“They appreciate what we stand for and the pillars of this country, which encourage individuality and personal identity”

The Grid: To support Dubai’s growth as a hub of cultural innovation, you have conceptualised the KOA’s new Canvas members’ community around the idea of blurring the lines between ‘live, work and play’. The mixed-use development consists of both residential units and a state-of-the-art communal co-working space. Where did you draw your inspiration for the concept?

Mohammed Zaal: Previously as CEO of Al Barari, I wanted to redefine residential living and working in Dubai and create an urban ecosystem that challenged existing norms in the market.

In the past few years, I really started feeling that the real estate market here wasn’t really going in the right direction. In the first huge residential construction boom, it was evident that no one really cared about what was being built, who was building it, or who the buyers or investors were. Everyone was just playing the game and making money.

In the second cycle, say around 2014, there was more thought being put into new projects, where the bigger developers rose to prominence with some quality projects. Then things just kind of died down and they are back to churning out the same ideas and formulas creating ‘investor products’ on a huge scale for mass-market appeal, particularly in the last 18 months to two years.

There is this real push by developers just to sell their products. It’s unbelievable. The payment plans…the price reductions… they are selling real estate like it’s a box of chocolates with special offers…it’s ridiculous. I think we need to go in a different direction. We don’t need super-mega projects that take over entire cities.

The Grid: How is KOA Canvas setting itself apart in this space?

Mohammed Zaal: I am a local here. I care about my country and want to offer those who see Dubai as their home an alternative. We are offering people a home where they don’t feel like they are compromising on what they want.  We considered the people we are selling to before we created the project to make sure we are giving people what they want.

Buying real estate is usually one of the biggest investments one makes in a lifetime. There is a real hunger in the market for products that cater to these people.

The Grid: What alternative are you offering these people and what is the typical profile of this demographic?

Mohammed Zaal: They are young Gen Y professionals or families (born in the 80’s and 90’s), who have been here for a significant amount of time and are not interested in mass-market, off-the-shelf products.

They want to put roots down here. They might be first or second- time buyers.

They appreciate what we stand for and the pillars of this country, which encourage individuality and personal identity.

We don’t want to create a large-scale project or offer a ‘copy-paste’ solution.  Of the 70 residential units we have for sale in the first phase of the Canvas development, we have 43 unique plans on offer. That is special in itself.  We’re offering something unique in terms of design, quality and the even in the way we communicate – we want this to be a brand and a community that people want to be a part of and not buy into because they don’t have any other alternative.

The Grid: So Canvas is as much about redefining residential living as it is about pre-empting an innovative cultural shift in the market?

Mohammed Zaal: Yes, we are focused on this shift and showing people it can be done differently and successfully to encourage other developers to look at things with a fresh set of eyes.

We purchased an existing building, which was a commercial property that was left derelict for a few years. We got permission to make it a mixed use development. We are adding more space to it in the form of a second building.  The site is on approximately 250,000 sq. ft. of land. It is very sizable in proportion to the built-up-area  so there will be a lot of space around the buildings. That’s why I bought it.

This is a departure from the usual formula in Dubai of buying a 20,000 sq. ft. plot and building a skyscraper on it.

The Grid: The first phase residential units have just gone on sale. What can you tell us about sales so far?

Mohammed Zaal: The clientele who have purchased are the kind of client base that we want. They are people who have been living here for a substantial amount of time but have never bought. So we have actually converted them from non-traditional real estate investors into people who are happy to invest because they feel they are being catered to.

The Grid: How do you personalize the buying experience for them?

Mohammed Zaal: We always focus on developments that are sub-100 units. I feel that this is manageable from a personal perspective to nurture our relationships with investors and clients as well as logistically and construction-wise.

The Grid: You have a deep social commitment to supporting the SME ecosystem. How are those values reflected in KOA’s management strategy?

Mohammed Zaal: The construction industry needs to stimulate small-to-medium enterprises in the country and extend opportunities to them. Dubai is a market that is heavily into real estate but unfortunately the big real estate developers, who dominate the market, give all their jobs, be it architects, consultants, suppliers, contractors, to big name companies.

‘The big feed the big’ but we are trying to give back and encourage local talent and creativity. All the people we work with are small-to-medium enterprises and locally-based.

The Grid: The anchor of this mixed-use development is the co-working space. Could you tell us more?

Mohammed Zaal: Yes, and this is another way we are supporting entrepreneurs and SME’s. The co-working space is the work element of the ‘live, work, play’ concept behind Canvas. We will have pre-selection criteria for people wanting to use the space (outside of the actual residents) and the reason for this is that we want to support creatives and allocate a quota to certain industries to ensure a balance conducive to networking and collaboration.

Architecturally, the space really lends itself to collaboration with quiet areas and dedicated offices to put creative minds and ideas together to help our members produce great things in a unique environment that blends living, working and social.

This is an extract from an interview with Mohammed Zaal, Founder, KOA Dubai.

KOA aims to revitalize urban developments and lead Dubai’s real estate industry into a new era of cultural and urban enrichment that contributes to the soul of a dynamic new Dubai.

Interview by May Khizam, Founder & Chief Strategist, The Grid Media Ltd

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