In pictures: Dubai Homegrown
From the founders of fast-growing creative district Alserkal Avenue, to the brains behind Sole DXB and Astrolabs, here are 10 non-government entrepreneurs that have shaken up the emirate's cultural scene and paved the way for further creative and commercial activity in each of their fields
Abdelmonem Bin Eisa Alserkal, founder, Alserkal Avenue
It is hard to recall a time when Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue was simply another part of the Al Quoz industrial district. Its warehouses are no longer crammed with crates, palettes and produce, but with music, cafés and people. Emirati Abdelmonem Bin Eisa Alserkal spearheaded a transformation of the area from run-down logistics park to thriving arts hub in 2006, recognising its potential to house Dubai’s emerging sub-culture of creatives and entrepreneurs. Alserkal Avenue launched as an arts organisation in 2007 and soon became home to a mix of art galleries, non-profit groups, restaurants, fitness studios and co-working spaces. In 2015, Alserkal initiated an expansion featuring more gallery space, a theatre and independent cinema. He and his family have twice been awarded the Patron of the Arts award by Duler Ruler Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum.
Louis Lebbos, founder, AstroLabs
The recent acquisition of Souq.com by Amazon has shone a spotlight on the region’s start-ups, now considered a vital part of the Dubai economy. What many forget, though, is that scarcely five years ago entrepreneurs were on their own, with little by way of formal business advice, and a flimsy regulatory and support system. Louis Lebbos, co-founder of fashion e-commerce portal Namshi and an ex-McKinsey & Co consultant, helped change all of that. In 2015, the Lebanese-American launched the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)’s only Google-partnered technology hub, providing clout and opportunity to local tech entrepreneurs hoping to scale up their businesses. The co-working space houses around 80 people and also runs training classes focussing on digital skills through AstroLabs Academy.
Shadi Megallaa, local DJ and owner, The Flip Side
The music aficionado and local DJ launched the UAE’s first ever vinyl store in May, tapping into the global vinyl revival movement. Sales of vinyl in 2016 reached a 25-year high, according to the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), with more than 3.2 million LPs sold last year, a rise of 53 percent on 2015. Megallaa’s store, The Flip Side, is located in an airy warehouse space in Al Quoz, with rare album covers lining the walls and a mix of obscure compilations, iconic recordings, and Arabic playlists cramming its shelves. Before launching The Flip Side, Egyptian-born Megallaa was already a household name in Dubai’s music subculture. He is credited with fuelling the emirate’s underground club scene, as founder of the Ark to Ashes record label and a resident DJ at Analog Room and other alternative venues. He studied Sound Engineering at the SAE Institute in New York.
Mona Hauser, founder, XVA Art Hotel
This venture has been around longer than some of the others, but remains somewhat under the radar as Dubai’s only independent boutique hotel. Located in the Al Fahidi heritage quarter, it has been described as the emirate’s “best kept secret” and is far more than a hotel – housing the XVA Gallery, a café and a growing collection of boho-chic clothing and jewellery boutiques. Middle East art consultant and gallerist Mona Hauser took a risk when she launched the concept in 2003. At the time, the neighbourhood was little more than a collection of 19th century Arabic streets and buildings – the old heart of the city – but it has undergone a revival, with the government having invested in tidying up the buildings and opening museums and the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. Hauser’s XVA Gallery exhibits works from the Arab world, Iran and the Asian subcontinent. She opened a second outlet in DIFC in 2011.
Becky Balderstone, founder, Ripe Organic
While the bounty of innovative food outlets in Dubai grows on a weekly basis and residents are rarely short of healthy eating options, this was not always the case. In the boom years, fast-food chains filled up the emirate’s malls but affordable organic stock remained hard to come by, with supermarkets importing expensive fruit and veg from across the world. British expat Becky Balderstone spotted demand for cheaper, locally-sourced produce and launched Ripe Organic in 2011, spearheading Dubai’s organic food movement. She works with local farms to harvest and distribute produce. She first set up shop in Dubai Garden Centre, then launched Ripe Organic Farm Shop in Al Manara and, later, Ripe Food & Craft Markets in various locations across the UAE. Balderstone is preparing to launch Ripe Farms, allowing people to pick their own food.
Joshua Cox, founder, Sole DXB
Now in its seventh year, Sole DXB has established a reputation as the coolest urban culture festival in the Middle East. Originally a trade show for footwear brands Nike, Adidas and others, it has grown into a full-scale fashion, music and arts carnival – a celebration of street culture that last year featured performances by global grime DJ Skepta and dance act Mental Genius. It also showcased a number of local apparel brands. Events organiser Joshua Cox founded Sole DXB in 2010, before going on to co-found Tinkah, a creative agency that designs print, packaging, furniture, industrial and exhibition products on behalf of clients. Through Tinkah, he has supported the development of subsidiary creative businesses, stimulating Dubai’s start-up culture.
Kemsley and Tiffany Dickinson, founders, The Courtyard Playhouse
Nurtured at Alserkal Avenue, The Courtyard Playhouse deserves a place on this list as the first theatre training venue licensed by Dubai’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA). Six years old, the Playhouse stages improvisation, acting and writing workshops, as well as theatre productions, comedy nights and other events. It has inspired the development of other performing arts venues across Dubai, and in 2009 launched its National Theatre Live broadcasts – streaming productions from the National Theatre and other London playhouses. Broadcasts have included Coriolanus from the Donmar Warehouse, starring Tom Hiddleston, and The Audience starring Helen Mirren. The Playhouse began as a passion project of married couple Kemsley and Tiffany Dickinson, the former of whom is an English teacher in Dubai and founded Drama Workshops at government not-for-profit Ductac (the Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre).
Peter Bergh, Royal Shaheen Events
Long-term Dubai resident Peter Bergh used the falconry expertise he gained from his homeland South Africa to launch a tourism business celebrating one of the oldest Emirati pastimes. Royal Shaheen Events is a dedicated falconry tour company that runs bespoke and group trips to the Dubai Desert Conservation Area to learn about the ancient art of falconry and its place in today’s UAE. He also holds events and workshops in hotels and other venues, showcasing his techniques and helping people understand more about the sport. In addition, Bergh is part of the respected elite of Dubai-based falconry trainers, working with the royal family’s top breeders to train up racing birds for sheikhs and high profile businesspeople. He uses inventive methods to train the falcons, such as drones and real-life models of prey.
Peter Goodwin, art entrepreneur and CEO, Mestaria
An advocate of bringing fine art to the masses, UK expat Peter Goodwin oversaw the MENA expansion of global gift shop Gallery One. He later co-founded cultural management company Mestaria, which represents visual artists and art enterprises in the Middle East. Goodwin, who argues that art is too often unaffordable and inaccessible to all but a wealthy elite, launched his latest initiative The Affiche Gallery this year, with business partner Ramy Al Awssy, founder of ING creative events. It is an online and pop-up exhibition space featuring a range of six works from up-and-coming regional artists – for example, Iraqi calligrapher Wissam Shawkat and Bahraini painter Abbas Almosawi – with each work printed in limited edition poster format. Goodwin also launched the world’s first art social app Arte Veu, and a new Art Prize with Dubai-based entrepreneur Shohidul Ahad-Choudhury, to encourage greater interaction between art and technology.
Isobel Abulhoul, founder, Emirates Airline Festival of Literature
A somewhat more established figure on the Dubai cultural scene, British expat Isobel Abulhoul deserves a place on this list for promoting literature and literacy in the emirate. In particular, she founded the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature — now the biggest event of its kind in the region and the inspiration for many other literary festivals, bookshops and reading initiatives across Dubai. She was a primary school teacher when she first moved to the country, and went on to found Al Ittihad School with her husband and Magrudy’s, one of Dubai’s biggest bookstore chains. In 2011, she was presented with the Cultural Personality Award by Sheikh Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qasimi, Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Sharjah.