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How Hussain Sajwani reshaped Dubai with his real estate projects...twice

As the founder and CEO of Damac Properties, Hussain Sajwani helped orchestrate one of the world's biggest ever real estate booms - and then, after the 2008 crash, he did it all again. In this exclusive Arabian Business interview, he tells the full story of how he rebuilt his empire and what he plans to do next.

How Hussain Sajwani reshaped Dubai with his real estate projects...twice
Sajwani was one of the first few UAE students to get a scholarship in the US

On a warm afternoon in Dubai, sitting on the clubhouse terrace overlooking Trump Estates at Damac Hills, Hussain Sajwani is smiling at the memory of a much colder encounter he had recently. Following an address to the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, he was asked to film a TV interview in the make-shift outdoor studio where the American presenters were sitting in their best winter-wear while all he had on was a business suit. “I don’t mind the cold,” he laughs when reminded of the incident. “It’s the same when I’m in London or New York. People always ask why I am not in something much warmer, but I like the cold.”

This pre-interview small-talk holds significance. Given that the first question that follows is about his childhood working in the family’s Deira-based shop, Sajwani’s current exploits, hobnobbing at events such as Davos, reveal how far he has travelled in the decades since his youth. “My father [Ali Sajwani] used to take me to his shop every day after school from the age of seven or eight,” he says. “I could talk for hours about the lessons I learned there. Do you know he went to China in 1965 to trade? He was probably the first UAE citizen to visit there.”

Sajwani readily attributes a portion of his success today to those formative years. “It’s the commercial way of thinking that stuck with me,” he says. “A customer would buy a ten dirham pack of vests and when he left my father would immediately raise the price to eleven dirhams. I’d ask him why and he’d reply: ‘That customer never buys from me, and the fact he bought a large quantity without questioning the price means there is a shortage in the market.’ My father knew his customer base and he would change direction very quickly in the goods he’d import. This is one of my key successes; I can adapt to the market very quickly.”

Those lessons have reaped untold riches. According to Forbes, Hussain Sajwani is the world’s tenth richest Arab, with an estimated net worth of $3.7bn. Damac Properties was the Arab world’s fourth biggest public company in 2017, with Emaar its only real competitor in terms of scale. That restless energy has seen Sajwani orchestrate some of the boldest schemes in the country. Akoya Oxygen, for example, is a $6.5bn, 55-million sq-ft community project, while Damac Hills will eventually house 10,000 units.

DAMAC Maison Royale The Distinction stands at 195 metres in height

Most impressive of all is the fact that this success has followed the dramatic events of Dubai’s 2008 property crash when Damac, as Dubai’s largest private developer, fell harder than most. Those were tough times for Sajwani and he’s rarely talked about them since. But today he is happy to sit for an hour and take in the views of the Trump golf course he built, its luxury villas lining the greens, and blocks of luxury apartments stretching into the distance. Perched on the clubhouse terrace, sipping mineral water, he harks back to how he built his empire the first time around, and then fought his way through the crisis to reach this point: his fortunes restored, projects on track and ambitious developments still to come.

The rise

Ali Sajwani’s shop may have been small but the ambition he imbued in his son was anything but limited. After a period studying in Baghdad, Sajwani landed in Seattle to study industrial engineering and economics at the University of Washington. It was 1978 and the contrast with Dubai could not have been starker.

“Imagine the gap between the two countries… the freeways, the high-rises. Even just going to Kmart or Wal-Mart was a totally different experience. The biggest shop we had in Dubai was Jashanmal, which was probably 2,000 sq ft and where we’d go once a month to buy chocolate. And then you see Wal-Mart, which was 100,000 sq ft... It was enough to make you crazy.”

Struck by the notion of what was possible, Sajwani returned home in 1982 to begin his career with Abu Dhabi Gas Industries. Two years later, he struck out on his own, founding a catering venture that he still owns, Global Logistics Services, which became one of the region’s largest of its kind.

“I was looking for an opportunity to go out on my own and as soon as I found it I went for it,” he says. “It’s in my blood. My grandfather used to travel to India and Pakistan to trade. So all this stays in your mind.”

Sajwani’s property ventures began in 1996 with the construction of the first of five three-star hotels in Deira.

“Build, lease, sell. Next, next, next,” he says of the business model. When the market reached saturation point, a new rule that would change Dubai forever quietly came into effect. In 2001, the government agreed to allow expats to have 99-year property leases. And then in May 2002, a decree allowing foreigners to buy property on freehold ownership was issued. That same year, Sajwani founded Damac Properties and he was ready to become a major player. “Did I foresee what would happen today?” he says of that life-changing moment. “No, but I saw an opportunity.”

Park Towers offer panoramic views of Dubai’s financial hub

The first project was Marina Terrace. Sajwani bought the land in May 2002 for AED16m (he still remembers the date and price). The Waves at Dubai Marina quickly followed, and then he stepped up in size in 2004 with Park Towers in DIFC, which had one million sq ft in sellable area. In 2005, Damac began the first of its developments in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon.

“You have to remember that, as well as the property and the catering businesses, I had very successful investments in the regional stock markets between 1997 and 2002. There was also an insurance company in Bahrain and a ceramics factory in Oman that I owned, so I had reasonable amount of capital to invest,” he says of how he funded those early deals.

In fact, Sajwani says his stock market investments gave him “almost five times more profit between 2004 and 2006 than my real estate… I made a lot of money there, which I injected back into land.”

For this reason, he says, Damac didn’t borrow a penny from anyone until it went public in November 2013. “Before the escrow ruling was introduced in 2007 [which required developers to hold off-plan payments in a specially managed account], you’d buy a piece of land and pay for it in four-year payments. Then you’d launch the project, collect that cash and use it to construct. So, once you’d paid your other costs, your equity was still only 30 percent of the land price.”

He hesitates at the suggestion that he was taking a risk. “Yes and no,” he says slowly, thinking about his answer. Bear in mind I’d already built five hotels and sold each one for AED15-20m, so I wasn’t coming into this cold.”

The fall

Damac Properties had grown so big and so quickly, that when crash came it was one of the most obvious companies to suffer the fallout. Suddenly the ubiquitous billboards were gone, the cranes idle and the property hype turned to predictions of terminal doom. The obvious question remains: Did Sajwani see it coming?

“I was one of the very few who saw the crisis,” he replies. “The weekly sales report came through while I was in London and it showed a drop of 60 percent year on year. I didn’t like it, so I flew back straight away and we put measures in place to tackle the problem.”

Villa at Damac Hills start from AED2.4m

Cost-cutting measures followed but they could not possibly stave off the coming disaster. Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy on September 15, 2008, and it was time to face facts.

“I knew we had a bad situation coming,” says Sajwani. “We took action very quickly, letting a lot of people go, cutting our overheads, consolidating lands and projects. And we were hit very badly by the press, because we were the first ones to do that.”

And what a fall it was. Residential prices in the emirate fell 50 percent from a third-quarter 2008 peak to mid-2009, suffering a second downturn in early 2010. When pressed on this period, Sajwani will admit that, “in my 35 years in business I have not seen as difficult a time as those six months from October 2008 until around April 2009. It took about seven months to get out of the bad times.”

He follows this confession, however, by outlining the positives that arose from the situation. “We took some very good decisions in regards to knowing what our best assets were. For example, we had ten buildings in Business Bay. We did not consolidate or sell. We also continued in the Marina.”

What also saved him, he continues, was that Damac had more than AED1bn in escrow funds. “I was one of the very early ones to use it,” says Sajwani. “When the law came into effect at the end of 2007 it was not compulsory. The head of the land department called me to sell the idea, and I said to him: ‘You don’t have to explain, I love your idea. It’s good protection for me as well as the customer.’”

He used that cash to continue building, and says that customers in cancelled projects were given the option to move to other locations. Which begs an important question: did he resolve the situation with every customer? “We didn’t have the cash to do refunds at that time so we mostly gave them inventory,” he replies. “If you bought in Jebel Ali we’d give you an apartment in the Marina. Ninety or 95 percent of people accepted that deal. Five or ten percent – a small number – refused. In those cases we went to the land department and they made a decision. For some of them we had to pay cash or a settlement based on the DLD ruling.

He says that the law is very clear in Dubai on this matter. “If you don’t deliver, the customer gets their money back. If this doesn’t happen they go to court and the developer will be forced to pay what is owed.”

Damac will head Oman’s $1bn Port Sultan Qaboos redevelopment scheme

The comeback

In December 2013, Damac was the first real estate company from the Middle East to list on the London Stock Exchange (LSE) in an IPO that raised $379m, capping a stunning comeback. The consolidated projects had gone to plan, business was once again booming and Sajwani was launching project after project across Dubai.

This, he says, is how businesses scale. He used the AED1bn escrow money to finish projects, sell and invest again, snowballing it up, along with the IPO funds and subsequent development finance, to reach Damac’s massive portfolio of works in progress. “When you’re dealing with billion-dirham sums for projects like this one [Damac Hills, which houses the Trump development] and another billion dirhams for Akoya Oxygen, then you need finance. But between 2002 and 2008 that was not the case.”

In the years since, Damac has launched a string of new projects to add to those two master developments. These include tie-ups with Paramount, Akoya, Cavalli and Bugatti. It has also ongoing projects in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Lebanon and the UK. Sajwani says that there has been a renewed focus on “quality and delivery”. The group’s cash flow is also scrutinised on a weekly basis, and a raft of cutting-edge IT systems have been introduced to streamline the business.

He says that most of those innovations would have happened regardless of the requirements that the IPO brought with it. “I’d always been very strict on compliance and auditing from day one.

I didn’t have family member involvement; the accounts were done to international standards and there was a Chinese wall between Damac and my other businesses. So it was easy to go public.”

The move was an undoubted success, with Damac “enjoying very high growth and profits between 2012 and 2015” as Dubai’s real estate sector rebounded. But, with the price of oil tanking from an average of $106 in 2013 to $41 in 2016, that optimism has waned. Damac made a healthy net profit of $762m in 2017, but those figures were down 25 percent on 2016, based on sales of $2bn. Sajwani, though, does not bristle when these figures are put to him.

“The property market is a cycle. You get three to five years of growth and then a reverse for a similar period. Prices have fallen by seven to ten percent in the last 24 months, but have now stabilised. Our sales in 2017 were higher by three or four percent over 2016, though admittedly our margins were under pressure. We have to be more competitive, we have to deliver higher quality and offer smaller units which cost the same amount to build.”

There has also been much talk of oversupply in the market, but he once again remains unconcerned. “Dubai has 500,000 units in the freehold space and the city is growing at an average of four or five percent per year in population terms – the head of Dewa told me that. So if you assume four percent growth then you need 20,000 units on top of the current stock. And we’re delivering, as a city, between 10,000 and 12,000 units per year.”

Delivering on that supply is not a problem for Sajwani as he says the company has a land bank that will see it through the next five years. “This area isn’t 50 percent of what we have to develop,” he says, motioning across the Dubai Hills complex. And it’s the same at Akoya Oxygen.”

Damac is developing the 50-storey AYKON London One in Battersea

As for financing future projects, he admits that the company is “always discussing new ideas… We study the market and the cash flow. At the right time we will consider it but we don’t urgently need it.” (And indeed, last week, a Bloomberg report which Damac has yet to comment on, suggested that the company has hired banks for a possible sale of US dollar-denominated Islamic bonds, which could take place as soon as this month. The timing would seem apt given Damac last raised $500m via sukuk in April last year.) Sajwani says he is also open to selling some of his 72 percent stake in Damac if necessary. “The objective would be to create more liquidity; the percentage depends on the market and on price,” he says.

The future

Sajwani says the company is now looking “very aggressively” for opportunities overseas, notably in Europe. Last year it was chosen as the developer for Oman’s $1bn Port Sultan Qaboos redevelopment, and will build a resort in the Maldives. In Saudi Arabia, Sajwani is open, though non-committal, to the opportunities that Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s Vision 2030 might yield. Tellingly, he attended the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh last October when the $500bn Neom City plan was launched. But for now, he will just say that there is much infrastructure work that Saudi needs to implement before any major development can begin.

One plan he will firmly commit to, however, is the grand vision he has for his own company, and what would perhaps be his greatest legacy. “My dream is to have Damac towers in gateway cities around the world. We have one in the UK [Aykon London One] and I’d like to see another half a dozen in other major hubs including Asia and America.”

Another legacy-building effort was his sponsorship of Dubai Future Foundation’s One Million Arab Coders Initiative. He says he talked about this with Bill Gates in Davos after speaking there on the Digital Skills Imperative” and says he admires the Microsoft founder’s commitment to stepping down as CEO to focus 100 percent on charity. “I wish I could do that. I’m not the best in the world but I do my best.”

And doing his best has certainly worked out well for Sajwani. The long journey from a trading shop in Deira to the wintery heights of Davos is a remarkable story. One is left thinking that it is far from reaching its conclusion.

Hussain Sajwani on:

Donald Trump

“We took a very clear, professional view about our partnership. We deal with the Trump Organisation and we are happy with the service they have given us; our mandate is not to comment on political debates. We have relationships with a number of international brands: Trump, Versace, Fendi, Cavalli... any of those guys could make a political statement. That is their business, not ours.”

How he self-financed his deals

“Many people do not understand the property development business model. When I started in 2002 people asked me how come I had ten buildings already? It’s because I was selling off-plan and the customer was paying for construction. The margins were 30-40 percent, which gives you enough profit to fund the next project. Also, historically, land prices in Dubai are between six to 15 percent [of the project cost], which is not like London where it is 60 percent. This means you do an AED100m project and the land is ten percent of the cost. And if your margin is only 20 percent you can very quickly buy two plots with your profits from the first project.”

Sixteen years and counting

Highlights of Damac’s achievements over the years

2002 Damac Properties established in Dubai

The first land purchase is made and Marina Terrace is launched.

2003 Construction of Marina Terrace commences.

2004 Park Towers in Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) is launched. Ocean Heights – one of the tallest towers in the world, and overlooking Palm Jumeirah – is announced. Damac Properties also opens its first international sales offices outside of Dubai.

2005 The first freehold office tower, Executive Heights, is launched in TECOM.

2006 Marina Terrace, Damac’s first project, is completed in just three years and handed over.

2007 Al Jawrah Tower in Jeddah, Damac’s first foray into Saudi, is announced.

2008 Damac completes 7,817 units.

2009 Damac delivers more than 1,300 units despite the global economic downturn.

2010 Damac partners with Versace to create Damac Tower by Versace Home in Beirut, Lebanon.

2011 A new hospitality arm, Damac Maison, is launched.

2012 Park Towers in DIFC is handed over to customers.

2013 Damac signs with global fashion brand Fendi for luxury projects in Saudi Arabia and Dubai. The company also announces its first master development, Akoya, later renamed Damac Hills in February 2017. In December, it lists on the LSE.

2014 Akoya Oxygen, a 55 million sq ft green community in Dubai, is launched.

2015 Damac lists on the Dubai Financial Market (DFM).

2016 Damac launches Aykon City, the first freehold project along Sheikh Zayed Road.

2017 Damac Tower in Beirut is handed over to clients. Sajwani signs on to sponsor the One Million Arab Coders initiative (pictured above) and is honoured at the CEO Middle East awards in Dubai.

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