In light of the ceaseless progress elsewhere in the UAE, it is perhaps easy to overlook Sharjah’s rapid development in recent years. The pace of change is no less impressive than its more conspicuous neighbours, with high-rise towers now jostling for position with the more compact, low-rise downtown along the Corniche. It might not appear in global ad campaigns or occupy many billboards, but brand Sharjah has been backed by considerable investment and rewarded with plenty of commercial confidence.
Sharjah’s forward-thinking leadership, though, is trying to steer the next phase of its development in a new direction – both thematically and geographically – by shifting away from the congested core that has spawned twice-daily traffic snarls that clog up the roads toward Dubai.
At the forefront of this gear change is Sheikh Sultan Bin Ahmed Al Qasimi. While he has at least 12 job titles to his name in both the public and private sectors, it’s the dual chairmanship of the Sharjah’s leading development firms Tilal Properties and the more recently formed Arada – founded in conjunction KBW Investments, the holding company founded by Saudi Arabia’s Prince Khaled Bin Alwaleed Bin Talal – that have been attracting the right headlines and, most importantly, the right investors.
In 2017, for instance, they helped propel real estate deals in the emirate by 20 percent to $8.1bn in 2017, according to the official figures released by Sharjah Real Estate Registration Department last month.
They are certainly significant projects. Tilal City, a 25 million-square-foot masterplan that overlooks the Emirates Road in Sharjah, will house more than 65,000 people when the $650m (AED2.4bn) mixed-use development is completed. With a $320m mall as its centrepiece, the project will feature 673 villas and townhouses, as well as 1,062 three-, four- and five-storey buildings.
Similarly, Arada has launched developments that focus on the end user, with an emphasis on apartment blocks. Nasma Residences, its first project launched in mid-2017, features just villas and townhouses, while its significantly more ambitious Aljada – a $6.5bn “city within a city” – will have a large emphasis on the lower rise buildings, with the signature tower rising to up to 100 metres.
“There’s a trend moving towards more horizontal versus vertical,” says Sheikh Sultan, speaking in the offices of Tilal Properties, overlooking the Sharjah Corniche. “People can get more with the same amount of money in our projects.”
Through both companies, Sheikh Sultan appears to be an influential force in how the emirate sees its future development, even going as far as to help change the property law in Sharjah.
“Having Tilal and Arada has given strength to the market because we could start to shape the new real estate market of Sharjah. That meant having quality projects and giving the trust back to investors,” Sheikh Sultan says. “We changed the law in Sharjah to accommodate non-locals with leaseholds. These are all new laws that came out with Tilal. We were changing the market and we’re very proud of that.” When Tilal started, he admits, the company held off on its first projects until the law supported their masterplan.
Having two development companies, however, doesn’t offer any sense of conflict, with both having very different business models.
“Tilal is a partnership with the government first of all,” says Sheikh Sultan, when asked about the difference between the two. “The design is a bit different. The market Tilal looks at are people who are interested in plots that are away from the city a little bit. Tilal is more of a housing city with a big mall that serves it.
“The new growth of Sharjah is behind Tilal City,” he continues. “The mall will help a lot of people on that side of town. We don’t have a really big mall in that part of Sharjah.”
The plans for the mall, which includes a five-star Hilton hotel, were revised in September last year to increase the size. The two million square-foot retail centre will be developed much more as a destination than a shopping hub when it opens in 2021. “We are targeting Tilal Mall to be a destination for families. I think we’re bringing a new experience to Sharjah,” says Sheikh Sultan.
“We still have to pinpoint exactly what we want to do, but this is one thing that I have been talking to Khalifa [Al Shaibani, director general of Tilal Properties] a lot about. We are working with different options. We will definitely have a good attraction. We will have a central park within the mall which is a new experience. We will have an integrated indoor-outdoor activity and a lot of good additions. We definitely believe that it should not be an ordinary shopping mall, because then nothing makes sense.”
As a PPP partnership with the government, he says that Tilal is now seen in the market as an on-time developer because of its commitment to developing the full infrastructure to schedule.
“That was a big challenge and it was not well known in the market that a developer could be on time with this size of project. Since we have delivered the entire project as planned we have a good record,” he says. It also gave Sharjah’s government trust in the company to handle big projects, and the thinking at the company is very much on further developments.
Tilal has also altered its sales pitch somewhat. While it previously targeted individuals to sell plots to, it is now seeing demand from other developers, “even from neighbouring emirates, for the limited opportunity to come into a project with complete infrastructure already in place.”
As a developer of full projects, Arada could buy plots and develop in Tilal – if there was a desire. But with multi-billion projects of its own, there appears to be little chance of that happening any time soon.
Sheikh Sultan reveals that people who bought in the first phase will be able to start moving into their villas in Nasma Residences by the end of the year. Work on Aljada, he says, will start very soon.
“We’re starting construction this month and by the end of fourth quarter we’ll be ready to have something there,” he says. “We’re actually also building a sales centre in Aljada. It’s more of a sales and service centre, so you get all your things ready without going to different departments.”
The sales centre will, he says, be designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, who were appointed last month as the firm to envision Aljada’s “Central Hub”– the centrepiece of the mega project. “It wasn’t an easy choice for us because Zaha Hadid was also competing with two others, who were shortlisted,” says Sheikh Sultan. “We thought their design was the best and it’s also a nice addition to have such a name in Aljada.”
The iconic names don’t stop there, Sheikh Sultan continues, referencing the fact that Arada have just announced a partnership with Emaar to run three of the hotels within Aljada. The agreement will also see Zaha Hadid Architects collaborate on two of the hotel buildings, with another high-profile architect who has not yet been named designing another of them.
In addition, Arada is releasing Aljada’s second phase this week, a district called East Village, targeted towards the younger, creative generation, Sheikh Sultan reveals. Consisting of 15 buildings, each of which houses roughly 150 units, East Village will be characterised by bold, fresh and colourful designs, each carefully tailored to foster a sense of community among tenants, homeowners and visitors.
The district will feature large green spaces that will play host to regular events, art installations and pop-up retail outlets.
East Village is being launched officially at the Cityscape Abu Dhabi trade show between April 17-19 at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (ADNEC), where special prices and payment plans are on offer. Homes in the community will be handed over by the end of 2020.
The news doesn’t stop there. Arada, as revealed to Arabian Business by CEO Ahmed AlKhoshaibi last year, has a significant landbank in Dubai. While the exact location hasn’t been released, AlKhoshaibi spoke about developing something significant in the emirate.
Sheikh Sultan says the plan is still on track, with an announcement of the project – possibly an iconic tower – planned before the end of year. “We’re doing the due diligence. We have our own land, but we’re looking at other plots because we want the first entry to be significant one and to complement what we’ve done so far,” he says. “I think we will probably conclude it in the next three to four months, and will probably announce it by the end of the year because we would like to take our time to design it and get it right.”
Away from property, Sheikh Sultan is heavily involved in the emirate’s media sector as chairperson of Sharjah Media Council, which oversees the development of Sharjah Media City, which he describes as being another city. “We’re now looking at the masterplan, which is ready. We’re building our headquarters first and from there we will start to develop that area, whether it’s through renting or investing, or buying land,” he says. “It’s going to be an area where you can work and live at the same time as well. It’s another city and not just a freezone.”
Sheikh Sultan is also heavily in involved in Al Majaz Amphitheatre, which is currently undergoing an expansion plan, which will see it extend its F&B area, and is expected to be open by the end of the summer. “We’re attracting big names and being very selective,” he says of the venue itself. “We have different artists from India, Lebanon and the GCC. We’re targeting people on a higher level – not looking at little shows. We’re looking at big names and have some in the pipeline,” he adds, without revealing names.
Previous artists included Emeli Sande, Yanni, Julio Iglesias, and Irish singer-Chris De Burgh, who plays there this weekend (April 20).
Sheikh Sultan is also deputy chairman of the Sharjah Petroleum Council (regulator of the oil and gas industry in Sharjah) and Sharjah LPG, which oversees the production and export of liquefied petroleum gas.
Sharjah relies mostly on gas, he says, with all of the emirate’s production going to the Sharjah Electricity & Water Authority (SEWA). While this results in a decline for Sharjah’s reserves, it gives authorities a chance to investigate different areas. “We have several companies doing surveys to find out the right place to discover new opportunities for us,” he says.
“We’re not only focusing on discovering new areas, but we’re doing more work helping SEWA achieve what they want by giving them new ways of generating their electricity.
“We’re looking at importing LNG, for example. That’s a very big project for Sharjah with a big German company. LNG will be sold to SEWA and to other customers as well, within a year or year and a half.”
While solar is not being actively considered, he says it’s always open for investors.
As for the future of the emirate, he says it will continue to “focus on the individuals, on education, culture and retaining our heritage.”
“You can’t grow without a thriving economy and that’s why Sharjah is trying to expand these areas. We have Sharjah Asset Management, which is part of the Sharjah government’s investments in different sectors. We also have Shurooq, which is investing in different areas and attracting investors from different places. We have different entities to help improve Sharjah’s infrastructure and deliver the vision over the next few years.”
Arada last week announced that the hospitality arm of renowned Dubai developer Emaar signed a management agreement to launched three new hotels in Sharjah.
The agreement will see Address Hotels & Resorts, Vida Hotels and Resorts and the midscale Rove Hotels located in Aljada, in what’s widely seen as a significant boost to the project. With two of the hotels located in the Zaha Hadid-designed Central Hub it means they will have the architect’s distinctive style.
“They’re going to be iconic buildings,” Sheikh Sultan says. “We’re trying to have iconic buildings within the Aljada. This will be another level. One will be Zaha Hadid, and there will be another big name architect. It will be another signature within the development.”
He agrees that having Emaar on board represents a significant milestone for the project.
“They (Emaar) have invested in Sharjah before. Having this collaboration with them also helps people understand that there is a big project going on, and give them even more trust that two big names are announcing projects,” he says.
“Even before talking to Emaar, we had a lot of interest from different entities that want to join us. We’re trying to be selective; we don’t want to just sell the project away and make money out of it. We want to build our name, we want to have this project as one in our portfolio that tells our story.”
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