Ras Al Khaimah (or RAK as it is affectionately known by the sprinkling of expats that have lived and worked there) was the Gulf’s best kept secret—until it positioned itself as a serious investment destination. An important milestone in this respect was the May 2005 investors’ conference held in the emirate by the RAK government and the World Bank. Setting the tone of that high-profile event, HH Sheikh Saud bin Saqr al Qasimi, Crown Prince and Deputy Ruler of RAK in his opening address said, “I believe the economy of RAK is on a verge of a tipping point after which we will see exponential change and growth that will be unstoppable.”
He turned out to be right, with RAK now rapidly attracting investment. While RAK products like glass and sanitary goods already export to over 100 countries, there is vast potential for more investment in industry, which remains the emirate’s “engine room” generating income and jobs, as well as inputs for building other sectors. According to Dr. Khater Massaad, who runs RAK Ceramics and helped develop it from humble beginnings to become the world’s largest single ceramic tile manufacturer, the emirate’s investment authority (which he also heads) has “been able to attract over $1 billion of investments in various industry segments” since its inception two years ago. That includes cement, in which RAK is undergoing a massive capacity boost to become a leading producer in the Gulf, with the emirate’s 2005 capacity of 3 million tons planned to exceed the 10 million ton mark once expansion is complete.
The extra volume will be needed, as demand for cement and other building materials is set to increase in a big way in RAK with the launch of several mega-projects. RAK has just begun to develop it tourism capability, and hopes to attract investors for constructing more hotels, golf courses and many forms of water-based recreation and sport. Tourism can showcase the emirate’s economic development, attracting people to RAK and further proving to regional and international investors that it is on the map and open for business.
All of this, of course, will act to promote other sectors, including real estate development. The logic behind this emphasis is simple: much of the growth in the UAE over the coming decade will require high-value workers. One of the advantages of RAK is a location close to Dubai with potential for development of working space and lifestyle accommodation meeting requirements of high-end human resources. Explosive growth in Dubai has created considerable pressure on real estate. Land prices there have increased markedly in the last fifteen years, while people find it increasingly difficult to move about as growing road traffic has increased travel time significantly.
By contrast, RAK has considerable land that can be made available for residential, commercial, and service industry development. At the same time, strengthening of land use planning and management institutions is one of the priorities of the emirate. A comparison of land prices between RAK and other emirates indicates great potential. Besides lower-cost land, RAK is also capitalizing on its good environment and recreational facilities to attract visitors and new residents. The road trip to Dubai has been cut to about 45 minutes and RAK airport facilities are being revamped and expanded to allow better access to the emirate by plane. This enhanced connectivity makes it easier for people and businesses to locate in RAK and take advantage of the lower cost land there, further establishing the emirate as a world-class residential destination in its own right.
The main lesson to learn from RAK’s investment drive is to profit from the boom in Dubai and the rest of the region, but avoid mistakes that led elsewhere to overcrowding and other problems. The emirate is undertaking comprehensive and realistic land-use to guide future development, and RAK’s capacity to enforce well-designed standards of zoning and environmental management will be an important complement to such planning. This will keep the industrial “engine room” and the touristic “showcase” in a healthy, mutually-enforcing relationship, attracting more people and businesses alike. The strategy is nicely encapsulated by Matt Sawaqed, board member of Rakeen, one of the emirate’s flagship real estate developers, who presents his firm’s core values as “Sustainability, Responsibility, and Prosperity” – which could also apply to the emirate as a whole. As RAK’s boom gathers steam, the emirate is starting to become prosperous like its neighbors, but in a sustainable and responsible way. The challenge facing the RAK public and private sectors alike will be to keep things moving in that direction: raising incomes, profits, and living standards while caring for the environment and safeguarding core values.