Businesswoman in the Middle East - 01/01/2008

Interview with Susan Murray, General Manager of the Seatronics’ Middle East office

Ms Murray joined Oceonics (the forerunner of Seatronics) in 1981. It was here that she got her first taste of business in the hydrographic Industry, specifically in the sales environment. After spending a couple of years gaining valuable experience with another equipment rental company in Aberdeen, she returned to Oceonics as Sales Manager. Between 1987 and 1996 she was the General Manager of her own equipment rental company in Aberdeen, selling this in 1996. In 2000 she decided it was time to move on and, believing herself too young to retire, agreed to take on the role of Middle East Manager with Seatronics Ltd., thus coming full circle and working again with the company that had introduced her to the hydrographic world.

You must be one of the few, or even the first, female manager to head up a Middle East office of a multinational company. What are the positive (and negative) aspects of being in this position? What advice would you give to other female hydrographic colleagues who are interested in a move to the Middle East?

I’m not certain whether I am the ONLY female manager of a multinational company here, although I am certainly in a minority (albeit a growing one)! I belong to a group here called the International Business Women’s Group, which has over 130 members. It provides a forum where businesswomen in Abu Dhabi may identify and discuss common interests regarding their activities. Being a female executive in the United Arab Emirates certainly has many challenges, but no more than my male colleagues experience! Hydrography is a predominantly male environment, even in Europe, and I know only of a couple of other women in the industry here. There are few actual restrictions on my life in Abu Dhabi itself. I do not have to dress in the local manner and I have access to all locations that would be open to male colleagues.

Are there any local limitations to running your business? Are there any travel constraints?

When I first arrived, one of the changes it was quite difficult to get used to was the different weekend we have here. It means that we are restricted to Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday morning for contact with our Aberdeen, Houston and Singapore offices, as we have Thursday afternoon and Friday as our weekend.
My sales territory is not limited to Abu Dhabi and includes the other six United Arab Emirates as well as India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bahrain, Iran, Oman, Kuwait, Yemen and Egypt, among many others. Subject to having the appropriate visas in place, I have never had any problems in travelling around this area, although I have yet to make my first trip to Saudi Arabia and there are a number of restrictions there, including the requirement to wear the local style, black abaya.
It is necessary to treat each state in the Arabian Gulf individually and, despite Abu Dhabi’s proximity to the other emirates and to its neighbouring countries, it is not always possible to conduct business in one place from another. As a result, a strong network of local contacts has to be developed and maintained throughout the region to act as a conduit for any business generated.

Is it difficult for you, being a woman, to negotiate with national male clients? Do they accept a woman in business?

There are no problems dealing with local clients (Middle East nationals). They are all professionals, many are Western-educated and they behave exactly as you would expect any businessman to behave. Of course, a woman in a responsible position is quite an unusual sight here and this sometimes works to my advantage in that they may give me an appointment earlier rather than later! I think they are often intrigued by having to deal with a female and this gives me the opportunity to raise the company’s profile with them.

Could you tell us a bit about the activities of Seatronics in the Middle East; what are its main markets and the type of companies with which it has dealings? What are your main responsibilities as General Manager of the Seatronics Middle East office?

Seatronics (Middle East) is a rental supplier of a wide range of Marine Electronic equipment suitable for use in hydrographic, oceanographic and geophysical surveys. The main markets are with the survey, seismic and construction companies operating in the area and offering underwater surveys and related services to the offshore oil, gas and construction industries.
The Seatronics facility in Abu Dhabi is a supply, service and support resource for our clients in the region. We carry a large stock of sub-sea survey equipment for rental, and have an extensive technical support capability, with fully equipped electronics labs and a team of electronic engineers based locally. We work closely with most of the industry’s principal manufacturers, many of whom have asked us to represent their interests in the region.
As General Manager I assume overall responsibility for the operations carried out by this office, but in addition to this I am responsible for all sales and marketing activity for this location. Any branch office such as this one operates with a relatively small staff, so the position of General Manager is fully involved in all aspects of the day-to-day running of a successful rental company.

What type of hydrographic/marine surveys are carried out in the Middle East? Are there any major projects ongoing at the moment and what projects are planned for the near future?

Traditionally, the majority of hydrographic survey work in the region (especially in the waters of the Gulf) has centred around the development of the shallow water oil fields. The classic development process begins with seismic surveying and prospecting, followed by site surveys, oil-rig positioning and finally platform positioning and pipe-lay. The construction phases of these developments also require shallow seismic surveys and analogue systems such as Sidescan Sonar and Sub Bottom Profilers are utilised, in conjunction with oceanographic instruments, to monitor tidal and current dynamics. The use of sub-sea acoustics and ROVs is still not as widespread here as in other parts of the world, but it is increasing and newer technology has become quite commonplace in recent years.
Recent equipment spreads supplied by Seatronics illustrate the varied scope of the projects we can find ourselves involved in, such as the BlueStream and Dolphin projects in the Black Sea and Arabian Gulf, respectively. These two projects covered a wide spectrum of technical challenges, the first being one of the deepest pipe-lay projects ever undertaken and the other being route surveys for what will become the largest pipeline network in the Middle East.
While there has always been a coastal construction and dredging capability in the Middle East, it is noted that in the last five years there has been a rise in the amount of coastal construction work carried out. All this work requires precise hydrographic surveying and monitoring. Projects such as the Palm Island residential development (Dubai), the Qatar - Bahrain causeway and port developments in the region reflect the impressive scale of these projects.
If you are interested in either of these projects, you may like to look on the Internet for details.

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What about Coastal Zone Management and the Marine Environment, which are undoubtedly topics for the Gulf states. Are there ongoing projects or projects under development?

The environment is of great importance to the ruler of the UAE who takes a very keen interest in its protection. There are a large number of migratory birds which feed in the Emirates’ shallow coastal areas, and certain species arrive purely for breeding. We also have the largest population of Dugongs in the Gulf and these feed on the sea grasses here. Large areas of mangroves grow naturally and they are also grown in nurseries from seedlings and then planted in any suitable areas where they may thrive. These are an important part of the ecological system as regards fish breeding, and are particularly well protected. Regulations are being tightened constantly, and any major projects with possible environmental impact are subject to rigorous studies before being approved. The penalties for any destruction of the environment or pollution can be very severe. The Environmental Research and Wildlife Development Agency (ERDWA) are extremely active and have set up several sanctuaries where fishing is strictly controlled and, in some places, banned.
The spectacular and fast changing coastline and skyline of the Emirates has sometimes in the past come about at the expense of environmental considerations; however, the Government of the UAE has recognised the need to preserve its cultural and bio-diverse heritage and various measures are being taken to monitor change and offer protection to areas of special interest.

Why should companies rent and not buy equipment? What kind of equipment is rented most? Do you see any opportunity of having AUVs to rent in the near future?

Renting equipment makes sense for all our customers, and the project-related nature of their business makes it the preferred option for many companies. Some of the most commonly expressed reasons for wishing to rent are as follows:
  • Short-term and occasional projects do not justify the capital outlay of purchasing the required equipment
  • Short notice start dates often mean that manufacturers cannot meet delivery times, so a temporary solution must be sought
  • Expensive initial outlay may prohibit ownership
  • Depreciation, maintenance, servicing and calibration costs add to the overall expense of owning equipment
  • Obsolescence is always a problem in an industry where there are constant technological advances
  • Sometimes companies wish to evaluate a product before committing themselves to purchase

Our rental pool is well utilised, across the board. Some of the most commonly rented equipment includes echo sounders and other general oceanographic equipment.
We do not see any significant opportunities for AUVs in the shallow waters of the Arabian Gulf at present, but their potential becomes more apparent in the deeper and more hostile waters of the Indian Ocean. Seatronics is actively involved in the provision of both shallow and deep-water solutions for its clients and opportunities for AUVs in the region will develop in time. We are currently one of the major providers of deep-water survey systems world-wide and will remain so as AUVs become more widely utilised.

Regarding specialised operators for the rented equipment: are these included in the rental contract, are they Seatronics employed or do you co-operate for this with personnel agencies?

Seatronics has a large pool of trained and experienced engineers for the installation and operation of specialised equipment. This is one of the strengths of Seatronics and helps to differentiate us from other rental companies. Our staff can provide engineering support before the project and will always be available to provide technical solutions for any queries involving our equipment. Because we choose to exercise control over the training and experience of all our technical staff, Seatronics does not normally utilise agency personnel.

What benefits are there to your operations being part of the George Craig Group, a large Scottish corporation with numerous different businesses, ranging from Burger Kings in Scotland, to supplying Emergency Standby vessels, to building state-of-the-art multi-purpose ROV support vessels?

The Seatronics Group has benefited greatly from its relationship with the George Craig Group. This allows the management of Seatronics a high level of autonomy in developing the business, while also affording the financial support necessary to successfully undertake an unprecedented rate of growth over the past three years. Other divisions of the George Craig Group offer synergy in the services they supply while, between us, the economies of scale required to efficiently address new international markets can more readily be achieved. The George Craig Group’s policy is to significantly increase its operations and turnover internationally over the next three years and Seatronics is seen as a key element in this expansion.

You mentioned that you are trying to set up a Middle East Hydrographic Society group. Can you tell us a bit more about this? What is your motivation in doing this? Are you aiming at a local organisation with individual members and corporate members or just an opportunity to meet each other and renew contacts, update knowledge and exchange information?

The Hydrographic Society group in the Middle East has taken off pretty well. People attending the meetings are not required to join the Society, either as individuals or as corporate members, but we are promoting the Society and are supporting those who wish to become members. Having been involved with the Hydrographic Society in Scotland and knowing the advantages it could give to people in the industry, it was an early goal of mine to get a similar group established here. I believe that our industry in the Middle East needs a forum, to keep personnel out here up to date with changes in the world of hydrography and to have the opportunity to disseminate information. It is easy to feel slightly disengaged from the cutting edge when working out here. We usually attract between thirty and fifty people to our meetings and recent presentations have included one by David Mearns of Bluewater Recoveries, who described his adventures during the deep-sea expedition to the wrecks of the battle cruisers Hood and Bismarck.
Forward planning is well underway for future meetings. Some topic suggestions currently under consideration are:
  • The comprehensive survey and 3D mapping of the west coast of Ireland
  • The fishing industry in the Gulf
  • MV Douro - the shipwreck discovered with a fortune in gold bullion and coins
  • Palm Island Project

Are there any local survey companies in the Middle East, or is the hydrographic scene dominated by the multinational survey companies?

The offshore survey market here is dominated by the same multinational survey companies you would expect to find elsewhere in the world. There are other, smaller, contractors in the region who tend to specialise in coastal engineering or environmental projects. These are mostly owned and managed by expatriates, though some of the larger construction companies have a survey capability to support their own activities and these may be owned by local nationals.

Have you any contacts or experiences with National Hydrographic Offices in the Middle East? Who is collecting data for nautical charting purposes?

There are several government organisations actively carrying out hydrographic works in the Gulf, some of which have been in operation since the early 1980s. In UAE, the Military Survey Department produce their own navigational charts from various data sources, although these charts are not on general release. In Oman, the Royal Oman Navy have their own Hydrographic Service. This has had close links with the British Royal Navy Hydrographic Service for some time. In Bahrain, the Ministry of Housing, Environment and Municipalities have a survey department which incorporates a Hydrographic Section. This has been producing navigational charts, tide prediction tables and tidal stream atlases since before 1982. These navigational charts have been produced with International Hydrographic Organisation endorsement since about 1996. Saudi Arabia has a considerable hydrographic department run by the Saudi-Aramco oil company, and it also produces charts for its own use.

And finally, do you have any particular message for women in the hydrographic industry?

My advice to any women considering a move to the Middle East is to go for it! It’s a wonderful place in which to live and the lifestyle is fantastic, with beaches, pools, restaurants, night-life and lots of like-minded people! Most preconceptions about how women are regarded and treated in the Middle East are inaccurate; it's a good working and social environment for everyone, including women and families, and I would have no hesitation at all in recommending a move to Abu Dhabi in particular and the UAE in general.

Last updated: 22/10/2020