This article first appeared in The National
A few years ago, Jason Harborow was at something of a career crossroads. His background as a serious rugby player and sports executive had apparently aimed him down one path. “I saw my future in sport management. I wanted either to be chief executive of a rugby club, or of an English Premier League team."
Instead, he ended up in charge of the project to build the New York University campus in Abu Dhabi for the government organisation Tamkeen, on behalf of the capital’s executive authority. It was a career-defining change. “The job was to manage the successful delivery of the project, to build something the size of a small town. The first few months were challenging but we got it in on time and I’m very proud of that," Mr Harborow says.
It was also the stepping stone to a new phase of his career in the Arabian Gulf, as managing partner of the PA Consulting group. One of the oldest of the management-consulting firms, with a special expertise in large infrastructure projects and government work, it was a logical next move for him, but puts him at the sharp end of the economic diversification decisions that regional governments are now required to make in more challenging conditions.
He’s probably been told a hundred times, but Mr Harborow looks like a rugby player. Not one of the towering giants of the game, but more the nippy winger type – short, stocky and obviously strong as an ox, but with a turn of speed. His enthusiastic handshake seems to jeopardise several finger joints at once.
“At age 15 I was a sprinter, I was fast and still quicker than most," he says. Aspirations to play full-time professional rugby league for Wigan, a big club in north-west England, were dashed by injury, but he still plays for Abu Dhabi Harlequins. “I still think I’m good," he jokes.
With professional qualifications in leisure management, a career in the business of sport seemed the natural choice, and he became general manager of the stadium in Wigan that is now home to both its rugby and football teams.
He was involved in the logistics planning for the Rugby League World Cup in 2000, and two years later was general commercial manager of the Manchester Commonwealth Games, an international sporting event that was credited with boosting the city’s global image. “It was great to see how the city was changing every day. I still get a tingly feeling about that," he says.
Next came a more controversial phase, when Mr Harborow was named chief executive for culture, media and sport in the build-up to Liverpool’s time as European Capital of Culture in 2008. “I fell out with a local council leader, and left early. It was a difficult end to an enjoyable time, but we delivered the project. I learnt a lot from that and maybe would do things different now," he says.
When the newspaper headlines quieted down, Mr Harborow spent a while in “low-key" consultancy, but there was no sign of an opening at either Wigan or a top-level English football club. “Premier League clubs are mainly closed shops. They’re not as open to innovation as you’d expect, and hard to get into. But anyway, then Abu Dhabi came knocking."
He had made some regional contacts at a sports conference in Dubai in 2010 on the theme of the effect of major sporting events on the regeneration of cities, a subject where he had an obvious track record, but the Abu Dhabi project turned out to be a multimillion dollar plan to build a campus of the venerable New York University on Saadiyat Island.
“It had a big budget and had to be delivered on time, and coincided with a difficult personal time. My wife was unwell, but she backed me all the way in the new job."
The NYUAD project taught him some of the finer nuances of people management in the Gulf.
“I’d always been good at teamwork, but decisions here are reached in a different way from back home and can take longer. In the Gulf, business relationships are less transactional and more personal.
“Many expat executives don’t get that, and fail. The average term of service of a foreign executive in the region is just over two years. But I enjoy it. If you have good relationships with people you can get things done," Mr Harborow says.
There were other aspects to the learning curve at NYUAD. “It’s a liberal university in a conservative country. It is liberal and outspoken, but I have no issues with the way it developed. It was delivered on time," he says, with the former US president Bill Clinton addressing its first graduating class in May of 2014.
Mr Harborow already knew PA and was aware of the 70-year-old consulting firm’s reputation before joining. “They were known for big projects and for fixing things, and that’s what I’m good at. They have expertise in innovation and technology, but also research. PA is good at strategy, but better at implementation."
PA is not as ubiquitous as the giants of the consulting world, like McKinsey or Bain, but has a proven track record in the UK and US in government, defence, security and health care, while in 30 years in the Middle East it has become known for its work in health care, public sector and transport. One of its big investors is the Carlyle Group, which has a history of involvement at the highest levels in UAE economy and business.
“Maybe we’re not marketed as well as the others. We’re still comparatively small, but getting bigger. We’ve hired 14 people since the turn of the year, bringing our total in the UAE to 40. The win rate for new business in consulting is about 33 per cent, but we’ve won 60 per cent of the new jobs we’re been involved in this year, in the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia," Mr Harborow says.
He believes that the more demanding economic circumstances brought by lower oil prices has already prompted a new approach to the scene. “In big projects now, delivery and value are even more important because of the low oil price. And new projects need to make the region a better place to live, in terms of education and health care. Iconic buildings tend to become a manifestation of a city’s status, but they have to be practical too."
He believes Dubai’s Expo 2020 has all the right ingredients in place to satisfy the “big project" needs, and is acutely aware of the opportunities it presents for a firm like PA. “There is still plenty of scope for us. In fact, we’re already recruiting to handle the Expo work that might come our way."