Dubai skylines

Simon Pickup’s career has taken him on a circuitous route through the years, from his home town of Rochdale, UK, to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). 

After completing his environmental science and ecology degrees at Staffordshire University, Pickup began his working life, in 2001, as an ecologist for Wardell Armstrong. In those days, he spent his evenings and weekends, he says, in rainy fields looking at bats, newts and badgers.

A spell in Perth in Western Australia followed, working on oil and gas projects for engineering consulting firm Sinclair Knight Merz. His focus then shifted to environmental impact assessment, and he moved back to the UK to work for Atkins as a senior consultant, before taking a post with WSP in Manchester. Promoted to WSP’s head of environmental planning in 2008, he moved from Manchester to the UAE.

It was here that Stuart McLachlan, then WSP’s managing director of global operations, and soon to become CEO of an exciting new start-up, Anthesis, became a colleague. Pickup moved to join MacLachlan in his new venture, has remained in the UAE since, and now heads up Anthesis’s Middle East operation.

While critics challenge the sincerity of the claim by the Gulf Cooperation Council states, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, that they will transition their oil-based economies to more sustainable models, Pickup believes a genuine change is sweeping through the region. He predicts a huge future market for environment consultancy.

Pickup talked to Environment Analyst about Anthesis’s ambitions — and wider market forces — in the Middle East region.

How long has Anthesis had a presence in the Middle East?

SP: We opened our Anthesis office in Dubai in 2014, not long after Anthesis was launched, in 2013. As for any new business, coming into the market was a challenge. Our big turnaround was in 2018, when we had sufficient recognition in the market to win a number of significant projects. One of those was delivering the environmental impact assessments for the majority of the UAE’s 1,200 km Etihad rail network. It’s a national freight rail system, linking quarry sites to the main industrial areas, to take that traffic off the roads. Eventually, there will be passenger services and high-speed rail. It will be fantastic for the country.

What’s the business potential for environmental consultancy in the region?

SP: It’s huge. The sheer amount of development that’s taking place here, and which is required, particularly in terms of infrastructure, is massive. Sustainable development is going to be a big growth engine for the business within the region for the next few years. Our key markets are undoubtedly the UAE and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), but we have also worked in Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain and we see potential for growth across all of the Gulf Cooperation Council states. The Middle East is a small as a percentage of Anthesis’s overall business. But it has great potential for growth. 

What kind of work do you do there?

SP: We do a lot of master plan development, on behalf of architects or engineering firms. It’s rare that we would have a direct deployment with a developer. Our most common types of project are around power or water. As well as transport infrastructure, we’ve been involved in some solar energy and desalination schemes and we advised on the UAE’s first hydro project, which is a pumped-water electricity storage system. 

What we've seen in the last two years since COP26 is that there's been an awakening in the region around the need to decarbonise and to implement sustainable practices. We've been waiting for this moment since we set up in 2014. I think it's now understood that something needs to be done. 

We also do a lot of ESG advisory work with banks and investors in the Dubai International Finance Centre, which is, arguably, the financial capital of the Middle East. The financial sector is well ahead as compared to other sectors within the Middle East. It's very much on their agenda to drive change through their investments. The national banks also have a strong sustainability narrative.

The right conversations are happening and the right messages are coming from governments. Things here move quickly, so I believe we’ll see a significant ramping up of sustainability initiatives in the region, particularly as COP28 is to be held in the UAE in December. 

Who are your main competitors?

SP: All of the global engineering consultancy firms have their regional headquarters here or in KSA and there are some homegrown environmental consultancies. We have got ourselves in a good place, because we don't compete directly with the multinational engineering firms. We actually work with most of them, providing our environmental expertise. We have positioned ourselves to work on large infrastructure projects, for example in power and water.

How can you ensure that projects comply with your company’s ethical principles?

SP: We’re lucky. Often, the projects we’re working on are high-profile projects with international funding components, so, as part of that, they have to implement practices that accord with the International Finance Corporation or the International Labour Organisation, to get approval from the lenders. Where there is international development funding, projects go over and above UAE and KSA requirements and have to demonstrate positive ESG impacts.

So, actually, part of our job is already done for us, as a result of the types of projects we work on. We are also selective. If we're invited to bid on projects which we feel have the potential for adverse social or environmental impacts, we will decline.

Do people say you shouldn’t be working in the Middle East?

SP: I have heard that on a number of occasions. Our view is the region is changing for the better. ESG is starting to be almost every second word that I hear when talking to clients. It’s the social and the governance elements, particularly, that will drive societal change. 

One of the great things about the region is its strong leadership and its ability to move ahead quickly. Once countries incorporate sustainability into their strategic planning, such as in KSA’s Vision 2030, it gets pushed ahead very quickly.

It’s partly rooted in food security. The whole region is almost entirely dependent on food imports. So sustainable agro-tech is a big theme here. So is developing solar power and creating clean hydrogen hubs. There's [also] a stated aim of the sovereign wealth funds of the GCC states, such as the KSA’s Public Investment Fund, to invest in renewables and in other forms of sustainable development both here and globally, to help the transition to a decarbonised society. That’s a lot of money, so it's going to make a difference.