Libyan-born Jordanian Nisreen Kayyali is the founder and lead architect of Nisreen Kayyali Consulting Engineers in Dubai. After graduating and working for architectural firms in Amman, she founded a consultancy in the Jordanian capital, but relocated to the UAE in late 2014 when a client asked her to design and build a home here.
Ms Kayyali, 47, has completed 500-plus projects ranging from airport buildings, hotels and mansions to large residential projects. A mother of three children, including a daughter, 21, and son, 16, she was educated in Canada and lives in Damac Hills with husband Musab Aqad, a building contractor, and their youngest son, aged nine.
How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money?
Money was never an issue when we were in Libya. My dad had a detergents factory, but rules changed so that you no longer owned your own factory. We moved to Jordan when I was seven and had to leave without anything. But my mum used to work in the Ministry of Planning (in Libya). Her salary was funded by the US government and she was able to send it offshore. Her savings would pick us up whenever dad’s new Jordanian business was down, so we would never feel it.
I have two sisters, I’m the oldest. I had a happy childhood. I wasn’t spoiled, but our parents never deprived us of anything. I knew money was important and you needed to spend it wisely. I don’t remember how much they used to give us as an allowance, but I would never ask for more. I learned to live with what I had and be happy.
How much were you paid in your first job?
Peanuts. I finished my studies as an architect and immediately worked for a company for around JOD200 (Dh1,038) per month. If you were five or 10 minutes late, they would deduct from your salary. By the end of the month, I would not have enough fuel for my car. I was 24.
Why did you move to the UAE?
In Libya, we had the beach. Throughout my years in Jordan, I felt I wanted to live in a country that had a beach. Economically, it wasn’t a good place to be, but suddenly this woman comes to my office in Jordan saying she wants me to design her house in Dubai and supervise construction. So I said to my husband, ‘Let’s move to Dubai, start with this project and see where it takes us’. After that house was built, I was getting requests from people to design their house and my husband was asked to do construction.
What is your attitude regarding spending and saving?
I’m in the middle. I don’t just spend on necessities. If there is something I want, I get it and don’t think of the consequences. When I moved here, when business was slow, I didn’t have the luxury to spend or to save. Now that business is better, I want to invest my money and buy property. I give myself a salary and keep aside some money for saving and some for spending each month.
Where do you save?
For now, I have some savings in the bank and recently with an investment group. I’m not a risk taker, but I also don’t avoid risk because if I did, I wouldn’t be here now. I always follow what my heart tells me … but don’t put all my eggs in one basket.
What has been your best investment?
Real estate in Jordan. I have a house there and some land. Whenever I had extra money, I believed I should buy land for the future. Thankfully, what I bought for JOD80,000 is now worth JOD200,000-300,000 after 14 to 15 years. I was lucky. The choice was: do you want to buy jewellery or a piece of land. The price will go up for sure. Sometimes I think it’s not for me, maybe my kids. I want them to be able to say, ‘My mum bought this land for peanuts, now it’s worth millions’.
What’s your smartest financial move?
I invested to have my office here. That was my best decision – to start a business in Dubai. It was a scary move at the time, putting in every penny I had, risking it all, but this is the smartest thing I’ve ever done.
Does money make you happy?
For sure, because it makes you strong, confident and responsible for yourself and you can help others. This is what makes you happy. When you have money, you have the power to be independent. It’s not the amount you have but the feeling of security, the freedom it gives that you don’t need anybody else’s approval to make a certain decision.
I’m the kind of person that doesn’t regret anything. Sometimes I overspend, but it’s done. I don’t need to sit and contemplate and wish I didn’t do that.
What luxuries are important to you?
Things that make me more comfortable; a better house, a nicer car, to go in business class instead of economy – things that make me enjoy life more. I’d rather spend money on a ticket upgrade than a new outfit. I’d prefer a good hotel and a nice trip, not shopping.
Do you experience fluctuations in your business?
People here are careful and very smart with their money. Most want to spend wisely. It’s a challenge for us because they want something very nice that doesn’t cost a lot. They want value. You need to help them spend wisely and they seek your help with smart designs.
I opened a business here because I had projects, but 2017 was probably the worst year throughout my business life. We didn’t have new projects and not many people knew about me. But after one project was completed at the end of 2017-2018, people started to call. They saw it was unique. After that, Instagram was my biggest marketing friend.
How has the pandemic impacted your work?
Thankfully, it hasn’t. I got a few good projects throughout the month we worked from home. I’m lucky; people saw my work on Instagram and said, ‘We don’t want to wait until this is over, we want to start now’.
I’m hoping things (economically) will pick up quickly and be even better than before. Whenever people say it cannot be done, Dubai will do the opposite. That’s how Dubai is. If things are going down, Dubai will go up. I’m the kind of person that believes strongly that I control my path. I trust what we are doing.
Do you plan for the future?
The plan is to get my team more involved with people and dealing with the stress of business, so I can enjoy the fun and creative part. If I can reach that level, why would I want to retire?
I’d like to buy property in Dubai and to buy as much property as I can abroad. This is my retirement plan, if ever I need to retire.
And I’m designing our (dream) house now. We bought land, very near the beach. For me, it’s not the size that matters, it’s the location, layout and the garden.