Eye on the future: UAE’s wasl Asset Management CEO Hesham Abdulla Al Qassim

In an exclusive interview, Al Qassim talks growth, iconic projects, and the fate of the emirate’s real estate market



A look at some of Hesham Abdulla Al Qassim’s recent diary entries will probably tell you all you need to know about the non-stop nature of his      high-level commitments.

Prior to making some key announcements at GITEX Technology Week, the CEO of wasl Asset Management Group was in Bali for the 2018 Annual Meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank Group. And just days earlier he launched wasl gate onto Dubai’s freehold property market – the latest project to come out of the Dubai-based real estate management company.

The high-profile appointments he keeps are testament not only to his business acumen in a number of fields, but also to the widespread respect he commands in the UAE and across the globe.

You don’t need to take my word for that. As well as his main role with wasl, Al Qassim is the vice chairman and managing director of Emirates NBD, chairman of Emirates Islamic Bank, vice chairman of the Dubai Real Estate Corporation, chairman of BNP Paribas Egypt and board member of such companies as Etisalat, DIFC, Amlak Finance, National General Insurance, International Humanitarian City, and more.

Yet with so many hats to wear, the man who has led wasl since 2007 has remarkable clarity of vision, as demonstrated when we meet at the company’s offices in Bur Dubai to discuss the city’s real estate landscape.

“The state of the real estate market is exactly where it needs to be,” he assures, as we talk about the market’s recent dip.

“Every prosperous economy is bound to go through a cycle, and this is Dubai’s calm before the storm that we are taking advantage of by evaluating our next ventures and carefully studying the market.

“The great advantage that Dubai enjoys is that thanks to its advanced infrastructure and the convenient legislations being put into place, when the market goes back on its upswing, the emirate will instantly reap the benefits and get back on track in no time.

“Dubai is attractive to homebuyers and investors for multiple reasons. Primarily, the emirate is one of the fastest-growing cities in the world – a rate that is increasing by 10.7 per cent. Dubai is also ranked as one of the safest cities in the world, enjoys a global, strategic location, a steady currency, and a world-class infrastructure; all of which are attractive elements for homebuyers and investors.”

These are views that come from a man who has overseen some of Dubai’s most successful real estate projects, including two major golf courses managed by Dubai Golf, a roster of 14 operational hotels to date, and a long-list of residential, commercial and corporate properties, both leasehold and freehold.

The company is Dubai’s biggest industrial owner, with some 5,200 plots and 27 industrial zones, and it manages around 45,000 residential and commercial units across the emirate.

It’s a portfolio that keeps on growing, with some of wasl’s most adventurous projects expected to be completed between 2019 and 2021.

These include wasl1 – a freehold master development overlooking Zabeel Park, which has already launched phase one in the form of its Park Gate Residences. Also coming up is Nad Al Hammar Gardens – a 6 million square foot site alongside Mohammed bin Zayed Road with 71 residential plots and 32 mixed use plots.

A major landmark will be completed in 2020 in the form of wasl Tower, facing the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa; and a Dhs2.7bn ($735m) joint venture with Dubai Airport Freezone (DAFZA) called Dubai CommerCity will be built in the Umm Ramool area, serving as MENA’s first free zone dedicated to e-commerce.

In recent weeks, however, it has been wasl gate that has commanded most attention, with sales launch in in October.

Located near Ibn Battuta mall in Jebel Ali, the multi-purpose master development will be delivered in three phases and include apartments, townhouses, dining, retail, businesses, and more. Among these will be a ‘smart mall’, in conjunction with Al Futtaim Group.

“The sales launch of the wasl gate development generated a positive result in a heightened demand from investors,” says Al Qassim.

Read: Dubai’s Wasl launches master development in Jebel Ali

“This is primarily attributed to the property’s strategic location, in proximity to the Expo 2020 site.

“Additionally, Dubai’s real estate market remains attractive in the eyes of investors, residents and visitors, thanks to the emirate’s strong legislative environment, procedural transparency and ease of doing business.”

The 1.2 square km freehold development will be one of the largest developments along Sheikh Zayed Road, with almost 7,000 residences as well as the various commercial units.

But other than its size, Al Qassim does not foresee any challenges in completing what is effectively a city within a city.

“wasl gate’s only challenge is its size,” he says.

“But when completed, it is expected to change the landscape of the area.

“As with each project launch, we study the market properly and identify what customers are looking for so we can launch the proper development. We look at each of our new projects as a challenge for us to deliver the best to our customers.

“Our project launches are aligned with the directives of Dubai’s government to cater to all segments of the society. wasl gate, for example, is our first freehold property that offers competitive prices dedicated to mid-income earners. It is designed to provide a wide array of offerings for Dubai residents, while striving to develop and expand our real estate portfolio.”

This portfolio will also be greatly enhanced by the aforementioned Wasl1, which is already being hailed as a landmark development, being on a highly prized plot directly in front of the Dubai Frame.

And Al Qassim himself is understandably excited about the project.

“wasl1 is indeed one of our iconic projects, as it is located at the gateway between old and new Dubai as a connecting point.

“Our strategy as wasl is to cater to both the leasehold and freehold sector through diversifying our portfolio and catering to all customer needs across the emirate. Several features at wasl1 make it one of the best residential options for homebuyers and investors.

“It is the first freehold master development, and additionally, residents will find and ideal blend of community living spaces, contemporary apartments and exceptional amenities in a tranquil environment, located at the centre of the city.

“Compounding on its value, wasl1 satisfies Dubai’s vision for the freehold sector, creating a synergy between the urban and natural environments that resonates with the modern-day buyer and will add a beautiful touch to Dubai’s skyline.”

It’s a project that is sure to add to wasl’s already impressive performance over the years, which has seen the company enjoy 98 per cent occupancy rates – though the figure is currently a little lower.

“All the projects we launched are on track for completion and we enjoy a high percentage of rate across our leasing portfolio that reached almost 90 per cent.

“We are pleased with our performance over the past year, with one of the accomplishments achieved being the sale of wasl1’s first two towers in less than one month. We registered similar results with the launch of the third tower.

“We also recorded unrivalled demand for the leasing of Block A – the second phase of the wasl district project, and we managed to lease 90 per cent of one, two and three-bedroom apartments within four hours of their initial rental listing.”

Such a performance is not a given in the UAE, especially in light of the real estate market’s dip. But there has been support from the government in the form of a proposed 10-year visa for international investors, and 100 per cent foreign ownership of companies.

And while these initiatives have been met with widespread positivity, it is still incumbent on real estate stakeholders to move with the changing environment.

“These initiatives are a gesture of reassurance from the government and our leadership to justify to people in Dubai, the UAE and around the world that there is continuous work being done to make Dubai the smartest and happiest city in the world.

“These new initiatives announced by our wise leadership will result in a positive upswing due to the encouraged investments of buyers and investors, resulting in a positive impact on the real estate market.

“For our part, our supply is on par to meet the requirements that will be generated as a result of the upcoming and inevitable upswing.”

And as Al Qassim reiterates, moving with the ebb and flow of the market and its needs helps put wasl and its investors in a position of strength.

“Since we own projects in most areas across Dubai, and due to the large database of tenants we have, we keep our finger on the pulse of the real estate market.

“We continuously conduct research to identify gaps in the market, such as the need for more mid-range hotels. As a result, we handed over six hotels and announced 15 new hotels to be completed in the following years.”

In mentioning hospitality, Al Qassim highlights another key sector for wasl, which joined forces with Hilton to launch Hampton by Hilton Dubai Airport in September – the Middle East’s first Hampton by Hilton property. Projects such as MGM Grand, and the city’s second Mandarin Oriental hotel on Sheikh Zayed Road, are also among its recent launches.

“We also identified a need for the hospitality staff as we get close to Expo 2020, so we announced a project in Warsan last year, spread over 2.6 million square feet that will add 3,866 residential units to the market,” adds the CEO.

And despite concerns about oversaturation in Dubai, Al Qassim is confident in the emirate’s growth potential for years to come.

“Dubai attracted as many as 15.8 million tourists in 2017 – a number that is expected to grow to 20 million by 2020. Dubai is also predicted to sustain its 10 per cent GDP over the next 10 years.

“We are presenting the market with niche developments, such as the Hampton by Hilton, the Hilton Garden Inn, Hyatt Place, Aloft, and Element in the three and four-star ranges, while maintaining a standard of quality aligned with the level Dubai offers.”

With the extra 15 planned hotels, wasl aims to provide the hospitality sector with more than 4,500 rooms.

“As the sector grows, wasl will be at the forefront of developing hotels that will add value to the sector, and will add a beautiful touch to Dubai’s skyline,” adds the CEO.

With all his experience and success, the future is something on which Al Qassim can be trusted to have a sound opinion. And with Expo 2020 on the horizon, along with various other ambitious plans for Dubai and wider UAE, he offers a positive outlook for the months and years ahead.

“People always speak of Dubai before Expo 2020 and after. This should not be the case. Expo 2020 is a fantastic event that will definitely have a positive impact not only on the emirate but on the UAE and the region as a whole.

“However, the event is but one milestone out of many that has either been achieved or is in the pipeline as part of Dubai’s strategy for the years to come.

“From what I have read and seen about previous expos, the impact on hosting cities attracted investment and boosted economies, and I believe the same will take place as Dubai.

“The government also has plans for the years ahead to keep growing its diversified economy through the launch of new initiatives and plans that will ensure Dubai’s position is cemented on the world map.”

And for the CEO, wasl’s role within that growth is a central one. Though he is reluctant to give too much away.

“We are currently proceeding with our existing projects, but we have exciting projects that we will announce in the coming years that will prove to be valuable additions to Dubai’s real estate market,” he concludes.

Given Al Qassim’s track record to date, you can be sure they’ll be just that.