Location Middle East
In the first of our People Portraits for 2022, we’re talking to Yasmine Wazzi, Associate Senior Economist in Dar’s London office to discover more about what an Economist in the built environment does, and how her work underpins many of Dar’s projects.
Hello Yasmine, and thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. So, can you tell us how you became an Associate Senior Economist?
Hi, thanks for interviewing me, it’s a pleasure to speak with you. That’s quite a loaded question to begin with - jumping right into the tough questions I see! I’d say the short answer is through passion, determination and hard work. The longer answer is that during my GCE ‘O’ levels, when I started taking economics classes (and specifically development economics), the subject matter immediately resonated with me: at the core, stimulating economic growth and economic development creates jobs - and those jobs help improve people’s lives.
I didn’t know exactly how I would use that knowledge or what ‘job’ I would have - but fast forward to the present and I’ve been with Dar for over eight years now. In that time, I’ve been able to work on some truly amazing, world-changing projects and I can honestly say I continue to enjoy the work I do.
And what route did you take to get to where you are now?
I started by doing a first degree (BSc) at the University of Bristol in Economics and History and followed that with a Master’s degree at the London School of Economics in Development Studies. From there, I was fortunate to get a first internship at the European Investment Bank in Luxembourg where I stayed for just under three years working as an Urban Economist. As part of my role, I was involved in the appraisal of urban and regional development projects to inform the Bank’s financing decisions.
However, projects came to us more or less complete, and I realised I wanted that first-hand experience of developing and defining these projects and, to do so, I would need to sit on the opposite side of the table. Instead of contracting consultants to conduct studies, I wanted to be the consultant! So, I would say that was really a life-defining experience for me as in that time I gained clarity on the career I wanted to pursue. I first returned to university to specialise in Urban Regeneration at University College London (UCL) as this provided more applied and practical courses - and when I finished that, I joined Dar. The rest is history, as they say!
Can you tell us a little more about what an Economist does? What services does your team offer? What does a typical day look like for you?
As economists, our role is fundamentally to ensure that the projects Dar is working on are economically and financially feasible; the projects have to be aligned to broader market and demand needs, and as such have the potential to recover their initial investment. There is quite a diversity of skills within the team though, and the specific services will vary depending on the project type - be this national and regional planning, real estate developments, industrial or tourism projects, infrastructure projects etc.
At the outset of projects, we may be involved in assessing and evaluating broader economic and market trends to inform development strategies. Typically, we work very closely with the Planning and Urban Design (PUD) department, and our analysis will inform the land use requirements that underpin their plans. However, we are also involved in conducting financial feasibility studies and economic impact assessments - both of which can be valuable tools to ‘sell’ projects to potential investors and financiers. We also advise clients on how projects can be delivered by identifying and testing different implementation strategies. Finally, we also have experts in our team that provide transaction advisory services for Public Private Partnerships (PPP) Projects.
My specialty within the department is on real estate and tourism projects, with the odd regional planning project. I work very closely with PUD to help define development strategies, and prepare business plans. I am also involved in bid preparation to help secure new work. I tend to juggle several projects and proposals at any one time, so I couldn’t really say there is a ‘typical’ day but it could involve anything from:
- Collecting data to conduct an analysis, and report-writing;
- Brainstorming and workshopping with the team;
- Working with our financial analysts on feasibility studies;
- Following up with other trades on ongoing projects;
- Presenting to clients; and
- Preparing proposals.
What would you say are currently the biggest challenges facing economics and the built environment?
I think the biggest challenge right now is the COVID-19 pandemic, and the uncertainty around the long-term impacts on demand levels and characteristics stemming from this. For example, the increase in remote working is changing the ways in which companies operate and the office spaces they need. Further, the accelerated growth in e-commerce during the pandemic - with everyone able to order everything right to their doorsteps - is changing the retail landscape: we don’t need as many shops, and we’re seeing that globally with closures on the high streets. The question is, what do we then do with those spaces? The pandemic has changed the way we live and utilise urban spaces, and it’s creating a new paradigm that needs a new approach to planning.
Another key challenge is the financing of infrastructure. Cities are growing rapidly and, in some parts of the world, this is leading to a proliferation of unplanned and slum areas. High volumes of investment are needed to upgrade and improve infrastructure - and unfortunately this is often beyond the means of public funds. There has been growing involvement of the private sector, but there is still a considerable gap, which means that communities are being left behind and inequalities are increasing.
And what are you most excited for, looking ahead?
The uncertainty around what may happen in the future is both scary and exhilarating. The world continues to face challenges, but these challenges are also what give birth to some of our most creative and innovative solutions. The way we live, the jobs we work in, how we travel and the ways we interact and communicate have shifted so much in the past five, ten, 20 years. New technologies being integrated into every dimension of life will continue to transform our cities – and with ambitious new projects like NEOM, the planned new smart city to be built from scratch in the Saudi Arabian desert, this will be at an unprecedented scale and pace. I’m excited to see how these developments will continue to transform urban landscapes. As they say, “change is the only constant in life”!
Can you tell us about any projects you’re working on right now?
Sure. One of the most interesting ones currently taking up my time is the redevelopment of Walton Airport in the city of Lahore city into a Central Business District. We’ve just completed the first stage where we’ve conducted a real estate analysis and benchmarking exercise to define a vision and strategy for its redevelopment. The site is quite large and is located right at the heart of Lahore, so it’s really a unique opportunity for development that will alter and shape the real estate landscape in the city. And it’s very exciting to be a part of that.
What’s been the highlight of your career at Dar to date? And what do you enjoy most?
I think it’s hard to pinpoint a single highlight as the past eight years really have been packed with some very large-scale projects. Every project has been special in its own way as you’re continuously learning and growing. The Suez Canal Area Development Project was special, as we moved out to Cairo for six months while we conducted the study. It was an extremely intense and challenging period, but also provided so much growth and I learned so much in that time. Another interesting project was the Petra Tourism Development & Investment Project as we were able to go out and visit the sites, truly a wonder of the world! I will also never forget the first time I travelled out to Saudi Arabia for the Farasan Islands Tourism Development Master Plan; being out in the Red Sea on these untouched beaches was very memorable.
There are so many things I enjoy in what we do. I would say, pre-pandemic, I enjoyed travelling out to different places, and meeting our clients and local stakeholders. That direct interaction builds a stronger understanding and appreciation of the local context - which enhances and facilitates our work. But, I also take pride in the work I do remotely – conducting research to build up a storyline, and finding new and creative ways to communicate that narrative on paper so we can get the buy-in from our clients. I get a strong sense of satisfaction and accomplishment when I complete a report and have presented our findings to our clients.
What would you say to anyone who may be considering a career in Economics and the Built Environment?
Economics is a very broad field of work - the range of careers you can pursue with that type of degree are very diverse - anything from public policy, social work, research, academia etc. But if you have an interest in working on more tangible projects specifically, and being a part of some of the mega-developments and strategies that are shaping the world, then this is a field of work worth considering. No two projects are the same so it is definitely not a monotonous field of work, and can be both challenging and stimulating. It combines strong research skills with analytical and critical thinking, and a generous sprinkle of creativity!