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Bridging the Gap

Zeinab Saiwalla speaks to Sherif Anis, president of the American Institute of Architects Middle East Chapter on challenges faced by American architects in the region and ways to overcome them

The American Institute of Architects (AIA), synonymous with forward-thinking architects striving to make a difference to society, prides itself on a strong code of ethics and determination to drive positive change through the power of design.

These same values radiate from Sherif Anis, president of AIA’s Middle East Chapter, who grew up in a family of architects and was made to realise the importance of ethics in architectural practice.

However, unlike practicing in the United States, Anis realised that rules of the game were different in the Middle East, when he moved here six years ago to serve as US-based CBT Architects’ regional director.

“Here, you have to get used to expect the unexpected. The pay schedule and the fee schedule is different from what US architects are used to.

 People here work differently and for many US architects it can be quite difficult to understand,” explains Anis, design manager at Gulf Related.

Striving to bridge this gap, Anis together with several other architects based in the Middle East, including Hissam Youssef, Steve Miller, Loay Quota and Thierry Paret, banded together to form the AIA Middle East Chapter in 2010. “Our goal was really about forging connections between the Middle East and American architects so that US firms know we are here to serve as that conduit for communication, and vice versa.”

He continues: “In the US, AIA helps with issues pertaining to the Government and are very involved in advocacy, but here we do not have that ambition. It is more about fostering and managing ties.”

Since joining AIA Middle East, Anis has taken on several roles, first as treasurer, then secretary, followed by vice president and now serving as the organisation’s president.

However, Anis is quick to admit that the roles are more to help maintain an orderly system than a clear designation of tasks. “The titles are there because we need to have the structure, but in a lot of ways we help each other do what we have to, to get things done.”

While serving on the board Anis has helped in crafting the organisation’s graphic identity, creating its logo, posters, letterhead and newsletters, in addition to organising and planning events, though he is aware that a lot more can be done.

“It is easy to run events here in Abu Dhabi or Dubai but it gets challenging to hold events in the region.” He continues: “We have a lot of members in Kuwait and Jordan but frankly it comes down to having people on the ground that are willing to do it because everything has to be done on volunteer basis since we are a non-profit organisation.”

As a result of the AIA’s organic structure, the Middle East chapter depends significantly on partnerships and associations with annual conferences and exhibitions to remain engaged with the larger realm of society. “We all have real jobs that we have to attend to so we have paired up with events like Index, Cityscape and Big 5 to help us get exposure and put us on the events schedule in the region.”

Late last year, the AIA Middle East chapter together with the United States Department of Commerce and private and government officials from Qatar, organised a one-day symposium to facilitate discussions between US architectural firms and local developers. The session was to serve as a platform to allow for greater involvement of foreign architecture firms in Qatari projects, Anis explains.

“It was mainly about letting US firms understand the ways of working in Qatar and letting the groups in Qatar hear about the obstacles faced by the architects so that a fruitful outcome can develop,” Anis says. He adds: “Anybody in their right mind would go after the work because there is so much of it in Qatar, but it is just not easy to do.”

According to Anis, one of the most common obstacles faced by US firms in the Middle East has to do with remuneration terms as it relates to advance payment bonds and performance bonds.

“The local companies tend to demand onerous financial commitments, especially for some of these huge projects, and most architecture firms cannot handle such costs. They just do not have that kind of capital.” Understanding these differences and finding ways around them is crucial for foreign firms if they want to be part of the region’s growth, says Anis. “It is us who want the work, so we have to learn how things get done here.”

He adds: “A relationship can very quickly go wrong if both parties do not understand the differences. It takes a bit more patience and it is not always business as usual. In the Middle East, relationship building comes into play first. Here, you might attend a meeting but not talk about business at all.”

He adds that at AIA’s recent national conference in Denver, Colorado, the topic of working in the Middle East featured several times during the presentations, owing to the fact that there is a lot of interest from firms in the US to work here. “People want to know how they can get involved and what they the need to be sensitive of, so it is good for us to be here, to be that conduit,” he says.

In addition to organising talks and symposiums to bridge the differences between working styles in the Middle East and the US, the AIA chapter here plays an active role in providing continuing education opportunities and building tours for its members.

As Anis reveals during the hour long interview, it is probably this benefit of being an AIA member that has been so successful in attracting international architects in the region, to the organisation.

Despite having only been around for three years, the Middle East chapter already has 300 members and the highest proportions of international associate architect members compared to other chapters around the world.

“Architects here are excited to join an organisation like AIA. Part of it is to have the credential on their name cards but more than that, people are hungry for education and they like to get certification from the courses AIA offers,” says Anis.

As a way to further enhance the continuing education opportunities, the AIA Middle East chapter is planning to organise its first large-scale conference later this year and is looking to welcome the AIA 2014 president Helene Dreilling, FAIA as the keynote speaker and honorary conference chair.

“We are hoping it will be the start of many more to come. There will be a lot of technical and design presentations, building tours and a presentation of the first annual AIA Middle East Design Awards featured by a gala dinner. As always there will be ample opportunities to receive continuing education and keep up to date with all that is happening in the field of architecture,” Anis says.

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