Quality thrives in downturn

Consultants told the Zaal family its ideas for exclusive property developments would prove too expensive. The advice was ignored and the projects have become a success.

The Zaal family: the parents Zaal Mohammed Zaal, top row, left, and Lesley Zaal, and their children Hazaa bin Zaal, from left, first row, Nadia Zaal, Mohammed bin Zaal, and Kamelia Zaal, pose for their portrait at the family-owned Al Barari development in Dubai. They are also responsible for the Nurai project in Abu Dhabi.
Powered by automated translation

Zaal Mohammed Zaal attributes his family's success in the middle of the property downturn to old-fashioned thinking. "We didn't listen to the consultants," says Mr Zaal, the friendly patriarch. "If we did that, we wouldn't be where we are today."

The Zaal family is responsible for two of the most exclusive property developments in the country: Al Barari villas in Dubailand and the private island homes of Nurai in Abu Dhabi. When Mr Zaal was forming his ideas for the Dh15 billion (US$4.08bn) Al Barari, consultants told him his concept would be too expensive and that no one would buy homes that cost as much as Dh100 million. "We put our hearts and our own money into this project," Mr Zaal says. "Instead of using a lot of debt, we built something that is about living a good life."

The numbers seem to prove that in volatile economic times, projects that stand out can be lucrative. Al Barari, a lush garden oasis in the desert, has emerged as one of the few successful projects in the 27,000-hectare Dubailand. The project has handed over the first 33 villas and is looking at a default rate from buyers of about 1 per cent. Nurai cut down the number of homes after the global financial crisis but is preparing to hand over half of its villas by the end of the year.

While competitors are scaling down their plans, the family is looking further afield for new projects. Mr Zaal said he was eyeing a plot of land in Jeddah for a project similar to Al Barari, as well as an ultra-exclusive resort in the desert that might be accessible only by air. Nadia Zaal, his daughter and the chief executive of Zaya, has said she was in preliminary talks with the developer of a stalled project in Dubai to take over its construction site and build a tower.

"I still truly believe in the property market in Dubai," Ms Zaal says. "You still have people who love it there and want a home there. As overdeveloped as people think it to be, there is demand in Dubai for high-quality, beautiful homes." The relative success of the Zaal projects comes from the family's particular approach to property development. Rather than delivering slipshod homes in soulless towers, the Zaals aim to create a sense of community and build to a high quality, Ms Zaal says.

Mohammed bin Zaal, the chief operating officer of Al Barari, says sales of Zaya homes never became overheated because the family restricted speculator involvement from the start. "We are a zero-debt company, which has always helped us," he says. "And we put restrictions in the contract so that no one could flip them unless a certain amount of time had passed. We even rejected some people from buying multiple villas."

Each member of the family plays a different role in Al Barari and Nurai. Mr Zaal, the father, is the visionary and lover of gardens whose passion translates into vast stretches of greenery around the homes they build. Lesley Zaal, the mother, oversees interior decoration with her own company, Etcetera Living. Nadia and Mohammed play a large role in the financing and structuring of contracts related to the projects, as well as in overseeing them.

Their sister, Kamelia Zaal, has her own landscape design company and works closely with their father on creating the large gardens and other landscaping elements for the projects. Hazza bin Zaal, the youngest brother, is studying environmental technology in Australia. He, too, could join the family business in a few years. "We are a very close-knit family," Nadia Zaal says. "We always talk about business over dinner. We travel around the world together."

While Zaal Mohammed Zaal's family has long been involved in property development in Dubai, they only recently decided to concentrate on high-profile projects. The idea for Al Barari partially came out of the family's return to the UAE from the UK a few years ago. "We were looking for a place to live and there wasn't the type of home we were looking for," Mohammed Zaal says. Over the next few years, they pondered how an ideal development would work and feel.

The result was Al Barari - "the wilderness". Al Barari's primary distinguishing feature is its lush landscaping and gardens surrounding what will eventually be about 270 villas. The company says it has introduced 800 plant species that have never before been grown in the Middle East, including wild garlic; Bismarkia nobilis, a palm native to Madagascar; and ancient olive trees from Spain. About Dh1.4bn is being spent on plants alone.

Al Barari will also include 26 botanical gardens and a 14.6km system of waterways that will flow throughout the 130ha development. Kamelia Zaal, the creative mind behind the landscape design, says she and her father like taking cuttings of plants that catch their eye from around the world and bringing them back to their homes. "Our homes are full of plants," she says. "It's a passion that I learnt from my father and we spend a lot of time together working on the designs for the gardens."

Phase two of Al Barari, which includes a five-star hotel and yet more villas and gardens, is expected to start by the middle of next year. "It's about a quality of life," Zaal Mohammed Zaal says. "Anybody can build a magnificent house somewhere. Here, there will be a community; there will be gardens." Nadia Zaal started Nurai after serving as the chief executive of Al Barari. Her company, Zaya, is a joint venture between Tasameem Real Estate and the landscape architecture company Ashjar.

Located on an island only a few minutes away from Saadiyat Island, the project will feature villas on the island and others on stilts over the water. bhope@thenational.ae