Crisis Corner: Tearing down barriers in Dubai

Feb. 10, 2009
Contributing Editor Joel Leonard makes a visit to the Middle East and helps tear down barriers to progress.

If you haven’t been to Dubai, make sure you add it to your list as a must-see location, especially for those in the engineering community. I just returned and I’m still overwhelmed by the amount of construction and the energy and excitement generated in a very small tract of land on the Persian Gulf coast. Imagine seeing the skyscrapers of Manhattan, the hotels of Las Vegas and the amusement park of Disneyland being built at the same time in the same city, and then double it. The United Arab Emirates now has the world’s tallest building, the world’s tallest hotel, and more than 50 five-star hotels. They have even invented seven- and eight-star hotel ratings to accommodate new levels of opulence and luxury.

Believe it or not, this lowly maintenance evangelist had the honor of being the first American keynote speaker and chair of the Middle East Maintenance Management Conference in Dubai in December. There, I asked the attendees to introduce themselves, share their reasons for attending the event and disclose some of the challenges they face in their businesses. After hearing their answers, I quickly realized that although I’m in a different part of the world, they are actually in my world (the maintenance and reliability sector). As I suspected, they validated that maintenance challenges are the same the world over.

They, too, are frustrated with the lack of appreciation, respect and understanding they receive from executive leadership and society. With the global economic downturn, they know that they’re working with targets — not just on their budgets, but on their backs — as potential victims of future cost cuts. One of the seasoned engineers explained that he is his employer’s designated felon (if any oil from their 97 oil platforms hits the gulf, he goes to jail while his bosses remain free). He oversees renovation projects to swap corroded, thinned, aging piping systems and equipment from the rigs. In response to the pressure to cut costs, someone from accounting recently reviewed his renovation budgets and proclaimed that the company could save $6 million simply by skipping the painting of newly replaced components on the 30 renovated platforms in his latest project. He told them not to do it. Then he explained the new areas will last 15 years if properly protected from sea salt corrosion and outside elements, but without the protective coating they’ll last only three years.

As he disclosed this crazy, real-world situation, I thought to myself, “shortsighted, ignorant bean counters who’d rather be sorry than safe, are an international scourge,” and not just a malady of U.S. businesses.

Although only a small group of about 50 maintenance professionals, these delegates had large-scale budgets and responsibilities. And all were male, with the exception of one woman from Malaysia.

This young female engineer was recently promoted to general manager, overseeing more than 800 employees. She manages the maintenance of more than $3 billion in assets and all 39 Malaysian airports. When she was promoted, she scoured the Internet for information to help her prepare for the new level of responsibility. She subscribed to online magazines, including Plant Services. She has been an avid "Crisis Corner" reader for more than two years and reserved her seat at this event upon learning that I was speaking.

Her participation sparked some interesting discussions that challenged traditional Arabian values that women should not be operational engineers or serve in maintenance. My question was, with the pending departure of a significant percentage of skilled workers, how can we not allow potential workers to join the ranks just because they’re not men? I discovered that the majority of job postings in the major local newspaper, the Gulf Times, were in search of engineering, maintenance and skilled labor talent. How much longer can we allow old stereotypes to hold back performance?

The conference provided more than the opportunity to share knowledge and improve business performance. It helped connect people from diverse backgrounds, businesses and cultures. I firmly believe that if the world had more productive events like these, more countries would attain prosperity and we would develop more civil and peaceful resolutions to conflict. We would then realize that we’re more alike than different, and that helping each other fix it forward makes much more sense than perpetuating false stereotypes.

E-mail Contributing Editor Joel Leonard at [email protected].

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