Site visit: Al Zorah, Ajman’s hidden gem

Big Project Middle East takes a road trip to take a look at the 5.43 million sqm Al Zorah mixed-use project being developed in Ajman

With an area of just over 260 square kilometres, Ajman is the smallest of the seven emirates that make up the UAE. As a result, while the likes of Dubai and Abu Dhabi dominate international headlines for their projects and developments, to the outside observer it can look like not a lot happens in Ajman.

That perception is unlikely to last for much longer, however. The government of Ajman has spent the last few years concentrating heavily on the development of the emirate’s real estate sector. In fact, in 2004, Ajman was the first emirate in the UAE to offer 100% freehold to global investors. That generated a tremendous amount of interest in the emirate as an investment destination, but unfortunately plans stalled following the financial crisis in 2009, and the slow recovery that followed.

Now, however, things have certainly turned around, and earlier this year the Real Estate Regulatory Agency – Ajman (ARRA) said that about 3,000 residential units will be delivered by the end of the year. Meanwhile, 12 new real estate projects will be completed in freehold areas of the emirate, and these freehold areas are sparking the most interest from investors. With real estate prices rising and value for money becoming more difficult to find, investors are now looking at what Ajman has to offer.

This shift in attitude towards the smallest emirate is perhaps best manifested in the Al Zorah project, a massive mixed-use development coming up on the outskirts of Ajman city. Covering an area of 5.43 million sqm, the project is set to place Ajman firmly on the map.

Owned by Al Zorah Development, a 50/50 joint venture between Solidare International Limited and the government of Ajman, the project combines intricate master planning with the natural environment to create a distinctive luxury destination that will attract visitors and residents from across the region, if not the world.

Situated in Ajman’s mangrove forests, alongside more than a kilometre of beachfront, the development is divided into five distinctive areas that will cater to a variety of needs, explains Wissam Rabah, the design and development director for Al Zorah.

“The project is a mixed-use development with a strong emphasis on tourism,” he tells Big Project ME during an exclusive tour of the site. “The qualities of the site would encourage such an approach, given that the total land area is 5.43 million sqm, and the beachfront owned by Al Zorah is 1.6km long.”

Al Zorah is the first project Solidare has embarked on in the UAE, and as Rabah explains, the location of the site played a large part in the company’s decision to dip its toes into the UAE market.

“The reason why Solidare was interested in this project in particular was because of the high value and attractive qualities of the site. Mainly, it was the natural qualities of the site. This is a very rich site, where we have natural beachfront that is protected and not damaged by any reclamation or marine works, and we have an internal mangrove forest that has an area of about two million sqm.

“This is also a protected area that is home to several species of bird, fish and other marine life. Al Zorah – together with the government of Ajman – are protecting it and building around it,” he explains.

The site is divided into five areas: The Fairways – an 18-hole international golf course designed by Nicklaus Design; The Shores – the beachfront area that is a mix of resorts and low density residential projects; The Avenues – the leisure and entertainment district; The Coves – a waterfront promenade area that is also a residential and hotel district; and finally, The Gates – which lies closest to the entrance of Al Zorah from Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Road. It is planned to be a mix of retail facilities and high-rise towers.

Rabah explains that The Gates will be the last part of the project to be developed, as the focus is currently on developing The Fairways, Shores and Coves areas. With the golf course operational since December 2015, work is now underway to bring online the facilities and residences around it, he says.

“In addition to the golf course, this sector includes a residential component. It’s a mixture of residences, townhouses and apartment buildings. The apartment buildings range from six to 14 storeys in height. They’re to the back and they overlook the golf course above the villas and townhouses.

“The residential components are planned to be like gated communities that provide a privileged environment for the people who live within. They include landscaped environments, play areas for children, pedestrian walkways and so on, all within a safe and protected environment.”

In addition to the residential sector, the developer is also building a new golf clubhouse that will cater to the needs of both golfers and residents in the district. Adjacent to the clubhouse will be a wellness centre intended to provide visitors with rejuvenation treatments and programmes.

One of the major concerns when it came to developing the project was ensuring that the mangroves and surrounding environment remained unspoiled. Given the proximity of the golf course to these elements, Iman Dana, CEO of Al Zorah, explains that no expense was spared to ensure that the development was carried out as carefully as possible.

“We had consultants come in to do environmental impact assessment studies, and we’re still following that. The golf course was set naturally against the mangroves. We have two million sqm of mangroves, next to a million sqm of green area,” he tells Big Project ME, speaking in his office overlooking a vista of creek, mangroves and flamingos.

“We designed the golf course in such a way that all the holes are adjacent to each other, so that there’s no real estate development between the holes. When we decided that the real estate would be around the golf course, we decided on a limited number.

“So there are 800 units in total – 200 villas and 600 apartments. We’ve kept a nice area in the middle, where we’ll build the golf clubhouse and the wellness centre, but it is in the middle of three million sqm of greenery.”
Construction of villas and townhouses is well underway, with Rabah stating that the first phase of villas will be delivered in the first quarter of 2017. The design works of the apartments are in progress, but no announcement has been made about the launch date, he adds.

The other district currently under construction is The Shores, which will house resorts and low-density residential apartments and villas with direct access to the beach.

“The Oberoi is the first resort that we’re building and will see construction completed by the end of the year, with the opening the first quarter of 2017. It has 113 suites and villas, and is a top luxury resort that we hope will be a special product in the region. It will be like a hideaway that will welcome people who want to relax and not have a busy time.

“Next to it, we’ve started construction on the Lux* Al Zorah. It has 189 rooms, suites and villas. This resort is targeted at families and the ‘energetic crowd’. These are the two that are currently under construction, and next to them we have residential buildings,” he outlines.

“Then we have what we call ‘residential resort living’, where you’re living within the resort environment, but you own your own apartment. Some of these buildings will be serviced, while others will be directly owned.”

Directly behind this area of the Al Zorah development is what Rabah and Dana call a ‘linear park’. It is intended to act as a buffer between the low density zone and the medium density area directly behind the beachfront area. This area will be the commercial spine of the entire project, with space provided for a mall development and the construction of mid-sized buildings. This spine will continue up along the development, culminating around a central marina that will be the project’s entertainment space.

“This is where we plan to have four-star resort hotels, and where the ground floor will be very animated, with F&B outlets and retail available [for visitors]. The waterbody will also have a certain theme and it will be an attraction for all of Al Zorah’s residents and guests, and for residents in the surrounding area as well,” Rabah says.

“In this area, we’re talking mainly about offices and retail. Retail will be on the ground floor of this commercial spine, while the buildings around it will be a mix of offices and some residential.”

The fifth area of the development is the Creekside element of the project, The Coves. Three marinas will be built, with projects overlooking the creek that flows through the mangroves. The first marina will be operational by the end of the year, and it is expected that boat owners will be able to sail up the creek and dock their boats right up to the development, which is a mixture of hospitality and residential.

“The first thing we did when we started the design of the project was to appoint an international consultant to do an environmental impact assessment for the whole site. This included a detailed survey for the mangroves area, and they defined the guidelines for the entire construction process,” says Rabah.

“One of the early elements was to build the protection line on the creek, whereby we defined the edges and where the buildings will be built. We also built platforms where we planted more mangroves and encouraged them to grow naturally.

“On the other side, during the design and build of the golf course, we maintained a buffer zone and areas that we called ‘natural areas’. There, we encouraged existing nature to grow,” he asserts, adding that the landscape of the golf course is made up of local flora.

This is clearly a project that has had immense thought and planning go into it. Imad Dana tells Big Project ME that the various elements of the project coming together is the culmination of a vision that began almost a decade ago.
“The main reason we came to Ajman was because of the site itself,” Dana relates. “It’s a hidden jewel that we discovered in the 2007/2008 period. It was untouched due to the natural beach, and you had the canals, and most importantly the mangrove forests.”

“We thought that we could do a lot with the natural beauty of the place. Our initial vision was to develop it, while preserving its natural essence. If you see the marinas and the canals, you’ll see that the beach is protected. It’s small things, but it’s all towards protecting the natural beauty of the site.”

Now that construction on the golf course residences and beachfront area is underway, the next step is to have third-party investors come in and begin development of their own projects, fuelling the growth of the entire project. Dana explains that this is why completing Phase One of the project is so important.

“Before the crisis, we had a lot of interest in the project. When we first launched the project, we sold a lot of land in a few days. Then obviously the crisis came and we had to change a few things to make it more ‘human-scale’ and user-friendly.

“What really helps us now is that Phase One is about to be operational, within the coming two months. We opened the golf course almost a year ago, we’ll open the Oberoi in two or three months, and we’ll start handing over the first part of the golf villas. All of this has generated interest.

“Why we keep talking about Phase One is because it moves the project from a preparatory phase – where we’ve been preparing the infrastructure and things – into an operational phase. From there on, it’s up to the market.”

With everything now in place, Dana acknowledges that it is now up to the market to take the initiative and invest in the Al Zorah development. However, he points out that there are a number of factors in its favour, which will surely lead to the success of the project.

“The Ajman government is involved with this project. They are the owners, and HH Sheikh Rashid Bin Humaid Al Nuaimi is the chairman. They have an active involvement with the company, and the government has issued a decree granting the project free-zone and freehold status.

“Secondly, it’s the biggest project in Ajman in terms of area, and I think it’ll impact the economy in a positive way,” he asserts.

Two types of investors are likely to target the Al Zorah development, Dana says. The first kind are the ones who bought land prior to the slowdown in the market. These investors will see the completion of Phase One as a spur to start their own developments, having patiently bided their time.

But the completion of Phase One has also brought in new investors, curious about the project and the impact of the golf course – which has been recognised as one of the best in the region – and keen to form joint ventures for projects within the development.

This is an important factor, Dana stresses, pointing out that the course was ranked in the top 10 for the MENA region by Golf Digest within two months of opening. That recognition has led to full houses on weekends, which in turn signifies potential for further growth.

“We’re full on the weekends, and 90% of the people come from Dubai. During the weekdays, we’re picking up as well. Earlier, because the infrastructure was not completed, the numbers were lower. But we believe that now, when we open the Oberoi, when we open the marina in January, more and more people will come.

“And for the investors – the villas that were sold, they were sold to people who want to use them, to end users. That’s great, because we want and need to create a community.

“I think we’re close to closing the first chapter – which is the preparation and hard work that we’ve done, and the money that we’ve spent. We’re proud of what we’ve done here, but at the end, we need people to come here and appreciate it. We did it for people to come and visit, this is really what it’s all about,” he concludes.

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