The love of a man and his master plan

Aaref Hejres, CEO of Bahrain's US $3.2 billion (BHD1.2 billion) Diyar Al Muharraq talks of his love for the project with such vehemence, even his wife gets jealous.
The love of a man and his master plan
By Ben Millington
Sat 06 Jun 2009 04:00 AM

Aaref Hejres, CEO of Bahrain's US $3.2 billion (BHD1.2 billion) Diyar Al Muharraq talks of his love for the project with such vehemence, even his wife gets jealous.

Someone once said that love is all consuming, and Aaref Hejres is a man in love. For the last two and a half years he has dedicated every waking moment to Diyar Al Muharraq, a $3.2 billion mixed-use development on 12km² of reclaimed islands in the north of Bahrain.

"When I talk about Diyar, I feel like it is in my blood and in my heart. Honestly, it is a love story between me and Diyar," he says.

How did this happen? Like all love stories, it's best to start at the beginning.

It’s all about details because we want to do something that has never been done in Bahrain.

Three years ago Hejres was thinking of retiring from his architecture and engineering practice in order to finally get the time to enjoy the spoils of a successful career.

His vision of retirement was already mapped out. In between cruising on his boat and riding his motorbike he had dreams of doing volunteer work.

"I always admired engineers who would go to Africa and build things and I have respect for these people," he says.

But in early 2006 his path in life changed when he was offered the role of CEO at Diyar Al Muharraq. The idea was to create a self contained city which was to include high income housing, mid income housing and, most interestingly, affordable housing.

"I never thought of working like this, I had three of my own companies, I was happy, well established and didn't need the job," says Hejres.

"But when they told me about the project, that it was a city for the people of Bahrain, I saw an opportunity to do something good.

"I have always dreamed of doing something for the people as part of my social contribution and this is where it started."

The first seeds of love were sown. Hejres accepted the job and was presented with a basic master plan, a plot of ocean and a dredger.

From this point he built up his staff of around 30 people, initiated the reclamation process and began adding detail and enhancements to the master plan - a process which he has been heavily involved in.

"To be honest I get involved in everything down to the smallest detail. It's all about details because we want to do something that has never been done in Bahrain," he says.

"I know what Bahrainis like, what Bahrain is lacking, what is acceptable and what is not, and this has added a lot of value to the master plan."

With this in mind Hejres set about creating the "perfect city" by taking successful ideas from around the world and customising them for the Bahrain market.

He and his development team travelled to Australia to study the successful aspects of waterfront living, they modeled their souqs on those in Egypt and Morocco and they're recreating Florida's famous Miami Bayside district. Furthermore, they're building a network of parks, cycle paths and pedestrian walkways in the kingdom to rival the world's best.

Hejres says they have put so much effort into the details of the master plan that he believes Diyar, when complete, will never be rivaled.

"We challenge everything and always look for a better way," he says.

As an example, he cites their efforts to design the first 500 low-income houses which will start being constructed next year. A total of nine consultancies were commissioned, five local and four international.

"We received a total of 91 designs, then removed the names of the companies, shuffled them up and independently criticised each one, before making the final selection," he says.

"If it was somebody else they would have given it to one company and said design the affordable housing. But we took it seriously to make sure the lower end does not get skipped over."

Aaaref Hejres BioAfter leaving school Hejres joined Bahrain's army where he spent eight years and obtained the rank of captain.

He spent five years studying architecture in the US and obtained his degree from the University of Miami, Florida. He then returned to Bahrain and established his own consultancy firm.

Aside from one small area of the gated community, most of the project's 40km of beaches and waterfront will be open to the public and all residents will have access to the mall, community shopping centres, parks, marinas, walkways, schools, mosques and health centres.

"Diyar is a city of the future, it's everyone's city," he says sincerely.

"Nobody is putting together a self contained city for all strata of society that is open and has such amenities. I see it as a dream coming true. It is how new cities should be."

Statements like these may rival a first-time parent with a new born baby but you can't fault Hejres for his enthusiasm and commitment to the development.

It seems every aspect of the project runs past his desk from environmental issues to technical details. This of course had a major impact on the leisure time that he was craving prior to taking the job two and a half years ago.

"I bought a boat that I have only been on two or three times, I bought a bicycle that I've been on two times, I bought a jet ski that I've been on two times and I bought a motor bike eight months ago that I haven't even ridden yet," he says.

On top of this his friends think he has disappeared and his wife is beginning to feel a little left out.

"My wife gets jealous that I love Diyar so much, but she has been very supportive," he says.

"It has been very hard, I work here until late, and then I go home, eat, spend time with her and then work again."

At the moment Hejres admits that he is tired, very tired, but adds that he is beginning to feel some breathing space for the first time. The first 6km² of reclamation is due to finish in November, work on the master plan is beginning to plateau and construction of the first 500 affordable houses should start early next year.

But with the total development expected to take around 15 years before it is fully built out, will Hejres be able to maintain his motivation levels?

"I didn't think I would last on this project, maybe after two years I thought I would retire. I was not able to enjoy my life, I had everything but no time to enjoy it," he says.

"But things have changed. Now I have fallen in love and I am attached to Diyar. I've started it and I have to finish it. It's my baby."

Fast facts: Diyar• The first 6km² of reclamation is on track to finish in November with the second 6km² of reclamation scheduled to finish November 2011.

• Tenders for construction of infrastructure and the first 500 houses will be called in September with construction to start in Q1 2010

• The first residents will move in by the end of 2010 and infrastructure for the first 6km² will be finished in 2013

• The project will cost a total of $3.2 million and is being financed by Kuwait Financial House and other private investors

• The project will include a range of high income, middle income and affordable housing options with a total of 30,000 dwellings and 100,000 residents

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