Sixty years ago, in the early months of 1961, the British engineering firm Sir William Halcrow & Partners scrambled to solve a problem that they’d created. At Dubai’s harbor, their miscalculations had been tragically revealed during that year’s seasonal storms. Instead of keeping the waterway navigable, the firm’s design of training walls and dredging lanes left Dubai Creek choking on debris and earth. Flooding on both shores threatened lives and livelihood.
In the aftermath, as workers scraped refuse out of Dubai Creek and families rebuilt the homes that had been washed away, one team of Halcrow engineers redrew plans for the harbor. It’s unclear how much coastal damage there was, but the engineers were quickly back on their feet. Better than just standing, they secured a new contract to draw up the corrections and expand the project’s scope. The new contract was worth nearly double the earlier, blundered one. There was also another Halcrow team at work. Far away from both London and Dubai, they were measuring Mediterranean waves and monitoring giant concrete structures at the port of Benghazi.
Twenty years earlier, in 1941, British forces had bombed Benghazi’s port; now British engineers possessed contracts to rebuild it. Benghazi was the co-capital of the recently independent Kingdom of Libya, which, thanks to fresh petroleum exports, was “on the cusp of a vertiginous path of development.” International banks were very interested. British and US militaries sent troops there. By 1961, Libya was the US government’s largest per capital recipient of development aid, at well over $100 million. Halcrow’s role in these ambitions was small but logical, a strategic response to the West’s whirlpooling focus on the new state’s petroleum reserves. Being in Libya was part of Halcrow’s cast net over a changing global landscape, to search where even small projects could bear long-lasting relations in the future. Consultants “take their profit only once” from any given project, according to a promotional film, but “what endures is the experience.” Experience leads to more and larger projects, at least that’s the hope.