Dubai-based Belhasa Interior Design’s restructure is strange because nobody lost their job. Quite the opposite. More staff are joining the subsidiary of Saif Belhasa Holding – one of the UAE’s largest holding groups – as it returns reinvigorated to the market with a new office, renewed focus on sustainability, and a rigorous expansion strategy.
The January 2019 restructure came after chairman Saif Belhasa grew increasingly disillusioned with the direction of the company under its former management team. A shake-up was required and in came Egyptian architect Ayman El Nashar, 30, as the new managing director of Belhasa Interior Design to implement “a renewed vision and concentration on sustainability,” he says.
The boutique firm was established in 2014 by Emirati chairman Saif Belhasa, as part of his vision to form an in-house design arm serving the holding company’s portfolio of assets. The business soon began to take on exclusive interior design jobs for the private residences of Belhasa’s friends and family.
Its creation was “almost like an experiment” by the chairman, ranked as one of the world’s most powerful Arabs, El Nashar explains. The company soon picked up projects for the Government of Ras Al Khaimah and RAK Police. While the company enjoyed success, El Nashar admits the direction was gradually moving in one which the chairman did not agree with.
“The previous management was taking the company in a direction that the chairman felt was not in line with his vision or investment – it was moving towards building maintenance rather than interior design,” he says.
This is why the restructure happened. It led to the creation of a new company called Belhasa Building Maintenance and the old management team of Belhasa Interior Design – whom El Nashar has succeeded – are leading this six-month-old venture.
The next step was moving to a new office away from the holding group’s headquarters in Belhasa Driving Centre, where the boutique firm could have its own design identity.
“We considered Dubai Design District but instead of going to d3 the chairman suggested we use [Al Barsha Boutique Building] because of all of the project management companies and construction-related businesses here.”
Kuwaiti franchise operator Alshaya Holding – led by a close friend of Saif Belhasa – is also located in the Al Barsha Boutique Building. El Nashar admits this factored into the business strategy for the new location, because it presented “an opportunity to get to work with them in the future”.
In the new office, natural lighting, glass, and engineered bamboo are the main design elements in the Belhasa Interior Design space. Engineered bamboo sourced from Asia and made in the Netherlands is a material we can expect to see more of in the future. It has already become one of the trendiest sustainable building materials around and El Nashar says it is great for eco-conscious designers because of the short time bamboo needs to grow.
“We use bamboo instead of oak because a bamboo tree takes less than one year to grow, while an oak tree takes between 20-30 years,” he adds. One “problem” designer’s face when it comes to sustainable material procurement is the perception that eco-friendly materials hold little aesthetic value. But breakthroughs in new materials, such as 3D printing and recycled nylons, have opened the door to new solutions. “We have innovative materials that can give you the aesthetic effect of natural wood or marble, but without the baggage of something that pollutes the environment or grows your carbon footprint,” he says.
El Nashar wants to “pioneer sustainable design” in Dubai. He wants to lead a company that does more than just touts environmentalism and “commits everything towards this goal”. Under its renewed focus on sustainability, Belhasa Interior Design strives to use locally-sourced materials, such as natural fabrics and linen, made in the UAE wherever possible. When it comes to hiring new people, the company wants to recruit staff with LEED or WELL Building Standard accreditation.The projects it picks will have sustainability at the heart of their design too.
Belhasa Interior Design is already working on the UAE’s first biophilic driving centre in Al Barsha and has a major international job on its hands to rebrand the GCC branches of a big chocolate and coffee company.
El Nashar cannot name the company due to commercial sensitivities, but the job is big. The company has recently rebranded and is implementing a new design theme across its branches. Belhasa Interior Design is creating the main interior design theme and brand guidelines for the company’s GCC branches. It will be one of the first projects where Belhasa Interior Design has implemented its renewed sustainability ethos.
“We are planning to introduce bamboo and a lot of natural elements that are exclusively found in the tropical region as a major part of our drive for the design,” El Nashar says. The first of six UAE branches is located in Majid Al Futtaim-run City Centre Mirdif. “It will have recycled materials for everything – there will be no plastic. We will use metallic straws instead of plastic ones. Tissues and cups will be made out of bamboo instead of plastic. The exciting thing is that it will be implemented in many branches, one after another.”
It is easy to understand why El Nashar is excited about the project; it is Belhasa Interior Design’s first international project outside of private residences. “It’s a new entry for us in terms of expansion in the GCC and this will be our first commercial project outside of the UAE. There will be three branches in Kuwait, two in Saudi – one in Jeddah and Riyadh. There will be a further two in Bahrain and one in Oman.” he notes.
International expansion is part of the vision for Belhasa Interior Design’s future. The chairman and El Nashar want to establish a “strong” headquarters in Dubai before the next step: opening offices in Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia.
In the next decade, the company may establish a presence in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. Bigger plans may follow and an office in either London or San Francisco has not been ruled out, although El Nashar admits this is a long way down the line with the immediate plan to become “strong in the Middle East” then expand to North Africa.
Backed by a wealthy holding group, though, Belhasa Interior Design has the financial support for a serious international expansion. However, El Nashar says the business needs to fund its expansion through its own success, rather than relying on the holding company for funds.
“The holding group is very large and could easily open branches all around the world, but it doesn’t mean anything if you do not have a strong identity and are known in the market for an ethos,” he says.
“Expansion will be funded mainly by the growth of Dubai, followed by the UAE branches, then the GCC branches. We’re not jumping in and opening up branches just to say we are a very big company – we want to expand in the right way.”