Interview: Waha Land COO Hazem S. Al Nowais on ALMARKAZ

Waha Land COO talks about this industrial real estate gem.
Waha Land COO Hazem S. Al Nowais
Waha Land COO Hazem S. Al Nowais

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It began in October 2007 when Oasis International Leasing Company, the forerunner of Waha Land, was granted a plot of land by the Abu Dhabi government. Hazem S. Al Nowais was appointed as the company’s first employee, tasked with developing the vision of transforming the barren 6km2 site into a landmark project with long-term viability.

With a background in architecture, and stints in both the oil-and-gas and public and private sectors, Al Nowais was uniquely qualified to take on this huge challenge. “When we took over the site, there was literally nothing. That is a bit of a lie, because there were a lot of camels roaming around that had to be fenced off,” he recalls.

“We are very proud of what we have achieved. We not only started the project from scratch, we started the company from scratch. We have been blessed in that we were granted a plot of land initially, so we are very grateful to the Abu Dhabi government. We are blessed to have the support of Waha Capital, the mother company, and its shareholders and supporters. It ticked all the right boxes for this to be a successful project,” says Al Nowais.

The current state of progress is focused on completing Phase 1, comprising 90,000m2 of small light industrial units. These are broken down further into six buildings of 12,000m2 each and three buildings 6,000m2 each. “The second component is plots that are serviced and ready for potential tenants or clients to either construct their own factory or warehouse or shed, or they can utilise the expertise within Waha Land to construct a purpose-built unit for them. The third component is the internal infrastructure that links all these serviced plots and ready-built units to each other, while the fourth component is the external infrastructure that ties us into the main road infrastructure grid of Abu Dhabi,” explains Al Nowais.

The strategic importance of ALMARKAZ’s location is that all vehicular traffic into and out of Abu Dhabi passes by the industrial estate, while it is on a main route to Saudi Arabia. Traffic to and from the Wesetrn GCC, from as far afield as Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain, is also funnelled into the industrial estate’s catchment area. Apart from the extensive road links, ALMARKAZ will also boast a spur to the main line of Eithad Rail when this project is finally completed.

“At the moment I would say we are 95 per cent completed with the smaller industrial buildings that make up the 90,000m2. And I would say we are more than 75 per cent complete on the plots and infrastructure. We anticipate that, by the end of the summer, Phase 1 will be fully operational. We have started handing over some of the units to potential tenants, so that is one of the things we have started,” says Al Nowais.

Reflecting on the response from the market to date, Al Nowais says: “The first remark we get is that it is huge, the sheer scale. The second biggest comment we get is very flattering, but it was always our goal from day one, and that is the quality. Our minimum goal was to achieve this international standard of quality.” Al Nowais says that five to six local clients and two international clients have already been signed, barely a couple of weeks into ALMARKAZ’s official marketing campaign, which bodes well for the overall success of the development.

Critical to this success has been the overarching strategy behind the development, and a patient attention upfront planning and market research. “We had to wait for the right time and the right completion. I think the market now very much wants to see finished, quality product. Not only is off-plan really a dead marketing tool, I think off-plan for industrial units is not even an option. I mean you can market an apartment or office off plan in days gone by, but I think to market an industrial warehouse is ridiculous. So we waited for the right time. We started our marketing campaign about six weeks ago; we targeted what we thought was the market segment that would be looking at this, and the response has been good to date.”

Looking back the inception of the project, Al Nowais says that identifying the optimum land use had always been key. “Back then Waha Land was not even a vertical yet. So the immediate question was how do you build it, how do you utilise it? We had ended up starting up a company around this plot of land. So the first thing we really did was put in a strategy for the company and start looking at best uses for this land.”

Al Nowais says: “The thing that popped out at us was industrial. It is within the industrial corridor. It sort of lends itself to being an industrial site, and the market research we ran solidified our thinking. The first thing done was to make sure it is the right project in the right location, so building up a team around it was important, and starting up a company that can handle a project of this magnitude. The next thing after this was to design it, and finding the right people who could do plan it, followed by the right project management and contracting teams.”

Looking at the construction challenge posed by the project, Al Nowais explains: “The way we planned it is in a very modular fashion, as with any logical industrial project. You see a lot of projects in Europe where they are non-modular or non-linear, which is usually due to the site conditions. When you have a 2km2 by 3km2 site, if you go for any design other than linear, you are almost always asking for trouble, and again that is the architect in me coming out.”

Al Nowais concurs that his architectural experience has had a large input into the design phase of the project. “My colleague, who is a civil engineer, does not appreciate that. Luckily we liked each other before we started working together, so it was okay.” Al Nowais is referring to Waha Land projects director Neil Morgan.

He says the design has two key elements. “One is we designed the traffic flow first before we designed the buildings and plots. We were looking for a zero queuing time in and out. We visited other industrial projects, and the major concern from most tenants was queuing. If a truck breaks down on a roundabout, what do you do? That was the first element we tapped into – zero queue time. Not only does it cut down on the frustration of the drivers coming in and out, and queuing for three to four hours, but it also guarantees those clients with perishables that they do not lose any items.”

The second key design element was overall flexibility. “That also goes back to the linear/modular approach,” he says. While the industrial estate is based on accommodating a range of asset classes, its inherent flexibility means that one type of asset class can be favoured over the others if this is what the market demands down the line. “If there is a huge demand for asset classes other than the smaller industrial warehouses, it is almost a plug-and-play scenario – you just remove one asset class and put in another asset class, without affecting your infrastructure plan or the design of your plots.

“It was designed in a way to give maximum flexibility. You incorporate this flexibility on a masterplan, and this flexibility also continues into the units themselves. You adopt it on a macro and micro scale,” says Al Nowais. For example, a 12,000m2 unit can be sub-divided into 250m2 sheds “without affecting the internal structure. That was the ultimate flexibility we were aiming to achieve, which you do not get in other industrial parks.” The asset classes catered for start with smaller industrial units that can be used as workshops, for small-scale manufacturing and fabrication, or for personal storage – which Al Nowais points out there is a big demand for in Abu Dhabi at the moment. “Then you have what we call a light industrial unit, a larger unit for bigger manufacturing or storage, but not full-blown warehousing.”

What sets ALMARKAZ apart from the pack is its ability to cater for entrepreneurs or small- to medium-sized companies as they start out small and then expand. “You have the young entrepreneur, the start-up SME, that comes in and starts out with small light industrial units. One of the biggest problems facing an entrepreneur looking to start an SME or small enterprise is what happens when his business grows? Where does he go? We solved this question by saying he does not need to go much further, because all he needs to do is relocate into a bigger unit, or you can relocate into another asset that will allow you to move from being a small-scale fabricator to a full-blown factory on-site,” says Al Nowais.

ALMARKAZ also forms an integral part of Abu Dhabi’s future development. “What we are doing really is responding to the 2030 plan – and what better way to do it than to be able to provide an international-quality facility that fosters these businesses and the industrial boom.