Construction Director

Taming the desert one project at a time

The olive harvest season, a beloved tradition and an integral part of the local culture is in full swing in Lebanon, the home country of Chawki Bou Khalil, Construction Director at Petrofac. A few bottles of the precious homemade olive oil, we learn, have just made their way to the Ain Tsila project site in the Algerian Sahara Desert, some 1,100km southeast of the capital Algiers, ready to be presented as gifts to members of the team, or as Chawki refers to them, his ‘big second family’.

We discussed what it is like to trade the salty Mediterranean air infused with the scent of olives for the unforgiving sand dunes of the treeless desert, his unwavering passion for construction, and the perks of a life on site.

Chawki, you have just arrived back to the Ain Tsila project where you are Construction Director, after a short leave at your seaside home in Lebanon. Is it difficult to swap the Mediterranean for the desert?

You must change your mindset and adapt to that way of life. Ever since I first landed in the desert in Saudi Arabia back in 1993, sand everywhere you look and barely a tree in sight, I have worked on myself to adapt to the environment. I started in Saudi Arabia, then moved to Georgia, then to Qatar, then further down the road I found myself in Turkmenistan, the UAE, and now finally in Algeria. With a few exceptions, I have spent between 80 and 90 percent of my career in the desert. You need to understand that this is your life for the next two, three years for the duration of the project, and fully embrace what is available to you to avoid being unhappy.

That is a very international career spanning many countries. Can you tell us more about your Petrofac journey?

I have started at Petrofac in 2002 and initially left three years later. In 2010 I re-joined in Turkmenistan at the Galkynysh project. Then followed projects in Abu Dhabi, including the Upper Zakum UZ750 project, and finally my relocation to Algeria in 2019, first as Head of Construction at Tinrhert in 2019 and a move to Ain Tsila in June 2021.

Chawki says that taking care of people and their wellbeing is his number one priority

Construction is in my blood. I have never enjoyed sitting in an office and I find it too monotonous. I like the challenges that projects bring with them.
Chawki Bou Khalil Construction Director

Can you pinpoint a highlight project or experience during your time at Petrofac?

Every project is unique, but the Upper Zakum, UZ750 was a special project. Four artificial islands, 120km offshore Abu Dhabi, it was an incredible experience. Seeing the buildings and modules arriving for the first time on the Self-Propelled Modular Transporters (SPMT) aboard boats was something I will never forget. Even though I spent 33 months on this project, I would repeat the experience without a doubt.

The ‘project life’ must suit you, given that you spent most of your career on site?

Construction is in my blood. I have never enjoyed sitting in an office and I find it too monotonous. I like the challenges that projects bring with them.

Can you take us through what the challenges of a Head of Construction at a project are?

Firstly, I take care of my people, their welfare and wellbeing. If the team is not happy, you can’t expect progress. Then, we look after the construction – we are uncompromising on safety and prioritise quality, we make sure the client is satisfied with our work, and we must maintain a good relationship with subcontractors and suppliers. A project is like a baby. And every day is exciting, every day you learn or experience something new, and at the end you see your baby graduate, you see the finalised project.

That is an interesting analogy. Any part of the process that you would call favourite?

The first energisation, when I see the light blinking in the substation, and I can feel we are close to finish.

Chawki (seventh from left) refers to his team as his 'second family'

Let’s shift our focus to people. How important are people in construction?

We need to find people of the right calibre, and we need to mentor them and motivate them to grab the ladder and take advantage of the opportunities that are given to them. But we also need people at the top to understand how critical construction is in delivering a project.

And how do we get young people excited about working on construction projects or aiming for that to be their career?

When I was starting in construction in the late eighties, we barely had a computer. Now, computer programmes are giving us real-time information on every item received, installed, and commissioned. We moved from analogue to digital. We changed with the times.

In addition, what the younger generation needs to be excited about is the ‘wild and free’ way of life at a project site. Learning every day something new from people from different nations and cultures. Telling them about your culture and traditions. It is a unique experience.

And do you think Petrofac is a good place to build that experience?

You build friends and family at Petrofac. I have my family at home and a big second family at Petrofac. At Petrofac, I don’t feel different from anyone else, and I don’t treat anyone differently. You are treated equally regardless of the race, gender, religion…the diversity and inclusion at Petrofac is what makes Petrofac.