BUILD­ING FOR THE FU­TURE

Gulf Business - - COVER STORY - By Neil King

AS CEO OF WASL AS­SET MAN­AGE­MENT GROUP, HE HESHAM AB­DULLA AL QAS­SIM IS RE­SPON­SI­BLE FOR ONE OF THE LARGEST REAL ES­TATE MAN­AGE­MENT COM­PA­NIES IN DUBAI. IN AN EX­CLU­SIVE IN­TER­VIEW, HE TALKS GROWTH, ICONIC PRO­JECTS, AND THE FATE OF THE EMI­RATE’S REAL ES­TATE MAR­KET

A LOOK AT SOME OF Hesham Ab­dulla Al Qas­sim’s re­cent di­ary en­tries will prob­a­bly tell you all you need to know about the non-stop na­ture of his high-level com­mit­ments.

Prior to mak­ing some key an­nounce­ments at GITEX Tech­nol­ogy Week, the CEO of wasl As­set Man­age­ment Group was in Bali for the 2018 An­nual Meet­ings of the In­ter­na­tional Mon­e­tary Fund and World Bank Group. And just days ear­lier he launched wasl gate onto Dubai’s free­hold prop­erty mar­ket – the lat­est project to come out of the Dubaibased real es­tate man­age­ment com­pany.

The high-pro­file ap­point­ments he keeps are tes­ta­ment not only to his busi­ness acu­men in a num­ber of fields, but also to the wide­spread re­spect he com­mands in the UAE and across the globe.

You don’t need to take my word for that. As well as his main role with wasl, Al Qas­sim is the vice chair­man and manag­ing di­rec­tor of Emi­rates NBD, chair­man of Emi­rates Is­lamic Bank, vice chair­man of the Dubai Real Es­tate

Cor­po­ra­tion, chair­man of BNP Paribas Egypt and board mem­ber of such com­pa­nies as Eti­salat, DIFC, Am­lak Fi­nance, Na­tional Gen­eral In­sur­ance, In­ter­na­tional Hu­man­i­tar­ian City, and more.

Yet with so many hats to wear, the man who has led wasl since 2007 has re­mark­able clar­ity of vi­sion, as demon­strated when we meet at the com­pany’s of­fices in Bur Dubai to dis­cuss the city’s real es­tate land­scape.

“The state of the real es­tate mar­ket is ex­actly where it needs to be,” he as­sures, as we talk about the mar­ket’s re­cent dip.

“Ev­ery pros­per­ous econ­omy is bound to go through a cy­cle, and this is Dubai’s calm be­fore the storm that we are tak­ing ad­van­tage of by eval­u­at­ing our next ven­tures and care­fully study­ing the mar­ket.

“The great ad­van­tage that Dubai en­joys is that thanks to its ad­vanced in­fra­struc­ture and the con­ve­nient leg­is­la­tions be­ing put into place, when the mar­ket goes back on its up­swing, the emi­rate will in­stantly reap the ben­e­fits and get back on track in no time.

“Dubai is at­trac­tive to home­buy­ers and in­vestors for mul­ti­ple rea­sons. Pri­mar­ily, the emi­rate is one of the fastest­grow­ing cities in the world – a rate that is in­creas­ing by 10.7 per cent. Dubai is also ranked as one of the safest cities in the world, en­joys a global, strate­gic lo­ca­tion, a steady cur­rency, and a world-class in­fra­struc­ture; all of which are at­trac­tive el­e­ments for home­buy­ers and in­vestors.”

These are views that come from a man who has over­seen some of Dubai’s most suc­cess­ful real es­tate pro­jects, in­clud­ing two ma­jor golf cour­ses man­aged by Dubai Golf, a ros­ter of 14 op­er­a­tional ho­tels to date, and a long-list of res­i­den­tial, com­mer­cial and cor­po­rate prop­er­ties, both lease­hold and free­hold.

The com­pany is Dubai’s big­gest in­dus­trial owner, with some 5,200 plots and 27 in­dus­trial zones, and it man­ages around 45,000 res­i­den­tial and com­mer­cial units across the emi­rate.

It’s a port­fo­lio that keeps on grow­ing, with some of wasl’s most ad­ven­tur­ous pro­jects ex­pected to be com­pleted be­tween 2019 and 2021.

These in­clude wasl1 – a free­hold mas­ter de­vel­op­ment over­look­ing Zabeel Park, which has al­ready launched phase one in the form of its Park Gate Res­i­dences. Also com­ing up is Nad Al Ham­mar Gar­dens – a 6 mil­lion square foot site along­side Mo­hammed bin Zayed Road with 71 res­i­den­tial plots and 32 mixed use plots.

A ma­jor land­mark will be com­pleted in 2020 in the form of wasl Tower, fac­ing the world’s tallest build­ing, Burj Khal­ifa; and a Dhs2.7bn ($735m) joint ven­ture with Dubai Air­port Free­zone (DAFZA) called Dubai Com­merCity will be built in the Umm Ramool area, serv­ing as MENA’s first free zone ded­i­cated to e-com­merce.

In re­cent weeks, how­ever, it has been wasl gate that has com­manded most at­ten­tion, with sales launch­ing in Oc­to­ber.

Lo­cated near Ibn Bat­tuta mall in Jebel Ali, the mul­ti­pur­pose mas­ter de­vel­op­ment will be de­liv­ered in three phases and in­clude apart­ments, town­houses, din­ing, re­tail, busi­nesses, and more. Among these will be a ‘smart mall’, in con­junc­tion with Al Fut­taim Group.

“The sales launch of the wasl gate de­vel­op­ment gen­er­ated a pos­i­tive re­sult in a height­ened de­mand from in­vestors,” says Al Qas­sim.

“This is pri­mar­ily at­trib­uted to the prop­erty’s strate­gic lo­ca­tion, in prox­im­ity to the Expo 2020 site.

“Ad­di­tion­ally, Dubai’s real es­tate mar­ket re­mains at­trac­tive in the eyes of in­vestors, res­i­dents and vis­i­tors,

DUBAI'S BIG­GEST IN­DUS­TRIAL OWNER –5,200 plots –27 in­dus­trial zones

Dubai is at­trac­tive to home­buy­ers and in­vestors for mul­ti­ple rea­sons. Pri­mar­ily, it' s one of the fastest- grow­ing cities in the world – a rate that is in­creas­ing by 10.7 per cent 1.2 square km: the size of wasl gate, the free­hold de­vel­op­ment close to Jebel Ali

thanks to the emi­rate’s strong leg­isla­tive en­vi­ron­ment, pro­ce­dural trans­parency and ease of do­ing busi­ness.”

The 1.2 square km free­hold de­vel­op­ment will be one of the largest de­vel­op­ments along Sheikh Zayed Road, with al­most 7,000 res­i­dences as well as the var­i­ous com­mer­cial units.

But other than its size, Al Qas­sim does not fore­see any chal­lenges in com­plet­ing what is ef­fec­tively a city within a city. “wasl gate’s only chal­lenge is its size,” he says. “But when com­pleted, it is ex­pected to change the land­scape of the area.

“As with each project launch, we study the mar­ket prop­erly and iden­tify what cus­tomers are look­ing for so we can launch the proper de­vel­op­ment. We look at each of our new pro­jects as a chal­lenge for us to de­liver the best to our cus­tomers.

“Our project launches are aligned with the di­rec­tives of Dubai’s gov­ern­ment to cater to all seg­ments of the so­ci­ety. wasl gate, for ex­am­ple, is our first free­hold prop­erty that of­fers com­pet­i­tive prices ded­i­cated to mid­in­come earn­ers. It is de­signed to pro­vide a wide ar­ray of of­fer­ings for Dubai res­i­dents, while striv­ing to de­velop and ex­pand our real es­tate port­fo­lio.”

This port­fo­lio will also be greatly en­hanced by the afore­men­tioned Wasl1, which is al­ready be­ing hailed as a land­mark de­vel­op­ment, be­ing on a highly prized plot di­rectly in front of the Dubai Frame.

And Al Qas­sim him­self is un­der­stand­ably ex­cited about the project.

“wasl1 is in­deed one of our iconic pro­jects, as it is lo­cated at the gate­way be­tween old and new Dubai as a con­nect­ing point.

“Our strat­egy as wasl is to cater to both the lease­hold and free­hold sec­tor through di­ver­si­fy­ing our port­fo­lio and cater­ing to all cus­tomer needs across the emi­rate. Sev­eral fea­tures at wasl1 make it one of the best res­i­den­tial op­tions for home­buy­ers and in­vestors.

“It is the first free­hold mas­ter de­vel­op­ment, and ad­di­tion­ally, res­i­dents will find and ideal blend of com­mu­nity liv­ing spa­ces, con­tem­po­rary apart­ments and ex­cep­tional ameni­ties in a tran­quil en­vi­ron­ment, lo­cated at the cen­tre of the city.

“Com­pound­ing on its value, wasl1 sat­is­fies Dubai’s vi­sion for the free­hold sec­tor, cre­at­ing a syn­ergy be­tween the ur­ban and nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ments that res­onates with the mod­ern-day buyer and will add a beau­ti­ful touch to Dubai’s sky­line.”

It’s a project that is sure to add to wasl’s al­ready im­pres­sive per­for­mance over the years, which has seen the com­pany en­joy 98 per cent oc­cu­pancy rates – though the fig­ure is cur­rently a lit­tle lower.

“All the pro­jects we launched are on track for com­ple­tion and we en­joy a high per­cent­age of rate across our leas­ing port­fo­lio that reached al­most 90 per cent.

“We are pleased with our per­for­mance over the past year, with one of the ac­com­plish­ments achieved be­ing the sale of wasl1’s first two tow­ers in less than one month. We regis­tered sim­i­lar re­sults with the launch of the third tower.

“We also recorded un­ri­valled de­mand for the leas­ing of Block A – the sec­ond phase of the wasl dis­trict project, and we man­aged to lease 90 per cent of one, two and three-bed­room apart­ments within four hours of their ini­tial rental list­ing.”

Such a per­for­mance is not a given in the UAE, es­pe­cially in light of the real es­tate mar­ket’s dip. But there has been sup­port from the gov­ern­ment in the form of a pro­posed 10-year visa for in­ter­na­tional in­vestors, and 100 per cent for­eign own­er­ship of com­pa­nies.

And while these ini­tia­tives have been met with wide­spread pos­i­tiv­ity, it is still in­cum­bent on real es­tate stake­hold­ers to move with the chang­ing en­vi­ron­ment.

“These ini­tia­tives are a ges­ture of re­as­sur­ance from the gov­ern­ment and our lead­er­ship to jus­tify to peo­ple in Dubai, the UAE and around the world that there is con­tin­u­ous work be­ing done to make Dubai the smartest and hap­pi­est city in the world.

“These new ini­tia­tives an­nounced by our wise lead­er­ship will re­sult in a pos­i­tive up­swing due to the

en­cour­aged in­vest­ments of buy­ers and in­vestors, re­sult­ing in a pos­i­tive im­pact on the real es­tate mar­ket.

“For our part, our sup­ply is on par to meet the re­quire­ments that will be gen­er­ated as a re­sult of the up­com­ing and in­evitable up­swing.”

And as Al Qas­sim re­it­er­ates, mov­ing with the ebb and flow of the mar­ket and its needs helps put wasl and its in­vestors in a po­si­tion of strength.

“Since we own pro­jects in most ar­eas across Dubai, and due to the large database of ten­ants we have, we keep our fin­ger on the pulse of the real es­tate mar­ket.

“We con­tin­u­ously con­duct re­search to iden­tify gaps in the mar­ket, such as the need for more mid-range ho­tels. As a re­sult, we handed over six ho­tels and an­nounced 15 new ho­tels to be com­pleted in the fol­low­ing years.”

In men­tion­ing hos­pi­tal­ity, Al Qas­sim high­lights an­other key sec­tor for wasl, which joined forces with Hil­ton to launch Hamp­ton by Hil­ton Dubai Air­port in Septem­ber – the Mid­dle East’s first Hamp­ton by Hil­ton prop­erty. Pro­jects such as MGM Grand, and the city’s sec­ond Man­darin Ori­en­tal ho­tel on Sheikh Zayed Road, are also among its re­cent launches.

“We also iden­ti­fied a need for the hos­pi­tal­ity staff as we get close to Expo 2020, so we an­nounced a project in Warsan last year, spread over 2.6 mil­lion square feet that will add 3,866 res­i­den­tial units to the mar­ket,” adds the CEO.

And de­spite con­cerns about over­sat­u­ra­tion in Dubai, Al Qas­sim is con­fi­dent in the emi­rate’s growth po­ten­tial for years to come.

“Dubai at­tracted as many as 15.8 mil­lion tourists in 2017 – a num­ber that is ex­pected to grow to 20 mil­lion by 2020. Dubai is also pre­dicted to sus­tain its 10 per

6 mil­lion square foot site for wasl1, along­side Mo­hammed bin Zayed Road, with 71 res­i­den­tial plots and 32 mixed use plots

cent GDP over the next 10 years.

“We are pre­sent­ing the mar­ket with niche de­vel­op­ments, such as the Hamp­ton by Hil­ton, the Hil­ton Gar­den Inn, Hy­att Place, Aloft, and El­e­ment in the three and four-star ranges, while main­tain­ing a stan­dard of qual­ity aligned with the level Dubai of­fers.”

With the ex­tra 15 planned ho­tels, wasl aims to pro­vide the hos­pi­tal­ity sec­tor with more than 4,500 rooms.

“As the sec­tor grows, wasl will be at the fore­front of de­vel­op­ing ho­tels that will add value to the sec­tor, and will add a beau­ti­ful touch to Dubai’s sky­line,” adds the CEO.

With all his ex­pe­ri­ence and suc­cess, the fu­ture is some­thing on which Al Qas­sim can be trusted to have a sound opin­ion. And with Expo 2020 on the hori­zon, along with var­i­ous other am­bi­tious plans for Dubai and wider UAE, he of­fers a pos­i­tive out­look for the months and years ahead.

“Peo­ple al­ways speak of Dubai be­fore Expo 2020 and af­ter. This should not be the case. Expo 2020 is a fan­tas­tic event that will def­i­nitely have a pos­i­tive im­pact not only on the emi­rate but on the UAE and the re­gion as a whole.

“How­ever, the event is but one mile­stone out of many that has ei­ther been achieved or is in the pipeline as part of Dubai’s strat­egy for the years to come.

“From what I have read and seen about pre­vi­ous ex­pos, the im­pact on host­ing cities at­tracted in­vest­ment and boosted economies, and I be­lieve the same will take place as Dubai.

“The gov­ern­ment also has plans for the years ahead to keep grow­ing its di­ver­si­fied econ­omy through the launch of new ini­tia­tives and plans that will en­sure Dubai’s po­si­tion is ce­mented on the world map.”

And for the CEO, wasl’s role within that growth is a cen­tral one. Though he is re­luc­tant to give too much away.

“We are cur­rently pro­ceed­ing with our ex­ist­ing pro­jects, but we have ex­cit­ing pro­jects that we will an­nounce in the com­ing years that will prove to be valu­able ad­di­tions to Dubai’s real es­tate mar­ket,” he con­cludes.

Given Al Qas­sim’s track record to date, you can be sure they’ll be just that.

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