WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?

Sharjah 2015 | CONSTRUCTION & REAL ESTATE | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Simon Azzam, CEO of Communities Business Unit at Majid Al Futtaim, on the growing trends in the Emirate's real estate sector, such as sustainable design and convenience in mixed-use living communities.

Simon Azzam
BIOGRAPHY
Simon Azzam is the CEO of the Communities Business Unit at Majid Al Futtaim. With nearly three decades of experience in management and property development, he oversees a 4 million sqm development portfolio containing a mix of residential and commercial properties throughout the MENA region. Before joining Majid Al Futtaim Properties, he was CEO at Bloom Properties, a developer based in Abu Dhabi with projects spanning Abu Dhabi, Iraq, and Algeria. Prior to that, he spent more than 20 years at Union Properties PJSC, a Dubai-based listed development company. He holds a BSc Honours degree in Civil Engineering from Southampton University in the UK.

What impact will Al Zahia—Majid Al Futtaim's joint venture project with Sharjah's government—have on residential living in Sharjah?

Al Zahia is one of the projects of Sharjah Holding, and is equally owned by Majid Al Futtaim properties and the government of Sharjah. As a strategic partnership between the government of Sharjah and Majid Al Futtaim Properties, the current focus of Sharjah Holding is on the development and management of retail and mixed-use projects in the Emirate of Sharjah. Al Zahia also gives momentum to the government's vison and drive to diversify Sharjah's real estate sector—improving the Emirate's standing as a preferred investment destination, as well as an ideal place for community living. All facilities will be within walking distance of the residential areas, and we are providing greenery, by which we hope to motivate people to leave their cars at home and enjoy the outdoors. Our focus on making this a sustainable living environment means that we are providing a living experience, rather than just selling bricks and mortar. Upon final completion, Al Zahia's estimated contribution to the overall Sharjah economy is valued to reach around AED5 billion ($1.36 billion).

How would you characterize your cooperation with Sharjah's government on this project?

The successful delivery of a project with the strategic goals and magnitude such as Al Zahia requires solid support from a strong partner. We believe that this formidable partnership will give immense momentum to the government's vision to enhance the social, cultural, and economic development of Sharjah, as well as the diversification of Sharjah's real estate sector. Working hand-in-hand with the government also generates additional credibility within the market. Of course, our ambition is to go from this into bigger projects.

What growth plans do you have in place to turn this ambition into reality?

Taking into consideration the outlook for the real estate sector in Sharjah and the UAE, we believe there is a strong demand for gated communities that offer a high level of quality in Sharjah. We are playing into this by providing convenience in our living communities, which really is a trend these days. Convenience is one of the major factors influencing people's decisions when it comes to living in a certain place. Providing that convenience within a gated community for the family is key, and it is the convenience factor that we are trying to cultivate and build into our projects, because the demand is there in Sharjah. We acknowledge that people have less time and want accessible quality facilities and amenities to support their busy days, and this will be translated to the project.

What is your assessment of the government's initiative to open up the real estate sector to non-GCC UAE residents?

It is a great initiative, which will add to the already successful market that we have. Sharjah has been a great attraction for people from all over the GCC and the Arab world in terms of owning property, but opening it up to the rest of the world on a leasehold basis is a good decision. The UAE in general has a positive real estate outlook. There is a lot of anticipation for Expo 2020 in the market, which benefits the entire UAE. The real estate market is not growing as steep as it did in late 2014, but growth will continue and probably increase toward 2018/19. I am optimistic about the overall real estate market in the UAE because I believe that the leadership of this country has proved time and again that the UAE is progressive and forward thinking.