‘If I returned to Ireland I would be akin to an expat’

The living is easy in Abu Dhabi but I will return with my family to Ireland some day

Civil engineer Bill O’Regan is responsible for the development of the infrastructure of two new cities on Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.

Civil engineer Bill O’Regan is responsible for the development of the infrastructure of two new cities on Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.

 

This article forms part of a new series for Irish Times Abroad on the opportunities worldwide (and in Ireland) for Irish construction workers. If you would like to contribute your own story about moving abroad or returning home to work in construction, email abroad@irishtimes.com or tell us about your experience in our Irish Construction Workers and Emigration Survey.  

Although he has been abroad for 23 years, Cork man Bill O’Regan has no plans to return yet. Happily ensconced in Abu Dhabi with his Greek wife and their two toddlers, the 41-year-old civil engineer is working on urban projects building new cities on the desert island. Bill studied civil engineering at the University of South Wales in Glamorgan, followed by a certificate in international construction management from University of Bath before heading to Greece to work. From there he moved to the Middle East in 2006 and has been there since.

Why did you decide to leave Ireland?

After my Leaving I started a computer science degree at Cork Institute of Technology but quickly realised it was not what I was passionate about. My father was a general foreman with O’Shea’s builders in Cork and I had worked all my summers on building sites since I was 13 and really wanted to be involved in construction. Being a typical Cork man, my father’s encouragement to follow any profession bar construction was also a spur to get into it! Both myself and my parents had a preference for Wales with the perception that the Welsh were kindred spirits and integration wouldn’t be difficult there, which was true. I met my future wife at university, she is from Greece and was one year behind me also studying civil engineering. Of course when I left to study in Wales I never realised that 23 years later I would still be abroad.

Where have you worked overseas?

On graduating I moved to Greece to work for a European Union-funded programme at the University of Patras. At the time a couple of kilometres away the longest cable-stayed bridge in the world was under construction. I met with several of the French engineers working for the French company Vinci Construction, which was leading the project, and was offered the chance to join it. In life you need to have some good fortune. Working hard and being diligent may give you a good reputation but you also need good luck at certain junctures to be in the right place at the right time.

I worked on several motorway projects in Greece for Vinci Construction Grands Projets before being assigned to work in Abu Dhabi preparing technical and commercial proposals for natural gas storage tanks.

The role involved travelling between Asia, Europe, North and South America. The work was interesting and it was exciting to be in Milan for meetings on a Monday, Paris on Tuesday, Mexico City on Wednesday and back in Abu Dhabi by Friday. I subsequently joined an American consultancy heading up its infrastructure and marine department in Abu Dhabi before moving to Abu Dhabi Municipality where I have worked since.

Did you have to get your qualifications accredited, or do an additional course?

European qualifications are well recognised in the United Arab Emirates. However the accreditation process is slightly different depending on whether you will be working in the private or the public sector. For private you need to have your degree attested at the ministry of foreign affairs here in UAE and it can then be submitted to your employer. For government jobs you need to have the degree and the transcripts of all your results for each year attested at the UAE embassy in the country where you received the degree.

More and more the industry requires post-graduate studies. Qualifications in project or programme management are highly appreciated. I studied online and took exams in Dubai.

What does your job involve now?

I am responsible for the development of the infrastructure of two new cities on Abu Dhabi begun in the 1990s: Khalifa City and Shakhbout City. Population-wise they are the size of Cork and Limerick respectively. It is a balancing act between managing the rate of development in the city and providing the infrastructure on a just-in-time basis which means it allows the government to best management their investment.

Are there many other Irish construction workers? What are the opportunities?

There a quite a lot of Irish engineers here and several Irish engineering companies doing well and recognised as specialists in their fields such as Kentz and Byrne Looby. Construction is not dominated by the Irish in the way it might have been in the past. There are English-speaking engineers from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, as well as a significant pool of highly-qualified Arab engineers with more than 20 years’ experience. The Middle East’s dependence on Western professionals is diminishing continuously as indigenous and neighbouring populations become more educated and experienced.

Also salaries are not what they once were as it is no longer deemed a hardship posting considering all that is on offer, while prices have increased significantly over the years. So anyone mulling over a job offer should take care that they are aware of the costs of living especially housing and schooling.

What is your life like outside work?

Abu Dhabi offers a great lifestyle. The weather for nine months a year is great. The summer is a slog with temperatures over 50 degrees but no different to being limited by the winter in northern Europe. It is easy to have a young family here as there is a lot of support and access to childcare and most people employ a live-in nanny. The Irish community is very active through the Irish Society and the GAA club, which has grown significantly in size and outreach, since we came here in 2006. We also get to enjoy a lot of sporting events and concerts in particular around the time of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Also it is possible to be in Europe, Africa or Asia within three hours so there is plenty of opportunity for travel. Even with kids of 1½ and 4½ years we try to do one trip to Asia a year in addition to visiting family in Ireland and Greece.

What are your plans for the future?

I am in the funny situation where if I returned to Ireland I would be akin to an expat and would certainly have to manage with my wife and kids the usual culture shocks an expat has to go through on first trying to integrate in a new environment. In the medium term the intention is to stay in Abu Dhabi but we would like to move back to Ireland before my eldest daughter starts secondary school. As time goes on, we feel that all the benefits of working and living here don’t outweigh the need for our kids to develop an identity. We work hard to make sure they know what being both Irish and Greek means but from a distance it is impossible to foster the connection completely. It doesn’t seem fair to deny them what we had growing up.

Do you think the construction sector is recovering in Ireland?

We are keeping a very close eye on it and it certainly seems that there is significant progress compared to the recession years. This is reflected in the number of tower cranes on the Dublin skyline I saw in my most recent trip home just last week. However most of the progress seems to be on the private sector side whether it is housing, hotels, industrial development, as of yet there doesn’t seem to be significant investment in infrastructure whether it is new motorways, ports etc. Ireland had developed some significant public-private partnership projects in the past in terms of motorway development but it seems to be stalled for now.

This article forms part of a new series for Irish Times Abroad on the opportunities worldwide (and in Ireland) for Irish construction workers. If you would like to contribute your own story about moving abroad or returning home to work in construction, email abroad@irishtimes.com or tell us about your experience in our Irish Construction Workers and Emigration Survey.  

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