract governments
will have to meet this challenge head on by organising the fast and efficient
provision of affordable homes, utilities and infrastructure.
Politically, instability in the Middle East and elsewhere around the world may
force firms to focus on other emerging markets, although the Middle East, with
its immense natural resources and potential to become a global logistics hub,
will continue to provide opportunities. Overall, countries and boundaries will
diminish as barriers to trade in a flourishing, free-world economy.
In its Global Environment Outlook of 2007 the United Nations Environment
Programme predicted that by 2025, about 1.8 billion people will be living in
countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and that two-thirds of the
world population could be under conditions of water stress the threshold for
meeting the water requirements for agriculture, industry, domestic purposes,
energy and the environment. Complicating the picture even further are the
effects of climate change. That global warming is real and is caused by humans is
no longer seriously contested within the international scientific community. The
results may be droughts, heatwaves, floods, extreme weather events and rising sea
levels, causing damage to infrastructure, displaced populations and the need to
adapt existing structures to cope with rising or falling temperatures. All this will
place extra, severe and unforeseen strains on the financial and political resources
of countries both rich and poor.
Perhaps I have painted a rather apocalyptic picture. Thats what happens
when you focus on challenges. But we are optimistic. Naturally the responses to
these challenges might be seen on a political level, as societies decide to prioritise
appropriate measures, cooperate with each other, improve their effectiveness and
commit to action. But I believe that real sustainable change begins less at the
political level than through social change led by businesses. Pure and applied
science will play a major role in the development of new and sustainable sources
of energy, for instance. But so too will the disciplines of design, engineering
and planning, because a great part of the response to the challenges of the next
50 years lies in the creation of a human space, of a built environment, that is
genuinely fit for purpose. Considering all these factors, sticking to the basics and
keeping things simple could be the mantra that guides us to success in the future.
Historically, the design function was limited to a few talented people who
enjoyed close proximity to powerful rulers. We think of Leonardo da Vinci, Senan
and Michelangelo during the Renaissance era. But centuries before and after the
Renaissance saw engineering marvels which exist now as monuments to great
civilizations and dynasties, whether its the pyramids of Egypt, the Great Wall



of China, the Taj Mahal, the aqueducts and infrastructure of the Aztecs or the
Byzantines, the boulevards, covered bridges, palaces and mosques of the Persians,
the sewerage of the British or the trans-Siberian railroads of the Russians. What
unifies most of these architectural and engineering marvels was the existence
of a strong visionary leadership supported by highly-skilled architects, engineers
and planners who shaped projects that were beyond their times. Most reflect
the prosperity and greatness achieved by the rulers. Some epitomise the ruthless
drive to conquer and subdue, while others display the noble intent to improve
conditions for the masses. It raises an interesting question: in the next 50 years, if
societies become more democratic and decision-making more participatory, will
we see such awe-inspiring monuments? You never know.
We believe successful societies of 2061 will have learned to do more with less.
More means more of what is really necessary and good for the greatest number
and less means with less impact on the environment, less energy consumption,
less carbon output, less risk and less cash. The built environment business has
only scratched the surface in responding to these challenges, and that includes
everyone from the inventors of new building materials and systems, to designers,
builders and planners of towns and cities. In thinking about the next 50 years
weve found it helpful to channel our focus onto five areas: new materials and
systems; new procurement models; better buildings; new delivery techniques;
and better urban spaces.
New materials and systems
Traditionally, the design and construction industry has not changed at the same
pace compared to wider technological developments. But its possible now to
see exciting developments and to project infinite possibilities into the not-sodistant future. For instance, NASA started working with Phase Change Materials
(PCMs) in the 1980s in its search for space suits that kept astronauts comfortable
more effectively. PCMs change phase i.e., turn from being a liquid to a
solid and back again within specified temperatures, naturally absorbing and
then giving off energy as they change state. Now PCMs are being tested in a
range of ceiling tiles and the results are encouraging. PCMs are a key part of
the astounding cooling system used in Qatars prototype of a carbon-neutral
stadium the country is developing for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, which they say
will keep players and spectators cool in the scorching summer desert heat.
Glass is another locus of interest. For years now researchers have been looking
at foamed glass as an alternative to concrete because it is strong, adaptable, highly
insulative and completely recyclable, which could utterly reconfigure a buildings
whole-life cost model. The potential for glass panels to capture or deflect the
suns energy is only beginning to be explored. In 2002 researchers at Sharps
Japanese laboratory printed a transparent computer processor onto a flat plate
of glass showing that, in the future, ultra-thin computers and even displays
could be incorporated into glass surfaces. It may be a bit blue sky but its not
unreasonable to hope for a new structural glass that acts as an external faade
for the building while also generating electricity from the sun. It could regulate
temperatures inside and adjust its level of transparency to suit the mood of the
building user. It could also serve as a multi-purpose computer and display unit
and the control monitor for all building management functions.
Apart from the above mentioned materials, I believe our generation will surely
witness other new materials that could revolutionise the design and construction
industry, or find new uses for existing materials based on technological advances.


New procurement models

In most of the developed world the traditional mode of procurement is
certainly a source of concern and bewilderment for anyone who has stood
back to consider it. It is characterised by highly fragmented supply chains in
which separate companies perform the various crucial aspects of design and
construction, but, in a competitive bidding environment where risk is shifted
down to the weakest links in the chain, the atmosphere on many projects is like
unrestrained economic warfare as all these entities compete with each other in
order to protect their meagre profit margins. Instead of collaborating, sharing
information and learning from mistakes, they duplicate work and functions just
to protect themselves from legal claims. The amount of waste, cost, delay and
defects this inherited system generates is phenomenal.
Until now, most procuring bodies in the developed world governments in
particular have felt they could afford to muddle through with this wasteful and
conflict-ridden delivery model, but in the midst of a deepening global resource
pinch, change is in the air. New forms of procurement are being pioneered in the
US and the UK to try and undo the splintering of the construction process that
occurred in the early- to mid-20th century. Called variously Integrated Project
Delivery or Integrated Design and Construction, these models try to recapture

Telling the
future is risky, but
its equally true
that our thoughts
create tomorrow.
Sadoon al-Essa


the modes of bygone eras, where the powerful architect worked in a spirit of
trust and collaboration with the multidisciplinary master builder. Today we have
already started seeing buildings being assembled, not built, and over the next
fifty years we expect it will be a matter of course that designers will collaborate
closely with other members of the delivery team and weave buildability, material
selection, phasing, procurement, logistics, scheduling, time and cost accounting
into the primary design process.
Information technology has a big role to play. Fifty years ago architects
drew using pen and paper. Then came computer aided design, CAD, first in two
dimensions (2D) then in three. The big thing now is BIM (building information
modelling). Using object-oriented modelling, BIM creates a virtual building
complete with everything, from the superstructure and cladding down to the last
screw on the last light switch. You can slice the model any which way to examine
how each discreet system steelwork, mechanical and electrical, ventilation,
interior finishes, for example works within the whole. BIM promises amazing
things. It provides accurate instructions to the various component suppliers. It
can detect clashes, as one system interfaces with another, and flag up departures
from standards and building codes. It can accurately phase assembly to within
minutes. If you change one aspect of the design, the whole model automatically
adjusts to the change, showing the ramifications in an instant. For good reason,
it seems, some European governments are considering making the use of BIM
compulsory on government projects.
However the challenges to widespread and effective BIM use are serious.
Thats because the BIM approach assumes that all participants in the design and
delivery process will have open access to the virtual model and can contribute
freely, which runs contrary to the currently fragmented set-up of the industry, in
which various parties design input is guarded because of commercial sensitivity.
It will most likely take a groundswell of heavyweight clients to see the advantage
of BIM before the construction supply chain swings into line, and we become
witness to the wide range of BIM benefits in the operability, maintenance and
facilities management of the project once it is complete.
Better buildings
While the appetite is still strong for tall, iconic towers of glass, concrete and
steel, public attitudes have hardened noticeably against them as resource-wasting
monuments to hubris. It may be that rising costs of materials and energy force a
shift away from skyscrapers toward more human-scale developments, especially
as the business model for the skyscraper has displayed its weakness in many
GCC states, where, thanks to the global financial crisis, office tower rents have
plummeted and many towers stand empty.
As designers and planners, however, we reserve judgement. For one thing,
if required, human ingenuity will find a way to build, operate and recycle tall
structures sustainably. For another, tall structures offer a tested way of increasing
the density of human settlements, an important consideration in the prevention
of unsustainable and dispiriting urban sprawl. Perhaps were not thinking tall
enough: what is to prevent pleasant, integrated and open-air spatial organisations
in which everything food production, manufacturing, work, leisure and play
takes place in vertically oriented, three-dimensionally matrixed communities?
As space comes at an ever higher premium we could see the widespread
adoption of avant garde sensibilities such as the Raumplan of early 20th century
Czech architect Adolf Loos, who thought of space in terms of cubes, not floor-


plans. A localitys response will of course depend on its unique conditions and
needs. In very hot places we may see a retreat from the skies and a return to
ancient forms that use shade, natural airflow and structural mass to provide
sustainable and comfortable interior spaces. Such an approach was used by SSH
and Cal-Earth in the design for United Real Estate Companys Junoot Ecoresort in Oman. URCs commitment to a new development approach and design
application inspired by the Tri-vault and Eco-dome structures won the Future
Projects category in the World Architecture Festival of 2012. Whatever specific
response is called for by usage and locality, we believe that holistic simplicity is a
timeless design value.
Sustainability is becoming a mainstream concern. Much work is being done
to guide design through various standards around the world, from Germanys
Passivhaus to the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)
certification arising out of the US, which we are actively engaging with. At the
moment, being green is largely voluntary and associated with ethics and social
responsibility nice-to-haves, in other words. But as demand for energy and
raw materials rise, causing prices to rise too, we predict it will have a much more
aggressive driver: cold, hard cash. Investment in smart materials and systems,
low-energy buildings, one hundred per cent recyclable structures, and renewable
energy production could come to determine the basic viability of a development.
As a progressive sustainable concept, we may also see earth design drawing
much interest in the coming years.
In fact, our vision here may be too timid. The American economist and writer
Jeremy Rifkin has put forward the idea of a Third Industrial Revolution, in
which centralised, fossil-fuel-based power generation gives way to distributed,
renewable power generation systems that are linked and managed by Internetstyle smart grids, and enabled by emerging energy storage technology. This
convergence of new communications technology and energy systems could set
the world on a path of global green growth, Rifkin believes. Whether it happens
or not remains to be seen, but if it does, it would have a dramatic effect on what
we do. Not only would buildings, in his vision, become power plants, but the
spatial configuration of towns, cities and regions would need to adapt as well.
New delivery techniques
The physical delivery of structures around the world has simply not kept pace
with advances in technology nor with practices now common in arguably
comparable industries such as the manufacture of cruise ships or commercial
aircraft. Construction is still a dirty, dangerous, wasteful, expensive and haphazard
process. There is no particularly good reason why it should remain so, but it has,
due to the inertia of a large and inward-looking sector and also to the fact that
most individual clients of construction shop for a new building or structure only
once in their careers. It will most likely take a radically new and disruptive mix of
technique and technology, sponsored by a committed nucleus of full-time and
experienced clients, for the rules of the game to change.
That said, a growing number of visionaries are submitting their blueprints
for the future of construction technique. Some of these feel like pure science
fiction. Renowned American architect John M. Johansen proposed the theoretical
possibility of buildings that grow by themselves. The process he explored involves
self-replicating nano-scale assembler robots, programmed by designers the way
living cells are programmed by DNA, building infinitely complex, durable and
strong structures. Such buildings would grow out of vats of liquid compounds


Principles of earth architecture used in an SSH-designed eco-resort in Oman

containing ordinary minerals or elements that are the basic building blocks of
our physical world, but which can be molecularly engineered into outstanding
new materials. A dream-like vision indeed but, to give Johansen his due, the year
he set for his theoretical, nano-engineered house was 2200.
Other proposed blueprints are in the messy prototype stage. We are aware of
at least two universities, the University of Southern California and Loughborough
University in the UK, who are working on 3D printing systems that use a
mechanical print-head to deposit layers of sand mixed with a patented binding
agent so that a structure builds up according to whatever design is fed into the
system. The idea is that, with a big enough gantry supporting the print-head,
whole buildings could be printed this way, incorporating stairs, partition walls,
concave and convex surfaces, plus cabling and piping cavities.
In another example of bold visions of future delivery, technology company
Living PlanIT is assembling a swarm of hi-tech companies like Microsoft and
Cisco to collaborate in making buildings that are embedded with sensors and
computing power such that they intelligently optimise and recycle the flow of
water, energy, waste and data. Living PlanIT founder Steve Lewis, named by the
World Economic Forum as one of 25 Technology Pioneers of 2012, says they
will build buildings the way aircraft, or even cars, are manufactured: by developing
a complete digital model first and opening it up to a global supply chain of

Oman eco-resort


manufacturers of prefabricated components who bid for supply contracts and

ship for just-in-time assembly on site.
Meanwhile we would like to submit our own vision. Sit back and imagine
yourself a fly on the wall in an SSH office somewhere on the globe in 2045.
A designer is sitting in front of a new type of potters wheel: a satellite image
of her construction site on another continent is projected holographically
onto a 1-sq-m project board that rotates in any direction. The soil survey and
topography analysis is produced with live satellite data. As the system recognises
voice and gestures she begins literally to mould the structure in front of her. She
experiments with the shape of the building by squeezing, pressing or pulling.
She excavates the site with her fingers on the project board to match the scale
of the project, followed by the structural design applications: grids, column and
beams. Floors are added and the dimensional parameters are adjusted on the fly.
Cladding, interior finishes, fittings, even furniture can be chosen by dragging
and dropping from a vast online library onto the project board. Local building
codes, the clients specifications and budget are all in the system library, which
also tracks, in real time, commodity, material and labour costs. Warnings flash
when she moves out of regulatory tolerance or bursts the projects budget.
Having selected a particular component, the system sends automatic requests
for information (RFIs) to vendors, generating multiple quotes and fulfilment
scenarios. New design iterations are presented by a mobile holographic device to
the client in real time, allowing instant multiple views and walk-throughs. Client
changes are incorporated instantaneously and results displayed.
Once the basement and the ground floor design are finished the project is
ready to commence construction. Onsite, a holographic projection displays guides
for constructors. Site excavation simply follows the lines and sensors monitor
compliance. When thats done a new holographic overlay shows volumetric
guides for concrete or steel frame. Back at the potters wheel completed portions
are highlighted in red and are locked to further modifications. Any lines out of
true glow amber onsite to warn the supervisor. Fixing of doors and windows are
kept within the permissible deviation margin. Project cost is monitored in real
The client can change the design where the project has not been locked.
Floor and height extensions and expansion on the sides may be done based on
the permissibility of codes and the structures load bearing capacity, which is
tested and reported by the system. Cost and time implications are calculated
instantly, taking into account procurement, transport, storage, plant, labour and
anything else required for the adjustment. Supervisors are there to inspect work,
but in such an amalgamated approach many traditional roles such as the client
representative and quantity surveyors become obsolete.
Continuing our imaginary journey, we see a client walking into an SSH
International office to discuss their requirements for a building or structure. With
vast amounts of data in the system including material, labour and equipment
availability and costs, standards and building regulations and structural behaviour
simulations, it will be possible to provide detailed holographic mock-ups with
budget estimates and completion dates within minutes. But the client wants
to shop around. He visits other design houses plugged into the same enabling
technology to see how they interpret his brief. By lunchtime he has his boards
approval for the design he liked best, the contract is signed, and the designers are
at the potters wheel analysing ground conditions and working on the virtual site


societies will
shape urban
spaces that work
better, rather
than accept a
rudderless drift.
Sadoon al-Essa


We note with a certain amount of amusement that such projections about

the techniques of the future tend to suit the deep desires of whoever makes
them. Constructors envisage total standardisation of design, designers envisage
the total automation of construction, and developers and clients envisage the
total amalgamation of an awkward and fragmented supply chain. The future
reality is likely to be rather different from what any particular vested interest
hopes for now and the imperative to adapt will be the order of the day for all.
Whats interesting, however, is that in most of the scenarios above, save the
nanotechnology one, perhaps, the underlying technology is close or already to
hand. The real barriers are more human and mundane, to do with business models
and risk, the acquisition and ownership of data, and supply chain organisation.
Better urban spaces
Finally, how will the more-with-less ethos transform the planning of towns,
cities, and regional conurbations? In the next fifty years successful societies will
be the ones who started deliberately shaping urban spaces that work better, rather
than accepting a rudderless drift into unsustainable modes. Good design in this
context means acknowledging the scarcity of material and financial resources. It
could mean a return to human-scale spatial organisations, predicated no longer
on the unlimited growth of individual car ownership, where a familys livelihood,
social network and leisure opportunities are each separated by road journeys that
sap precious time and energy.
Such a return to the human scale could release the sources of real wealth
of the future: innovation, social cohesion, self-sufficiency. We envision urban
spaces that effectively manage their use and recycling of energy and water, and
the efficient flow of people, information, services and goods.
We foresee a return to design values that create sensitive and inspiring public
spaces, and a cooling off of the quest for the iconic, which often produces
alienating novelty, shock and bombast. We shape our buildings, and afterwards
our buildings shape us, said Winston Churchill. Kuwait, like many other rich,
developing countries, has a history of eradicating itself as it rushes to the future.
The obsession with the new causes a ruthless deletion of the past, making it a city
with little physical memory. There is a yearning for identity everywhere, and an
architecture that goes beyond the cosmetic and unthinking application of styles
will help Kuwait and the Gulf region, and any locality, find and nurture its soul.
There will be different solutions according to the cultures and priorities of
communities around the world. Less is more, complex yet not complicated,
firm yet flexible are puzzling metaphors that designers will seek to interpret and
explore anew.
We all know that the shape of things in 2061 is impossible to predict with
certainty. On the surface, any design firm practicing the same way we do today
will look as out of place in fifty years as a 360-kilobyte floppy disk. However,
as weve tried to argue, the future is not all about whizzy new high-tech stuff.
Technology will change and will usher in new modes of operation and business.
We want clients, designers, project managers, constructors, manufacturers and
stakeholders of all varieties to join forces and exploit new technology to create
a better built environment for all. In the end, the serious challenges we face will
be met only with the timeless values that SSHs founding partners committed
this practice to fifty years ago: responsibility, accountability, faith in people,
innovation, passion and the tireless quest for excellence.


SSH and the future

We turn our attention now to SSH as a firm and the space in which we will
be operating in the next fifty years. The key question that confronts us is this:
how will SSH address the future, sustain and grow, prosper and continue to be
recognised as a firm that makes a difference? Investing in people, technology
and processes is our priority and with our collective expertise and commitment
we will propel SSH forward as one of the most successful architecture and
engineering consultancies in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
Vision statements do have limitations, so we need to make them effective
by reviewing and re-validating them from time to time. The following are most
significant in SSHs endeavour for the next fifty years.
Adapt and synergise: We have always enjoyed the challenges. Through them
we scale new heights. To continue making a difference we aim to be smarter and
faster, efficient yet flexible, feasible and value-driven, compliant and effective.
SSH needs to be in the forefront when it comes to adopting technological
advances, but we must ensure their smooth and timely implementation in our
operations. We strive for continuous improvement in everything we do. Trust
and open communication catalyses our creative instincts and synergises the firms
Envision and strategise: There is an opportunity for SSH now to establish
itself as a global professional entity. We will focus on emerging markets and be
ready to respond quickly to opportunities. Being flexible in our approach and
willing to take bold decisions will strengthen our capacity to adapt and manage
change. We will look ahead, above the day-to-day business, at changing trends on
the global scene.
People and passion: Usually when we talk about the future, technology comes
to mind first. But actually the future belongs to people and their passion. I envisage
SSH as a pulsating place for its people, a place where creativity thrives and keen
minds collaborate to arrive at exciting solutions. By attracting young talent and
developing their skills, SSH will be recognised as a hub for the brightest and
best, for people who can take up special assignments anywhere. Our staff have
always comprised a thrilling diversity of backgrounds, languages and cultures.
As we grow this diversity will increase, while at the same time providing a strong
and unique identity for our people and services world-wide. We also foster the
concept of SSH Corporate Citizenship, which defines and reinforces our social
and cultural responsibility.
Higher purpose: Fifty years is a long journey and a firm that reaches this
milestone naturally feels a desire to give something back. Firms work best when
their people are able to express their highest values through their work. For
SSH, real success does not stop at our business goals. We aim to be an active
participant in society-building. We will collaborate with NGOs and civic society
organisations, municipalities, government agencies and educational institutions,
contributing our design services and creative energy to help realise projects that
enrich society.
The future will by no means necessarily belong to the firms now making
the highest revenues or employing the most staff, but to the ones who adopt
a sustainable approach that will help them keep afloat in the turbulent times
ahead. To sum up our vision for the next fifty years, we borrow from Martin
Luther King, Jr., who said: But today our very survival depends on our ability
to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge
of change.




Our people

Its not so
much the things
youve done as
what preceded
them: the ideas,
the excitement,
the shared
sense of what is
Sabah Abi-Hanna

Sabah Abi-Hanna, Partner 1961-2003


I was an
engineer. When
I see problems I
want to fix them,
and politics is a
very blunt tool for
Salem al-Marzouk


Salem al-Marzouk, Partner 1972-2003


1975 was a
turning point for
Kuwait. That was
the attraction.
Charles Bosel


Charles Bosel, Partner 1980-2003


I had dealt
with SSH as their
client, and I knew
exactly who they
were and what
kind of work they
Ali al-Abdullah


Ali al-Abdullah, Partner 1993-2003


It taught me
some lessons,
not least how
valuable a good
reputation is.
George Abi-Hanna


George Abi-Hanna, Director 1984-Present


Life is about
evolution and
Sadoon al-Essa


Sadoon al-Essa, Executive Partner 2003-Present


I came in
and spoke my
mind. It was no
problem being a
new guy.
Omran Hayat


Omran Hayat, Managing Partner 2003-Present



Testing and trying

new ideas.


information, knowledge
and experience.


Inclusive teams
working towards
shared goals.


Promoting a strong
training culture.


contributes to the
success of the company.


Engagement with
industry experts.


Synergy through


Collaboration is
vital to our success.


A glance back


In 1958 the young Sabah Abi-Hanna completes

a summer internship with the public works department
in Kuwait, while studying architecture at the American
University of Beirut. He returns after graduation when a job
is offered, but leaves to set up his own practice in 1961, the
same year Kuwait gains its independence. Amid Kuwaits
rapid urbanisation, his practice and reputation flourish and
he receives a wide range of commissions. With technical
and aesthetic innovations he makes an early mark on the
burgeoning cityscape of Kuwait and the nucleus of a broad
and influential client base emerges.

Clockwise from top left:

Firms work best when people

are able to express their highest
values through their work

The National Bank of Kuwait

Sheikha Badriya Mosque, Salmiya
Al-Marzouk Pearl
Sabah Abi-Hannas first logo


Clockwise from top left:

Al-Messilah District master plan
Al-Rihab Complex
Sabah Abi-Hanna and Salem al-Marzouk in
the early years
Al-Fahaheel Buildings
Sabah Abi-Hanna and Salem al-Marzouk
partnership logo

Sabah meets the civil engineer and reforming

politician, Salem al-Marzouk. They form a powerful new
partnership based on a shared commitment to quality
and ethics. As the explosion of Kuwaits population and
built environment continues, the firm begins to bid for,
and win, major government projects. Renowned urban
planner Charles Bosel joins in 1977, helping to establish
the partnership as a key player in Kuwaits master-planning.


Despite security concerns and the financial

crisis sparked by the Souk al-Manakh crash, Kuwait presses
ahead with ambitious infrastructure development, and the
Triumvirateof Sabah, Salem and Charles assists at every
step of the way. The Kuwait Master Plan Review, the Outer
By-pass motorway, Bayan Palace Conference Centre and other
major projects mark the Golden Decade for SSH.
Four Beaches Hotel, Lebanon


First Ring Road


Hopes are shattered at the beginning of the

fourth decade by the Iraqi invasion of August 1990. SSH
offices are ransacked, projects are halted, and staff are
scattered all around the globe.
But the SSH spirit prevails. Right after liberation, even as
the burning oil wells blacken the sky, the partners and a core
team of staff regroup and re-mobilise. Contracts for major
projects are renegotiated. Staff are located and most return.
Ali al-Abdullah joins with his broad public sector and
management expertise and a powerful quartet guides SSH
toward the Millennium.

Clockwise from top left:

The National Bank of Kuwait
Kuwait Petroleum Corporation Headquarters
Sabah Abi-Hanna and Salem al-Marzouk
partnership logo, updated
Al-Fanar Complex


The founding partners prepare

to retire, and SSH becomes the first major Kuwaiti
consultancy to navigate safely to second-generation
ownership just in time to weather the financial crisis.
A more robust corporate structure is implemented and
new talent helps the company stay on the leading edge
of technology and design. With overseas offices now in
Oman and UAE, the future is as bright as ever.

We allow our inquisitiveness to

lead us into exploring what the
future may hold
Left, the Marina Waterfront
Right, the new logo for SSH

Clockwise from top left:

PIFSS Complex
Electricity & Water Training Institute
BMW Showroom interior & exterior
VIP terminal at Kuwait International Airport
Printing Press Building
United Tower





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