First look: Abu Dhabi’s first PPP school

The Zayed City Schools PPP initiative is being seen as a “fact-finding” scheme for future deals in Abu Dhabi. We take look behind the scenes at one of the projects in the programme

On a dusty patch of desert under a scorching Abu Dhabi sun lies the almost-finished brickwork of the UAE’s first PPP school. 

Four years in the making from planning stages, the Zayed City Schools (ZCS) programme is on track to open a girls’ school for UAE locals in mid-August this year – a few days ahead of schedule.

A consortium of proud partners, including Besix, Plenary and the Abu Dhabi Investment Office (ADIO), toured the grounds of the first school in the series: a Cycle Two and Three Girls’ School for 1,680 students.

Overall, the ZCS programme will have a combined capacity of 5,360 students, and will also feature a kindergarten and Cycle One School for boys and girls (2,000 students) and a Cycle Two and Three Boys’ School (1,680 students). In addition, the schools will employ more than 220 teachers and 75 non-teaching staff.

The deal covers 20-year operations and maintenance of the three campuses.

Led by ADIO on behalf of Abu Dhabi Department of Education and Knowledge (ADEK), the ZCS project offers “premium but good value” fittings and amenities, according to one project insider. “We have to find a balance between the client’s needs and the government budget.”

The schools will feature two full-sized swimming pools, multi-purpose halls, laboratories and sprawling grounds.

The country’s first education PPP project, the ZCS scheme, is being considered a trailblazer, with expectations of more to come. The project has a strong international flavour, with banks such as HSBC, Intesa Sanpaolo and Norinchukin Bank providing debt on the deal, alongside Besix and Plenary as equity investors.

Yaser Al Nuaimi, head of infrastructure partnerships at ADIO, says he is immensely proud of the project. Speaking on the school grounds, he adds that this scheme will help forge a solid PPP pipeline in social infrastructure and beyond.

“It is good to see what we have been planning over the last four years and discuss it on the ground. It is a moment of pride for ADIO, in partnership with our stakeholder ADEK, to manage this project from conception to execution and hopefully soon – operation,” says Al Nuaimi.

The ADIO head describes ZCS as a “fact-finding project” for Abu Dhabi and the UAE in general.

“We explored this asset class which is a common type of PPP globally. We are keen to look at different asset classes to develop our [PPP] scheme to the highest quality, within timelines and within cost parameters.”

Al Nuaimi adds that he will be working with Abu Dhabi’s infrastructure and investor ecosystem to develop “a robust PPP pipeline” that will ultimately deliver a number of assets in different categories to serve the country’s institutions.

Moustafa Fahour, chief operating officer of Plenary Middle East, who also toured the grounds, says he has long-term confidence in the market and is seeking to grow Plenary’s presence in the emirate.

“Procuring authorities in the UAE have embraced the PPP model for specific social infrastructure developments and we are encouraged that a pipeline of potential opportunities will continue over the near term,” he explains.

“Projects such as ZCS should give procurers confidence that the model can deliver social infrastructure in a timely way and ensure value for money outcomes. 

“We understand that education and health will be a key focus for potential social infrastructure PPPs across various emirates in the UAE, led by Abu Dhabi which has, through empowering ADIO, led the way on procuring social infrastructure.”

With the current project delivering on time and to budget, there is all the more reason to believe that the UAE will be at the forefront of PPP delivery over the coming years. Fahour and the rest of the team know that the eyes of the region are on them to see how this project is developed and delivered, but the early signs are good.

From the clean lines and modern designs, through to the ongoing work to install a swimming pool, the work at the girls’ school is evidence of what ADIO and the UAE hope will be a pipeline of modern social infrastructure facilities that can impress and attract the region’s burgeoning middle classes.