Abu Dhabi’s community mall packs a big punch

Riva Abou Ali, the manager of Fotouh Al Khair Mall in Abu Dhabi, has a busy year ahead. As its success proves, huge shopping centres are not the only way to woo retailers.

Riva Abou Ali, the manager of Fotouh Al Khair Mall in Abu Dhabi, filled out the mall’s annual calendar to engage the nearby community and attract Emirati residents. Ravindranath K / The National
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It is just the start of the year and Riva Abou Ali has her calendar full for the rest of the year.

For the mall manager of Fotouh Al Khair Mall in Abu Dhabi, each month will be busy with exhibitions from local entrepreneurs, bazaars from community groups, or fund-raisers. She has already renewed the rental contracts for all the shops at the mall despite a 5 per cent rent rise.

And she has a list of shops waiting to open doors at the mall.

Community malls do not garner the same attention as when glitzy megamalls open but, over the past few years, Fotouh Al Khair Mall has refashioned itself as a retail space that encourages Emirati entrepreneurs to set up shop. That includes those without experience of running a business and young graduates. There are about 45 shops and 20 kiosks at the mall.

Community malls in the capital cover a total of about 123,545 square metres, including those as small as 10,000 to 30,000 square metres such as Al Seef Village Mall and Sun and Sky Boutik mall, according to the property consultancy JLL. The total retail market in Abu Dhabi covered 2.62 million square metres at the end of last year. Fotouh Al Khair’s is set out over 14,700 square metres.

Despite the ability of bigger and newer malls to draw large numbers of people due to their variety of food, entertainment and shopping options, community malls are expected to flourish.

They are not competing with but are complementary to large malls, according to Andrew Williamson, the head of retail for JLL Mena.

“As community malls are more focused on fulfilling basic daily needs of the community, they are able to establish a steady demand,” he says. “As consumers demand more proximity, mixed use developments in the UAE are incorporating community retail into their projects to serve these needs.”

Opened 16 years ago, Fotouh Al Khair Mall is among the first community malls in the city. Currently, the Abu Dhabi Municipality under the build-operate-transfer framework, is requesting investors to construct, invest and run community and neighbourhood centres across Abu Dhabi to serve residential communities.

“Newer community malls are integrating entertainment and high-quality food and beverage to suit the local catchment,” according to Mr Williamson.

Last year, around 53,000 square metres of retail space came to the Abu Dhabi market and most of it was non-mall space within mixed use developments, a JLL report says.

A supportive management team and location in the heart of the city are the winning marks for Fotouh Al Khair Mall, according to one entrepreneur.

Hala Al Otaiba, who runs a cafe called Hiccup at the mall, expects to introduce a business lounge cafe there in the next quarter. The new establishment is designed as a meeting space for business people, with free internet. Linked to the Hiccup cafe next door, the space has already bagged three clients who have booked three tables for a year.

One is from a Dubai offshore marketing and advertisement firm that does not have an office in Abu Dhabi. The owner needed a space for when he holds client meetings in Abu Dhabi, and took up a table at the lounge, Ms Al Otaiba says. Two other clients are from the mall, including a salon owner who needs to meet suppliers at the mall but cannot do so at her shop.

The capacity of the 160 square-metre lounge could be between 80 and 90 people at any one time, according to Ms Al Otaiba.

While her Hiccup cafe is present in most of the malls in Abu Dhabi, including Marina Mall, Mushrif Mall and Khalidiya Mall as well as Dubai, Ms Al Otaiba decided to introduce the business lounge concept at Fotouh Al Khair Mall.

After some research, Ms Al Otaiba found that the peak times are business hours during weekdays, drawing business people.

“It has a niche market, the management is young and they want to do something different – and it is located right in the city, next to Etisalat and banks,” she says.

“People need somewhere to meet clients and if they don’t want to do fast food, they don’t have much choice [in the area].”

Apart from commercial events, the mall also hosts charity events such as last June’s fund-raiser for Make-a-Wish Foundation where the money raised goes to a child to fulfil his or her wish. Last year, the Italian Embassy helped organise a Halloween party where the money raised went to the Italian agency Onlus Le Casette per l’Equatoria, which is building a hospital in South Sudan.

In keeping with the local Emirati draw of the mall, in April this year it will hold a 16-day abaya exhibition with designs from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE. The following month, it will host an organic, homemade food exhibition prepared by Lebanese expats and Emiratis. The mall also holds events during Eid and Ramadan, Easter and Christmas as well as Mother’s Day and National Day.

During last Easter, the mall organised an egg-hunting competition.

The Emirati women who frequent the mall say they love the variety of events, regardless of the religious origins, Ms Abou Ali says. After taking over the mall management three years ago, Ms Abou Ali has slowly filled out the annual calendar to engage the nearby community and attract Emirati residents through exhibitions of local food and businesses, and market days.

“I saw something different here and people treated me like a family,” she says. “Several Emiratis have shops here and it is a local mall.”

It also has some big brands attached to it. The British retailer Marks and Spencer is its anchor store besides Maison Sez and the luxury children’s department store Children’s Lane. The M&S operator Al Futtaim will expand its footprint at the mall next year. Enoc’s retail arm that franchises Zoom mini markets in UAE opened its first Abu Dhabi outlet at the mall in January.

With no space free, Fotouh Al Khair Mall has 50 shops on the waiting list besides 20 kiosks, including a bank, a travel agency from Al Ain and a laundry.

Among the successful shops at the mall are those run by young Emiratis who found a place there after being turned away from bigger malls.

“I trust them and I put myself in their shoes,” Ms Abou Ali says. “They are young, fresh and have ideas.”

She also communicates with the shop owners every day to make sure they are satisfied, one of the reasons behind a low turnover rate despite a rent increase every year, according to Ms Abou Ali. The lean mall management team – it is just her and an assistant – besides the social media agency that runs the Facebook page – helps to keep the costs down.

Ms Abou Ali came to Abu Dhabi 18 years ago from Lebanon, and calls the UAE her home. After having worked in the oil and gas sector and then at the Labour Office, this is Ms Abou Ali’s first retail venture. And she likes her job very much.

“This is like my baby,” she says.

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