It may not be Hawaii, but the United Arab Emirates is fast gaining a reputation among surfers in the Middle East. Dubai-based Surf Shop Arabia is riding the crest of this particular wave, and owner Carl De Villiers tells startup how he founded and grew his business to become a hub for surf fanatics.
When you think of sport in the UAE, surfing may not be the first thing that springs to mind. But thanks to a dedicated cadre of water sport enthusiasts, a thriving community is steadily growing, taking to the waves of the Emirates’ 1,318 km coastline.
Spearheading the movement is Carl de Villiers, a South African with a passion for the sea who owns Surf Shop Arabia. Originally starting in a small unit in International City three years ago, the shop has gone from strength to strength, moving to a larger property in Al Barsha before moving yet again to a much bigger location on Al Manara Street in Al Quoz 1.
Selling the latest surfing equipment and accessories, and featuring a surfboard repair shop and photography studio, the shop also supplies custom made boards as well as paddleboard, skating and kitesurfing equipment.
Outside the shop, Carl and co run a surfing school, organise surf adventure trips, and host events which bring in surfers not just from across the Gulf, but the world.
As Carl explains, however, he didn’t initially plan to make a breakthrough in the UAE’s surfing market.
“We were originally in clothing, which was a disaster. The surf shop was just a side thing.
“I’ve been surfing since I could stand, and did all sorts of outdoor activities. But when I was here I couldn’t find any of the clothes I wanted. The shops that sold Rip Curl and so on only had stock that was already a couple of years old. So I thought there was a gap in the market there. I brought in some clothing but we really struggled with that and it sucked up a lot of money until we realised people were coming to see us more for the boards we were bringing in.”
Thought to be worth between $7-8 billion, the global surf industry has long lacked a strong presence in the UAE, with a limited number of products available through a select few outlets. Convinced that surf was a bigger sport in the region than a lot of people anticipated, Carl set up the first incarnation of the surf shop.
“In April 2009, people thought it was a strange thing to open a surf shop in the Middle East but we’d learned that lots of people here surf when they travel or have surfed before,” he said.
“We started to build things up quite quickly and expanded to do the surf school to show people how to use the products we were selling. Then we went on the road along the coast to find places to surf, and found some great spots.
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