DAMAC owner Hussain Sajwani is finally opening up about how he almost lost everything in the 2008 property crash – and how he re-built his amazing Dubai real estate empire.
In a recent Arabian Business profile, Sajwani provides brand-new insight into DAMAC’s incredible success, which is particularly striking given that the property development company nearly met its demise in 2008. In years past, Sajwani has been reticent about DAMAC’s difficult times, so the new interview was met with considerable interest from followers of Dubai’s real estate affairs.
It’s only natural that people want to hear what Hussain Sajwani has to say – the DAMAC owner is, per the Forbes 2018 rankings, the fourth-richest Arab on Earth (up from tenth in 2017). He boasts a net worth of over $4 billion, and DAMAC Properties is the fourth-largest public company in the Arab world.
If Hussain Sajwani is no ordinary real estate developer (and it’s clear that his career has been extraordinary!), it’s true in part because he had no ordinary upbringing. As a child, he spent his afternoons in the small shop owned by his father, Ali Sajwani, in Deira, the historic commercial center of Dubai. The elder Sajwani imparted his impressive business knowledge to his son, who tells Arabian Business, “It’s the commercial way of thinking that stuck with me… My father knew his customer base and he would change direction very quickly in the goods he’d import.” He adds, “This is one of my key successes; I can adapt to the market very quickly.”
Hussain Sajwani began using the skills he learned from his father – and building his astonishing empire – as a young man. In 1982, a mere two years after his graduation from the University of Washington, Sajwani started his first business, a successful catering company now called Global Logistics Services (which he owns to this day). In 1996, he initiated his first property development venture: building hotels in Dubai. In 2002, Hussain Sajwani founded DAMAC Properties.
Between 2002 and 2005, DAMAC Properties broke ground on several massive luxury real estate projects in Dubai. The company rapidly became an integral part of Dubai’s growing reputation as a global hotspot and architectural marvel. In 2005, DAMAC went international, with developments in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia. Astonishingly, DAMAC managed to fund its rapid growth without taking a dime from investors, thanks to revenue from Hussain Sajwani’s smart side businesses and lucrative regional stock market investments. Under Hussain Sajwani’s diligent leadership, DAMAC Properties became one of the most successful, visible, and influential property development companies in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, and the entire Middle East. The world, which was closely watching Dubai’s amazing growth, was excited to see what DAMAC would do next.
Unfortunately, in 2008, the global real estate market crashed, and DAMAC nearly went down with it. As Hussain Sajwani tells Arabian Business, “I was one of the very few who saw the crisis. …I knew we had a bad situation coming. We took action very quickly, letting a lot of people go, cutting our overheads, consolidating lands and projects. And we were hit very badly by the press, because we were the first ones to do that.”
Sajwani still dislikes talking about this challenging time in DAMAC and real estate history. However, he opens up in the Arabian Business feature: “In my 35 years in business I have not seen as difficult a time as those six months from October 2008 until around April 2009. It took about seven months to get out of the bad times.”
Sajwani’s Arabian Business profile also includes insight into how the self-made mogul managed to keep DAMAC afloat through this period. “We took some very good decisions in regards to knowing what our best assets were. For example, we had ten buildings in Business Bay. We did not consolidate or sell. We also continued in the Marina,” Sajwani says. He adds that DAMAC had over AED1bn in escrow funds at the time, which also helped the company survive.
Amazingly enough, under Sajwani’s skilled management, DAMAC managed to withstand the “bad times” and return to its previous level of success – and then surpass it. The company built many new luxury properties across Dubai. In late 2013, DAMAC proved that it had made a full comeback when it listed on the London Stock Exchange, making it the first real estate company from the Middle East to do so; its IPO raised an impressive $379 million.
Since then, DAMAC has further increased Dubai’s international profile and reputation for glamorous modern residences, building two massive gated communities in Dubai: DAMAC Hills and Akoya Oxygen.
The considerable amenities at DAMAC Hills include a Trump-branded golf course; a second DAMAC-Trump golf course is scheduled to open later this year. Hussain Sajwani and DAMAC have attracted some mixed attention over their choice to continue to work with the Trump Organization, the group of companies owned by U.S. President Donald Trump; some have shunned the organization of late due to Trump’s controversial policies and behavior. (Trump called attention to their relationship when he referred to Sajwani as a “very, very, very amazing man” in a press conference shortly after he assumed the presidency. Trump’s sons Donald, Jr. and Eric also recently attended the wedding of Sajwani’s daughter Amira.) Sajwani brushes off the criticism: “We took a very clear, professional view about our partnership. We deal with the Trump [Organization] and we are happy with the service they have given us; our mandate is not to comment on political debates. …That is their business, not ours,” he tells Arabian Business.
So what else are Hussain Sajwani and DAMAC working on? The company is currently redeveloping Oman’s Port Sultan Qaboos waterfront (a project worth a cool $1 billion) and building a resort in the Maldives. It is collaborating with famous brands like Bugatti and working on properties in countries including Qatar, Jordan, and the U.K. DAMAC likely also has some new projects on the horizon in Saudi Arabia as a result of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s Vision 2030 initiative, which is focused on increasing the nation’s non-oil revenue and modernizing the country’s economic and social programs.
Looking forward, though, Hussain Sajwani sees more far-flung international projects in DAMAC’s future, particularly in regions outside the Middle East; per Arabian Business, DAMAC is particularly interested in European opportunities. In the Arabian Business profile, Sajwani explains, “My dream is to have [DAMAC] towers in gateway cities around the world. We have one in the [U.K.] and I’d like to see another half a dozen in other major hubs including Asia and America.”
DAMAC owner Hussain Sajwani may not know exactly how the company will grow in the years to come, but one thing’s for sure: his journey has been an astounding one.