By Gavin Gibbon
Fouad Mashal has travelled all over the globe to ensure his billion dirham Al Qana entertainment development in Abu Dhabi lives up to expectations
Speaking with Fouad Mashal you wonder if the businessman has subscribed to any kind of airline loyalty scheme. If he hasn’t, then the founder of Al Barakah International Investment (ABII), really should. With the amount of travelling he has done for his latest venture in Abu Dhabi, he could easily fly around the world in first-class three or four times over.
Sitting in his office in the heart of the billion dirham Al Qana project – which ABII was set up specifically for – Mashal explains the lengths he has gone to in order to ensure the development is exactly how he envisaged it to be when he first put pen to paper on the idea six years ago.
“This project is like my signature in life,” he tells Arabian Business.
That includes trees from Florence, Thailand and Russia; outdoor furniture from Spain; fish for the aquarium from Kenya; an expert in lighting from Belgium; consultants from the United States who designed the skate park; a general manager from the United Kingdom and the aquarium manager lured from neighbouring Dubai.
And all based on an idea that was shaped in nearby Turkey. He says: “At the end it was one city and you will be shocked if I tell you, one city in Turkey, it’s called Bodrum. There is a marina there and from that point I got the ideas. There is not one corner in that marina for rent, not one metre. That’s what this will be, 100 percent.”
While there may have been nothing closer to home from which Mashal could glean some inspiration from, as he bemoaned the proliferation of shopping malls and hotels in the UAE capital, it is a place he is proud to have called home for the last 40 years and he was one of the first to receive the coveted Golden Visa earlier this summer.
That’s why his face lights up when he describes his Al Qana project, which spans over 2.4km and will offer waterside eateries, a stand-alone cinema, at 7,000 sq m the Middle East’s largest aquarium, which will be home to 33,000 marine creatures, that will be cared for by a team of 80 sea-life experts and specialists; a marina, an 8,000 square metre wellness hub and outdoor skatepark.
“All the projects are malls, just malls, hotels, nothing. There is no place to go, so people go to Dubai. I did something that Dubai doesn’t have. This is absolutely new”
“When I designed it six years ago, I started thinking about what Abu Dhabi needs and the location. It is opposite Sheikh Zayed Mosque. There are thousands of visitors to Sheikh Zayed Mosque, after that, there is no place to go, either the malls, that’s all,” he says.
“Then I said I’d like to have in this project something different, for it to be a destination, for who is living in Abu Dhabi and who is visiting Abu Dhabi. A destination of how you spend time here, not just to eat and go back home, not to come to watch a movie and go home. You can come and eat and let your kids play in the play areas and then if you want to watch a movie, you can watch a movie.
“I have lived in Abu Dhabi now almost 40 years and there is nothing like this. All the projects are malls, just malls, hotels, nothing. There is no place to go, so people go to Dubai. I did something that Dubai doesn’t have. This is absolutely new.”
When Mashal introduces large pictures adorning the walls of his on-site office – where he has been since ground was broken three years ago – it’s with as much pride as someone introducing their own children. This project is very much his baby and he tends to it as if it was. As he lights up his second cigarette he reveals how he worked for eight months in a lab with experts just to get the perfect colour for the cladding on the buildings.
He says: “Since I started the project, I shifted my office here. In three years I haven’t been in my company office. I’m staying here, running the project, every small thing, by myself. Other than that it would not finish. I like to be involved in the small things every day.”
Asked how small the small things are that he is running his expert eye over before approving it for his development, he smiles and says “maybe the screws”.
At the heart of the entire concept is family – Al Qana will be a place where families can come and spend quality time together, whether that’s enjoying a film at the 16-screen cinema (four of which are designated solely for children), taking a walk around the aquarium, having a bite to eat at one of the many restaurants and cafes or simply walking by the side of the water. “Where there is water, there is a life,” he says.
“There is nothing difficult. I learned that the word difficult is a choice in life. It is only difficult if you want it to be difficult”
Mashal has five sons, his oldest is running his first company, an investment and contracting company called Al Firas; another is managing director of the whole group; his third son is operations manager of the whole group; while his two remaining sons, one is an engineer working on the project itself and the other is in Canada and is about to graduate university.
He also has eight grandchildren.
“I have my sons and they have their kids. Life today is not like before. Now the kids want activities, they want to watch a movie. If you build the kids right, you build the country right, because the future is the kids,” he says.
Again, it is with family in mind that Mashal reveals that the destination will be alcohol free. He explains: “I don’t like it because if you put alcohol with the families and the culture… it will make problems. If somebody comes drunk, you cannot control everyone. You cannot say to everyone, ‘don’t drink more’. It’s a family place and this is very important.”
Mashal is an investor and CEO of Al Firas General Contracting Company, which was founded in 1984 and is still delivering residential and commercial towers, schools, universities and factories, with a project list worth over AED3.2bn ($871m).
In 2002 he set up Al Barakah Holding, an investment and development company headquartered in Abu Dhabi. The group of companies has successfully delivered massive development projects such as residential villages, hospitals, residential towers and luxury villas and includes: International Construction Contracting Company, Tamween Hospitality, Lifecare Hospital and Al Saadiyat Village.
He says: “There is nothing difficult. I learned that the word difficult is a choice in life. It is only difficult if you want it to be difficult. If you want, you can say everything is difficult. There is nothing difficult, you can do it. We have a brain, we have the technology, we have everything, we can do it.
“When you look at the history, the Atlantic Ocean they crossed it to the United States. Who would believe that, with these dangers and in a boat? But they did it. Everything you can do.”
“Since I started the project, I shifted my office here. In three years I haven’t been in my company office. I’m staying here, running the project, every small thing”
Mashal jokes that when Al Qana opens its doors next year he “might retire”. Maybe then his trips to far flung places can be more pleasure than business.For all the latest Construction news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.