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Fri 5 Dec 2008 04:00 AM

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African ambition

Hayan Merchant of Ruwaad Holdings on his company's plans for a spectacular-scale development in South Africa.

Hayan Merchant, CEO of Ruwaad Holdings, tells Arabian Business how his company's plans for a spectacular-scale development in South Africa will tap into the continent's immense potential while utilising the lessons learnt from Dubai's rapid transformation.

In the Middle East you have to run as fast as you can just to stay where you are. So claims a smiling Hayan Merchant, CEO of Ruwaad Holdings, while sitting relaxed on a comfortable-looking black couch. "It is obviously a very competitive landscape," he says, "but the landscape has space for a lot of people."

That may be so, but focusing solely on the Middle East property industry isn't on Ruwaad's agenda. Instead, the Dubai-based company has spent the past two years developing blueprints for a huge, multi-million dollar project in Africa.

Amazulu World is the single largest development to be initiated in the history of Africa and that in itself sets the stage for what Ruwaad intends to do. It will hopefully help us achieve a level of differentiation from our rivals.

Amazulu World, a 16,500 hectare-entertainment and destination project, will be the continent's largest development. Located in the northeast of South Africa, Amazulu World will target national, regional and international visitors.

For Merchant, the announcement is the fulfilment of a long-held dream: "It is the single largest development to be initiated in the history of Africa and that in itself sets the stage for what Ruwaad intends to do," he states. "It will hopefully help us achieve a level of differentiation from our colleagues in the industry."

A model of the development, first unveiled at Dubai property exhibition Cityscape, looks impressive. Globular zones of construction float in a sea of green, intersected with snaking blue rivers. A pristine strip of beach extends the entire length of the structure.

Ruwaad's stand stood out among the more run-of-the-mill glitz. However, the Zulu dancers Ruwaad flown over from South Africa perhaps proved more eye-catching than the company's construction plans.

It was a clever publicity stunt, with the Zulus, dancing to a tribal African beat, entertaining the crowds. A startling glimpse of Africa amid Dubai's homogeny of gleaming sophistication, they provided an apt reminder of the continent's raw vitality and promise.

"Africa in general is a fairly untapped continent," Merchant says eagerly. "It's the most resource-rich continent in the world with over a billion people. It is really an untapped market with a lot of potential and that's why developers need to start focusing on the African continent, once they are done looking at the Asian continent. That is the talk of investment groups at the moment and Africa is really the next frontier left for global development."

Merchant claims the project - set up in collaboration with His Majesty King Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu, King of the KwaZulu-Natal province in which Amazulu World will stand - will create 200,000 direct jobs in the area.

Ruwaad's management also expects the development to increase tourism in the region by 40 percent.

The project will initially target Africans, before being marketed to other regions. "It has to be very affordable for the African community to gain these experiences at a world-class level," Merchant explains.

According to Merchant, the development will offer a sports village, lifestyle community with hotels, spas and resorts, nature reserve and marina. It will also have an international theme park - a project recently confirmed following Ruwaad's tie-up with Paramount Pictures.

The agreement between the two companies grants Ruwaad the rights to build Paramount entertainment and theme parks across the globe.

The partnership also gives Ruwaad access to Paramount Pictures' catalogue of trade licence and movie rights, for titles such as Titanic, Braveheart, Forrest Gump and The Godfather. "It's different from an amusement park," emphasises Merchant.Theme parks are a lot more dramatic. Obviously, they are themed, so they are less based on rides and more on experiences. If you look at Disneyland, it's a theme park and not an amusement park because Disney's an experience. People who want to go on 10 rollercoasters would go to an amusement park.

Merchant seems incredibly excited to be working with Paramount, a relationship that he considers "a stamp of quality". He reiterates proudly that Paramount is the only studio based within Hollywood, though the name still appears in rivals' addresses.

"The reason we were so keen on the relationship with Paramount was because of the credibility and history it has," Merchant enthuses. "It is a 98-year-old institution, the first motion picture studio in Hollywood and the most advanced to date."

Everything happens for a reason. There is a path you have to go down.

Ruwaad's CEO claims Africa's geographical position between Hollywood, Bollywood and Europe's film industry makes it the perfect location for a movie-based theme park. Yet the theme park is only one of several zones that will make up the entirety of Amazulu World.

"The development has a sports city, a health city, an education city and entertainment city," Merchant says. "It also has a marina, lifestyle city, and so many different zones that are huge in their own right."

The Dubai born and raised CEO acknowledges that Ruwaad's management will use the experience it has gained in the UAE to build effectively in South Africa. Indeed, Merchant contends that South Africa's undeveloped infrastructure is similar to Dubai 10 years ago.

"What the UAE is to the Middle East is what South Africa is to Africa," he declares. "The challenges that the UAE faced 10 years ago will be the challenges that we will probably face in Africa now, because it's not used to handling developments of this nature.

"What we are obviously trying to do - as many of the UAE developers are also doing - is really look at exporting the knowledge that has been gained in this region. What we have achieved here as a region over the last decade is tremendous and UAE developers - the ones looking for international opportunities - are seeing how they can capitalise on the experience they've gained here on the international front."

Merchant denies fear of a Middle Eastern property market slowdown is behind Ruwaad's decision to develop in Africa. He explains that Ruwaad's management has always considered Africa a potential location, adding that breaking ground in the continent doesn't demonstrate a lack of faith in the UAE property industry.

"The market or the public might see a negative market sentiment in the UAE, maybe, and then think another project being announced overseas means that people are trying to divert their interests there. But actually projects like this are conceived over years, so you know our interest in South Africa is not recent," he says rather defensively.

Nevertheless, he admits the changing financial climate necessitates some changes. These include putting extra consideration into planning developments to ensure any market fluctuations result in minimal profit losses.

The increasing cost of construction also has to be taken into account during the planning process, Merchant says: "There has definitely been an increase in construction costs over the past few years, to the point where developers who sold most of their developments without locking down their construction costs are now losing much of their profit.

"But it's all about careful planning and seeing how you cap out your construction costs so you can actually sell at the right price."

The challenges Ruwaad faces in Africa may be different from those in the UAE, but they remain multitudinous. All utilities, such as power and water, need to be coordinated, with the right infrastructure crucial for supporting construction.

Any deviations or setbacks during this stage could cause long delays, according to Merchant.It's this coordination, at this pace, that is required to ensure the project is steaming ahead," he expounds. "And that's what we have been focused on. The government has been extremely positive in ensuring there is a special purpose committee overseeing the pace at which all utilities are built."

Luckily, Ruwaad has an incredibly experienced team, who between them have worked on some of the world's largest scale developments; from Disney World and SeaWorld to London's Canary Wharf and the Pearl Qatar Island.

Merchant's own background is also nothing to sneer at. An executive director and board member of the Dubai 9 Group - the umbrella company of Ruwaad Holdings - he has experience across three continents in business start-ups, corporate restructuring and turnarounds, building strategic alliances and investing targeted equity.

Africa is the most resource-rich continent in the world with over a billion people. It is really an untapped market with a lot of potential. Africa is really the next frontier.

"I have been looking at the overall investments that the group has been doing across the different industries and spent time in the various industries where we have businesses," Merchant clarifies.

"But due to the heavy investment levels and what is required of Ruwaad, I've recently been focused more specifically on the development and exploration of Ruwaad's projects."

Merchant graduated from Warwick Business School in the UK and has taken business courses in the US at Stanford, Columbia and Michigan. Having been in the family business (his father owns the Dubai 9 Group) for seven years, he declines to reveal his age but admits he's in his "late-20s".

He may be a relatively young executive, but Merchant has crammed a lot into his life thus far. Before his high-flying career took off, Merchant played professional squash for Pakistan, taking instruction from the coach of a former world number one.

But his sports career hit the buffers when, during an eight-hour daily training session, he damaged his back through over-exercising. The injury still bothers him, although Merchant claims the skills gained from professional sports aid him in his current role.

"It was not about what you win and what you lose," he states fervently. "It is more about how it disciplines you and makes you realise that what you couldn't do six months ago you now can, because you put in the time and prepared yourself.

"Business and life in general are about ensuring you understand everything is achievable, providing you are realistic about your expectations and willing to put in the hard work required."

Because of his injury, Merchant now has to play "less interesting sports like golf" and avoid more strenuous activities. But his natural optimism combined with a deep and abiding faith means Merchant is convinced God has chosen this path for him.

He claims with intensity: "I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason and that God always has a plan for you. Though you may not realise it, there is definitely a path you have to go down. What I am doing now is very exciting and though golf is not as interesting as squash, it is something I'm beginning to like."

This positive outlook is undoubtedly at least partly responsible for Merchant's affinity with the African culture and people, whose respect and willingness to prosper he finds unique.

"South Africa also has a great vision," he adds. "They've gone through a very tough time over the last few decades and they want to achieve something. They want to deliver something to the world and they will.

"All we are trying to do is support that vision. South Africa has the potential to be the gateway to Africa.

"Over the next five years, a lot of international eyes will be on Africa and the potential it has to offer. And we want to make sure that South Africa and our development are best positioned to accommodate that demand."

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