Family affair

Mohammed Zaal, CEO of Al Barari, talks wealth, rising prices, and the next stage of the luxury villa developer’s growth plans
By Edward Attwood
Tue 18 Jun 2013 01:39 PM

Lush, luxurious and secluded, it’s no surprise that some of Dubai’s wealthiest residents have chosen to live in Al Barari. And with villa prices at the site based just off Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Road (formerly Emirates Road) starting at AED20m, it certainly takes deep pockets to secure your foothold there.

But none of the residents are complaining about the price; as much as 80 percent of the land in the first phase of the project is covered in thick, fresh greenery, lending an air of privacy that is seldom seen anywhere else in the emirate. And that air of exclusivity is exactly what the buyers appear to be after. No Emirates Hills show-offs here, then.

Mohammed Zaal, Al Barari’s CEO, pauses when asked whether he’s had to turn any prospective buyers away.

“We do like to know who is buying, put it that way,” he says. “It’s very hard to say no to someone, but we have said no to people before. It’s a community, after all; I live here, I want to know who my neighbour is. And the owners expect that of me as well.”

While Al Barari is a relatively new project — originally launched in 2005 — its founders, the Zaal family, are certainly not. The family can trace its roots in the region back until the early nineteenth century. Mohammed Zaal is just the latest scion of the Zaal clan; his father Zaal Mohammed Zaal is the chairman, while mother Leslie Zaal looks after interior design for the villas. Sister Kamelia is the project’s creative landscape director.

The decision to choose the Al Barari plot was an easy one.

“Honestly, I just felt it,” says Zaal. “We drove onto the plot, and it felt peaceful. It had all the right facilities and had a fantastic view. It borders the wildlife reserve belonging to the late Sheikh Maktoum [Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai until he passed away in 2006], so you’d come here and see gazelles and oryx running around, which was beautiful.”

The original plan for the land was simply to build the Zaal family home. Later on, the family came up with the idea of building a fully fledged garden centre on the site, and when the Dubai real estate boom hit, the Al Barari concept came together. Right from the beginning, however, the Zaals were clear that their project would be completely different from any of the hundreds of other housing developments shooting up elsewhere in the UAE.

“We’re avid travellers,” says Zaal. “We’re always staying in hotels all around the world, and we really wanted to put our ideas into what we believe a hotel should look like.”

The first phase of the project involved 300 villas, all grouped in clusters. Right now, there is 90 percent occupancy, partly due to the fact that the Zaal family has decided to hold some units back to rent. Set alongside those villas is The Farm, an 80-seat restaurant in landscaped gardens that serves a menu based on organic food.

Plants, organic food and sustainability; it’s not hard to work out the ethos behind the project. And it’s impossible not to drive through Al Barari and not wonder at the extraordinary cost of keeping the location looking so green. Nearly $400m was spent on adding vegetation to the first phase, with the firm even setting up a production nursery onsite to grow 1.6 million trees and shrubs a year. Zaal admits that sustainability is expensive, but that Al Barari has gone to extraordinary lengths to keep water wastage to a minimum.

“We have our own sewage treatment plant here, and we recycle the water,” he says. “We polish it to grade A international standard water, and we pump it back into the development for irrigation. Even after irrigation, we have excess water that is not taken by the plants, which increases the groundwater levels in this area.

“So we address that by inserting slotted plants into the ground at collection points; we then dewater that, put it through a reverse osmosis plant, where it’s cleared and pumped back again. So we have a complete cycle where you have as little wastage as possible.”

Like every developer in Dubai, Al Barari suffered when the property bubble burst. One factor stood the Zaal family in good stead, though; they had not borrowed significantly from the banks.

“At the time we had sold the majority of the first phase of Al Barari, and we had collected 70 percent of the funds,” recalls Zaal. “We had to complete the villas and collect our final payments. The only thing we had was our commitment to our buyers. Banks weren’t calling in debts, so we could sleep easy in and slow things down as we saw fit.

“But what drove us was the need to deliver to our customers. I started in 2005 in sales, and I personally sold more than 70 of these villas to customers and built a relationship with them. So three or four years later, it was a personal responsibility; I had sold them the dream when it was just desert — it was just something we had to do.”

However, things have certainly picked up since 2008. Zaal says that business has picked up significantly in the last six months or so, and estimates that villa prices have risen by “at least” 30 percent during that period. That growth has been helped by the recent expansion to Al Barari — The Reserve. There are only 28 villas in The Reserve, with only fourteen on sale. Plots are big, ranging from 30,000 square feet (sq ft) to a mammoth 120,000 sq ft. Clients can either buy the properties as shell-and-core and do it up themselves, or have the in-house team at Al Barari design the unit.

Of those fourteen villas, which went on sale earlier this year, four have so far been sold — two of them to buyers from Iraq. More generally, Zaal says that Al Barari residents tend to reflect the multicultural population in Dubai. And prices are rising too; the CEO estimates that values at his villas have risen by “at least 30 percent” in the last six months.

“I mean, I’m sitting down with clients every day now, and I only meet the clients once they’ve cheque in hand and they’re ready to close, just to introduce them to the community,” Zaal says. “And we’re also helping our existing clients, so investors who perhaps bought one unit for themselves and one for investment, and who are now looking at selling them because the prices are shooting back up again. We’re not personally selling a lot of villas, because I don’t have them.”

Zaal says that at least 70 percent of buyers in Al Barari are end users, and the share has risen since the downturn. And for the future, there is still plenty of development to be undertaken. The entire Al Barari plot is about 21 million sq ft, and 9.3 million sq ft was developed in the first phase. With The Reserve adding between 2 to 3 million sq ft there is almost 8 million sq ft left to develop.

The original plan to develop the rest of the area included the construction of a hotel, but Zaal says the model has changed slightly — a reflection of the way that the downturn affected Dubai.

“The hotel has had to be adjusted,” he says. “Originally we were looking at a resort, but at that time we were going to have all these other developments around us, with Dubailand and the biggest mall in the world and so on. The hotel has become more of a mixed-use area — so we do have a resort, we have a boutique hotel and some serviced apartments by that.

“But again we’ve tried to focus a lot on food and beverage and retail space, so there’s a big amount of retail,” he adds.

Zaal won’t give specifics as to how much retail space there will be, how large the hotel is or whether any franchise deals have been signed, saying that a major announcement is set for the coming months. And much may depend on the growth of Mohammed Bin Rashid (MBR) City, which was greenlit in October last year. The megaproject — consisting of over a hundred hotels — will fill much of the area between Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Road and Al Khail Road, meaning that Al Barari residents will be able to access much of that infrastructure.

“I think it’s very positive for us,” says Zaal. “We’re going to have infrastructure and all sorts of services out here, including a fantastic road network, which is really needed.”

Given Al Barari’s popularity, it seems somewhat surprising that the company hasn’t leveraged its reputation to build something similar elsewhere in the Gulf. Zaal says that while there have been offers, the company isn’t rushing to put out a carbon copy.

“We’ve been approached countless times from all around the GCC saying ‘let’s do this here’,” he smiles. “We’ve looked at all of them and we’re considering some of them, but it won’t be the same as Al Barari. This has been created and designed based on its location, and many other aspects. I think any other development in a different region, or different country, needs to cater to that geography.”

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