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Saturday, November 27, 2010

Up Close and Personal with Oussama Kabbani

FROM the strife-torn city of Beirut comes a man with great expertise and a big vision. Oussama Kabbani was born in Beirut and educated in an environment of civil unrest.

Years of civil war have built a certain resilience in him and today Kabbani is rebuilding the city he grew up in. The politics is edgy; it has always been at the crossroads of many cultures, but it is a city he has grown to love and enjoy. Changes are still afoot but that's just the reality of politics.

It may take longer than usual to reconstruct Beirut but when he took on the job, he was fully aware that it was a task that would span various economic cycles. But Beirut will be rebuilt, because the Harvard-trained urban planner has a big vision.

You cannot have a small vision. You have to have a big one but how much it gets done depends on many factors. If a vision begins small, it becomes smaller, saysKabbani, who was in Kuala Lumpur recently.

No doubt, he's self-motivated and a realist too. When one takes on a project such as this (Beirut), one is inviting criticism. So I might as well be harsh with myself from the beginning.

Kabbani is banking on his experience in building and regenerating cities around the world in his task in developing Iskandar Malaysia, the growth corridor that is three times the size of Singapore. He is involved in Medini, one of the cities in Iskandar Malaysia.

The chairman of Millennium Development says the company's expertise is in development management services.

The company undertakes work on behalf of developers and investors in real estates. Essentially, it sets up the development strategy and undertakes all the work done by a developer. The only difference is the investment does not come from Millennium Development but from investors, who can be the government or the private sector.

Kabbani says Millennium Development offers clients a portfolio of services which includes business development, urban planning, architecture, finance, marketing, legal and construction management.

A client may be driven by the goal to build 100 buildings. But in my mind's eyes, I am building 100 communities because there is a desire for human interaction. We cannot live far from human interaction.

Whether it is Beirut or here, it is the same. You may have your laptop, but you want to go into the office, or the restaurant. We are busy by day, and by night we seek the sanctuary of our homes, and so we create residential areas which are calm and conducive for rest, he says.

But why cities? Kabbani begins in Beirut, which is today still undergoing reconstruction.

Other than being the city he grew up in, he has learned a lot rebuilding a war-torn city. He is learning from the past in order to rebuild the future. You have to plan for the end and work towards it. If you have 1,000 ha, you cannot do it all at once. How you get from the start to the end sometimes takes a long process and we build over different economic cycles, he says.

Not many professionals get the opportunity to work on a destroyed city. I wish I need not have to, but when I got the chance to do it, I might as well learn a lot from it.

Added value

Much of it involves learning on the job and that in itself, provides a lot of added value.

When you are building a city from rubble, you have to consider so many aspects, the planning, the politics, the economics and social issues, all of which goes beyond architecture. Beirut was where I learned. We set up a platform for good things to happen but the reality is things happen and we pray for things to be better, not worst. First, it is my home country. Also, there is the passion that went into the making of a city after war. I used to say this is the age of the bountiful and we consider ourselves a new generation that was going home to rebuild what other people have destroyed. If you don't have passion, you cannot do a good job.

The mind is not enough. It has to be the mind and the heart and I am proud to say that to a big extent, we have succeeded, he says.

Building cities is not a common passion and Kabbani says he has been lucky over the last 15 years to live at a time when building cities has become common. The company is involved in various city projects in the Middle East, Malaysia and Kazakhstan.

Solid foundation

Oussama gave the company 20 years to reconstruct Beirut but due to the political and economic situation, it will now take another 15 years to finish. However, the foundation is solid and it will mature.

We will have the right architecture and transportation principles, the land use, the right mix. Our objective is to create that energy in order to pull in more investment, interest and media attention.

Then it will take a life of its own. But binding all these together is quality. It is not something that you can easily quantify because quality starts from everything underground, on the ground, and over the ground.

Although he loves Beirut, over the years, he has also grown to enjoy other cities, especially those with surprises around the corner. He also likes cities where he does not need to drive.

What does one remember about the cities that one has visited? Each city has its own identity. Twenty to 30 years later, will it be remembered for the shape, landscape, the buildings, the financial power? There must be a timelessness about it.

He started building cities in the Middle East and the experience he gained from Beirut became very valuable. Today, building cities or regenerating them have become a demand. The rebuilding of Aktau in Kazakstan, after the fall of the Soviet Union, is the city's aspiration to join the global economy.

Human aspect

He says that although the company is based in the Middle East, there is a human aspect that is synonymous with all mankind.

We may be different as a people, but equal as human. We are global, very global in our services but also very local wherever our projects may be, because as a Lebanese, there is always the Lebanese diaspora. We are all over the place and there is a natural tendency to assemble together. Unless you seriously respect another, you are bound to have trouble.

I went to the West to do my Masters, but was educated in Beirut, under the bombs. Beirut and those times were the school of life. As for my personal life, I come from a family of mixed marriages. And Lebanese are people who articulate their thoughts well.

And so we articulate our views and thoughts during meal times or when we come together.

By The Star (by Thean Lee Cheng)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

nice post. thanks.