What would you do if you were in charge of building a major infrastructure project, but you weren’t allowed to oversee construction? That is the question facing China Railway Construction (CRC; 601186.SH, 1186.HK), the company behind a metro rail project in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
When completed in November, the Al Mashaaer Al Mugaddassah Metro will whisk pilgrims, up to 1.2 million per day, between holy sites in Mecca, Mount Arafat, Muzdalifa and Mina. Contrary to earlier reports, the metro system will not be a monorail, but a conventional steel-wheel, steel-rail design running on a viaduct.
But Yam Kong, the director and general manager of construction firm HCCG (China), who is helping CRC on the project, said the company has encountered a unique obstacle: Mecca is off-limits to non-Muslims, and the restrictions won’t be lifted for the sake of speeding construction on the 18.1-kilometer metro line.
Overseas Chinese infrastructure projects are typically built by imported Chinese labor. This time, not just any workers will do.
"Labor-wise, it’s probably OK because China Railway Construction can import Muslim labor from China if they fail to find a large-scale labor force in Saudi," said Yam.
A trickier problem is finding professionals to oversee the workers.
"It’s not like in Europe … where there is a long history of railway development [and] there are local professionals available," said Yam. He said the project had struggled to find Muslim railway engineers.
Fortunately for Yam and CRC, only part of the metro lies within the restricted, sacred area. Non-Muslim workers and contractors can still visit and work on the site on the outskirts of Mecca.
"But once we talk about the sacred line, beyond where only Muslims are admitted, then we will have to ask our colleagues to go in there and work on it," said Yam. "It’s not easy sometimes."