Beyond the boom

Where next for design in Dubai, after the emirate’s spectacular rise and fall? Angus Montgomery hears what some intrepid consultancies are up to

‘The days when companies could come and set up in Dubai and spend the next eight months turning work away are definitely over,’ says John Brash, founder of Dubai- and Abu Dhabi-based Brash Brands. He adds, ‘Dubai has been through a pretty rough nine months – the recession led to a real aftershock here.’

Indeed, few countries have lived out their recessions as publicly as Dubai. The country, lacking the vast oil reserves of its Middle Eastern neighbours, founded its economy on speculative construction and property developments – the very sectors annihilated by the recession. When these two pillars of Dubai crumbled, the media lapped up evocative images of overambitious developments standing empty and idle, and sports cars left abandoned at airports with apology notes as their bankrupt owners fled the country.

With this in mind, deciding to open your first overseas office in Dubai would seem at best risky, and at worst madness. But this is exactly what retail consultancy Kinnersley Kent is doing – with partners Mick Kent and Paul McElroy set to head up a new office in the Jumeirah Lakes Towers this month.

Kent says of the decision, ‘It is a difficult and challenging time to open a new office – but the Gulf is still an exciting destination for retailers.’ A group spokeswoman adds, ‘Dubai was a massive bubble and now that has gone, it leaves the serious players.’ Indeed – in terms of international retail specialists, Kinnersley Kent will only be facing Fitch, which acquired the majority share in Dubai consultancy GSCS in 2007.

Dubai may have taken a hammering as a marketplace in recent months, but that doesn’t mean work has completely dried up there. Brash says, ‘In branding terms, real estate used to comprise about 40 per cent of the work – now it’s more like 10 per cent.’

But he cites growth in sectors such as media, hospitality (‘where there is now a lot more competition, so different offers need to make more of an effort’), healthcare, education and banking – where restructuring is causing the rationalisation and formation of a host of new brands.

Darren Whittingham, group executive creative director of Start Creative, which has a Dubai office, adds that Dubai itself is looking at its brand for the first time.
He says, ‘It’s having to market itself now, which it never had to do before. In the past it didn’t have to do anything to attract people.’ Whittingham adds, ‘The economic crash happened just before Eid, and then there were the hot summer months when everyone disappears from Dubai. But in the last couple of months there has been some pick-up.’

But a much more attractive proposition than Dubai as a marketplace is Dubai as a hub – to service its cash-rich fellow members of the United Arab Emirates and the wider Middle East. Keith Wells, managing director of London- and Dubai-based Turquoise, says, ‘Dubai has an awful lot going for it from an international point of view – from the geographical location and the physical attractions bringing tourists in, to the way life is so easy for expats.’ Kinnersley Kent’s Kent says the consultancy sees Dubai ‘very much as a hub for the region’.

Brash, who says that only about 10 per cent of his clients are Dubai-based, with 70 per cent based in the wider Middle East, argues that Dubai is by far the easiest place in the Middle East for international companies to set up. He says, ‘For people from the US, UK and Europe it is far easier to acclimatise, it’s very international and cosmopolitan, unlike Abu Dhabi or Bahrain.’ Brash also cites cheap office space – particularly since the economic crash – and plentiful accommodation. ‘It’s near-impossible to find a villa or apartment in Abu Dhabi,’ he notes.

Investment in transport infrastructure throughout the UAE, including the recently opened Dubai Metro, also makes life easier. A new high-speed road link-up between Dubai and Abu Dhabi opened three weeks ago, cutting journey times between the two emirates to just 45 minutes. Whittingham adds that further expected investment in Dubai’s broadband infrastructure will help digital consultancies in the Middle East – including Start itself.

Whittingham, who estimates that 50 per cent of the consultancy’s annual income comes through the Dubai office, says, ‘For us to keep an office in Dubai is a calculated or low risk. There’s still so much appeal to Dubai as a hub.’

Recent business wins in Dubai

  • Kinnersley Kent is working on six new cafes and confectionery boutiques for Kidz Inc Dubai
  • We Are Him & Her, set up by two ex-Jones Knowles Ritchie creatives, is working with a Dubai-based restaurant
  • Transport Design Consultancy has recently redesigned Dubai’s version of the Oyster card

Hide Comments (2)Show Comments (2)
  • Nick Garrett, China Accent HK November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Putting a brave face on it also goes hand in hand with human nature… and at the heart of that is creativity. so the countable cycles may have crashed but the uncountable keep on running. What this last 24 months may come to show us is the power of creativity and it’s need in the fragile path of recovery. Without innovation and design the road would be a lot further to run. With it there is the power of sensation and renewel… and on a note of moral: creativity must be there for the renewal of all of us, not just the so called fittest.

  • Dan Dimmock November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I think it is worth pointing out that Dubai is not a country nor is it a capital city. As for the deserted car story, according to a pretty reliable source (no names mentioned) only 68 cars were left at DXB… I wonder, if one were to contact Gatwick or Heathrow to find out annually how many abandoned cars are left at each of the respective airports — we’d be quite surprised.

    As a relative ‘newbie’ to the ME region, sure the Chinese Whispers, some originating from a brothel I may add, captured my attention… however, Dubai is culturally rich, new business opportunities still exist, and in terms of accessing the emerging markets and APAC, well, we’re four hours ahead.

    Go Brand Dubai!

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