A traditional makeover in Al Seef

Marsa Al SeefImage Credit: Marsa Al Seef

The stretch by the creek, with embassies on one end and the Ruler's court at the other, has always been the quieter cousin of the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood. The vibrant Meena Bazaar, reminiscent of congested shopping alleys of the subcontinent, is located just off this waterfront, along with old favourites such as Computer Street, Textile Souq and the local transport hub of Al Shindagha.

Although it's still possible to hop on to one of the Dubai's picture-postcard dinner cruises from Al Seef, for some time now the area has been undergoing a serious makeover by Meraas's development division, the Dubai Holding Company, which is responsible for projects such as CityWalk off Al Wasl Road and The Beach in Jumeirah Beach Residence (JBR).

''Heavy work started early this year and we hope to finish by mid-2017,'' says Abdul Wahab Al Halabi, CEO of Marsa Al Seef. ''First phase, which comprises the retail area in the contemporary, zone will open by the third quarter next year.''

Showcasing Emirati heritage, the 1.8km project with an estimated budget of Dh2 billion was approved in May 2014 by His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.

''We've created an accessible, culture-driven tourism destination for tourists in Dubai,'' says Al Halabi. ''It is genuinely Emirati and that is very critical for us. We have other developments in Dubai that look cultural. This one is particularly so.''

Al Halabi adds that the project's cost and parameters have been redefined and enhanced since its launch. ''We have some cultural areas in Dubai—Shindagah, Al Fahidi Distict and the souqs — but this is the first time we have something dedicated for people to come and visit.''

Calling the project a facelift, Al Halabi says, ''Before we started work on it, Marsa Al Seef was what it says it is — Al Seef wharf. [Marsa means a natural harbour in Arabic.] Al Seef is an area or a street. And it acted as a wharf. There were some boats there — some pleasure boats, the dinner boats—and the RTA station. There was not much else going on. There were a couple of restaurants.

''We said that it's really nice, but let's make it professional. And that's what we are trying to do.''

A focus area of the facelift is the infrastructure. Phase two, in fact, comprises an underground car parking facility with a capacity of 2,500.

''It's easy to get to. We have created infrastructure for people to come in many different ways — buses, cars and water taxis,'' says Al Halabi. ''There will still be a dedicated RTA wharf and abra stations so people can cross the creek. There will also be private mooring for people with their own boats.''

With inputs from local and international architects, the final design blends with the existing character of the historic area. There are clearly marked heritage and contemporary zones.


The mixed-use development comprises retail, hospitality and entertainment segments. ''About 700,000 sq ft or half of it is retail, which includes food and beverage,'' says Al Halabi. ''About
500,000 sq ft is hospitality — this comes to 550 keys. Ten per cent of the development is leisure and entertainment. These don't take much space but have a big wow effect.

There will be a 200-key heritage hotel, a 150-key contemporary upscale hotel and a 200-room contemporary luxury hotel. ''There are 200 rooms spread across the heritage zone, which means there may be 10 rooms here and 10 elsewhere, supported by an upscale contemporary hotel overlooking the creek. At the back there will be a more family-driven luxury hotel.''

The retail component is expected to be traditionally oriented, with leases being offered later. ''Meraas has a policy of not going to market too early,'' says Al Halabi. ''We will start renting out end of this year for the first phase. We have significantly more demand than we have supply, so we're fussy about our tenants. We have a very rigid mechanism of retail planning and leasing out developments.''

Shops that will make the cut are likely to specialize in showcasing local culture, including places for weaving baskets, trinkets and carpets, and for fixing watches. ''The things that you might find in the old souqs of Dubai,'' he says.

Don't expect swanky, glass-fronted modern retail shops though. ''There will not be so much general retail so you will not see some of the brands that you might see in CityWalk or Dubai Mall or Mall of the Emirates. It is much more focused on the cultural and touristic aspect,'' says Al Halabi.

But that doesn't mean the project will not embrace new technology. ''We are using technology very extensively to immerse people in our environment, whether it is through laser shows or through screens.''

Tourist magnet

Al Halabi says the project aims to complete the already existing areas thriving with life. ''We're integrating with what is there. You go further down to get to Meena Bazaar. There is the whole electronics market and the textile merchants. We hope to complement these,'' Al Halabi says. ''Newer attractions will feature pearl diving, fishing and boat building. An open-air museum and an amphitheatre add to the ambience.''

He adds: ''There will be an arena where people can come and see different shows, not just about Dubai. It will have variety shows from many different parts of the world. People can also see older ladies making traditional bread. Maybe they can make their own. Children will be able to knock nails into a piece of wood that will eventually become a dhow one day and go into water.

''We hope to attract tourists and residents. We are hoping that they will come to it regularly, not just to see it.''

Enhancing well time in developments

New and vibrant urban spaces are emerging that complement the emirate's stencilled skyline. Meraas' Boxpark and Citywalk off Al Wasl Road are two examples of such developments. These low-rise and walkable destinations are in line with the focus on liveability being advocated in the city.

Abdul Wahab Al Halabi, CEO of Marsa Al Seef, says it is no accident Meraas is building these projects. They are part of the firm's mandate of redefining industries, he says.

''It matters to us that we are giving people a variety of things to do. It matters to Dubai as well,'' Al Halabi tells Property Weekly. ''We are not just building a place, we are building an environment, an experience.''

Al Halabi says Meraas has a dedicated division that explores innovative ideas to integrate leisure and entertainment components within communities. ''We have had to think very hard about what is it that the people want to do.''

He says developments where experience is the focus function a little differently. ''An entertainment component attracts people to stay. We have a little theatre and something interesting is going on there. You might come with the children and enjoy the two-hour experience, shop a little bit and have dinner afterwards. You may spend four to five hours here.''

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Source: Shalini Seth, Special to Property Weekly


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