Dubai Design District: A hipster enclave that wants to make people happy

Carved out of the desert on the banks of the Dubai Creek is the place that Tecom is making into an international creative hub – Dubai Design District – tapping into the region’s US$100 billion fashion and design market.

Dubai is in the process of creating its very own “hipster” district along the shores of the Creek, and by 2021 it will have an urban hub for design, fashion, art and lifestyle to rival New York’s Meatpacking district or London’s Shoreditch.

So promises Mohammad Saeed Al Shehhi, the chief operating officer for the project – Dubai Design District, or d3.

He is unashamed about the inspirations behind the project. “We believe we’ve taken the best of all the design districts around the world and brought them all together in Dubai. A lot of work went into this, with focus groups and research,” he says.

“This is the place where things are really happening. The aim is to attract creative people and make them happy, and I know they will be happy here.”

New York and London – with their organically thriving creative districts – may be the obvious inspirations, but really d3 owes more to Miami in Florida, which deliberately carved out its design district from an inner city wasteland.

Likewise, d3 is a deliberate creation but there was no need to rejuvenate an urban area in its case. The 21.5 million square feet site on the banks of Dubai Creek was more or less pristine desert, near the Ras Al Khor nat­ure reserve.

Now it is a bustling construction site, a short drive away from urban hubs like The Dubai Mall and The Dubai International Financial Centre. The transport infrastructure linking it to such established centres is being continually improved.

Already, about 1,500 people work in the completed first phase of the development, and this number is expected to rise to 10,000 by the end of this year. Even by Dubai’s standards, that is rapid growth.

Over the next five years, two other phases will be completed and by 2021, d3 will be a fully fledged urban district, with fashion and design as its main focus but also providing residential, leisure and hotel along a Creek-side strip. “We aim to make it a destination, not just a business park. We want people to live here and spend leisure time here, it’s not just a workplace,” says Mr Al Shehhi.

In this respect, the d3 project marks something of a departure for Tecom Group, the business parks developer renowned for its successful free zone enterprises, like Dubai Media City and Internet City.

These were essentially business parks with only incidental regard given to residential or leisure development. They have been very profitable property plays, but Tecom has obviously decided the model can be exploited further.

Tecom, under its chief executive Amina Al Rustamani, is part of the government-related Dubai Holding conglomerate, which will provide funding for the project. Although Mr Al Shehhi declines to reveal estimates of how much d3 will cost by 2021, he confirms that it is a commercial project that is expected to make money for its owners.

So it will be competing with other free zones in the emirate. “Rents will be competitive and attractive,” Mr Al Shehhi says, but the project also has other advantages.

In d3, tenants can decide whether to take up free zone status or the more traditional ownership structure of a Dubai Economic Department licence, giving potential clients greater flexibility. By the end of last year, 268 business partners were in d3, with about 50 opting for tra­di­tional licence status.

The district also enjoys ar­range­ments with the Dubai customs authorities by which tenants can import products and materials direct into d3, like at the rival Jebel Ali Free Zone.

“The district has been designed as part of the 2021 strategy and I can see no reason why there should be any slowdown because of any regional financial problems. Demand is still healthy because of the unique offering and the competitive quality of what we have here,” says Mr Al Shehhi.

You get a sense of how the district will eventually feel on a trip around phase one. Its 11 brand new buildings are 65 per cent occupied, which Mr Al Shehhi predicts will rise to 90 per cent by the end of the year. Many big names in Emirati and regional design, fashion, art and architecture are already there and the food and beverage units are also filling up with some upmarket names.

Big international brands in the hotel and residential property business will come later when phase three is launched.

Before then, but by the end of 2018, phase two will be completed, intended as the creative heart of the project – a creative community of 6,500 people working in 1 million sq ft of offices.

Why should so many creative people come to Dubai? “Our study last year showed that the Middle East and North Africa is the fastest-growing region in the world for fashion and design, worth over US$100 billion across the region. And the UAE is the biggest and most exciting part of that market, worth some $27bn. This is a huge market for Dubai to exploit and all for the good of the Dubai economy,” says Mr Al Shehhi.

But d3 will also be an international creative hub. About a third of its customers are expected to be local designers, but the rest will be welcomed from wherever in the world they originate.

“There are big design businesses in places like Beirut and Cairo but they have traditionally looked to Europe for inspiration and for business. We want to make them face the other way by orienting them towards Dubai and the Gulf by building them a new design ecosystem here,” Mr Al Shehhi says.

The new district also talks to two other big themes in the Dubai business scene: the need to cultivate small-to-medium enterprises, and the “smart city” strategy.

Most design enterprises are by their nature small, entrepreneurial businesses which benefit from being close to their peers and the support systems they need, and which d3 aims to provide.

At the same time, the district is a pilot for the “smart city” initiative, with 21 high-tech schemes being trialled or implemented there. It already has a “smart” parking scheme for its existing workforce. “It is so much more efficient for us, and with the data we access we can give customers a much better service,” he says.

Mr Al Shehhi knows all about the importance of data from the previous phases of his car­eer in Dubai, at the telecoms group du and Dubai Media Incorporated, and he was also voted one of he most influential people in digital media in the Middle East.

All of which sounds like perfect training to lead Dubai into the hipster age.

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