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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

Former property professional in Dubai develops taste for fine art

39-year-old now runs a raft of galleries and restaurants in city's trendy AlSerkal Avenue

Hisham Samawi, left, and his brother Ashraf Samawi. Christopher Pike / The National
Hisham Samawi, left, and his brother Ashraf Samawi. Christopher Pike / The National

For someone who started out working in property development, Hisham Samawi has certainly ventured into uncharted territory - art and food.

But it has been a very meticulously plotted route for this entrepreneur, starting over a decade ago in New York.

Back in 2004, the 39-year-old took a master’s degree at Columbia University, specialising in entrepreneurship in emerging markets. Moving to Dubai upon graduation in 2006, Mr Samawi took a job in business development and strategy at Dubai Holding’s Tatweer, working on Dubailand project Bawadi, 10km stretch of hotels.

“I came here with my eyes open, looking for opportunities,” says Mr Samawi. “My family is from the Middle East and Dubai was booming and perfect for a ‘half-Arab’ growing up in the West. Dubai is all about recognising opportunities and being the first to do so.”

Today he is the co-owner of several art galleries and two casual dining restaurants. And while leaving Tatweer to launch an art gallery may have taken a major leap of faith, Mr Samawi would have been laid off within months when Bawadi - a project revived only last year - stalled.

Mr Samawi, whose mother is Austrian, left Jordan with his family when he was three, first for Switzerland then for 20 years in the US - Ohio, Washington DC and New York – but his parents have since returned to live in Jordan.

He and his cousin Khaled Samawi, who had already opened Ayyam Gallery in Damascus, in 2008, launched a gallery in Al Quoz’s AlSerkal Avenue - the first gallery space to open in a street then full of car body shops.

“That whole district is one of the few organic things to happen in Dubai,” he says. “Now it is one of the coolest places in the world, one of Dubai’s truly fascinating places,” says Mr Samawi.

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The gallery’s success grew but, with little footfall to AlSerkal Avenue, the pair went on to open a second space in Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) - “the people going to eat at La Petite Maison are exactly the kind of people you want to be seeing your art”, Mr Samawi says. He and Khaled have since closed the original Damascus gallery and opened in Beirut.

Ayyam focuses on Middle Eastern artists but is about “beautiful stuff” from global artists from the Middle East, rather than just “calligraphy and political art”, says Mr Samawi. The Syrian painter Safwan Dahoul, with whom the gallery has worked since the beginning, recently saw one of his early works sold at Christie’s auction house for US$200,000 (Dh734,600).

Bootstrapping the gallery themselves as a “passion thing” for the Samawis, it is now well established and employs 30 full-time staff. But Mr Samawi was still on the hunt for his next opportunity.

Having been a regular customer at Clinton Street Baking Company during his years in New York, he had seen the brand go from “an unknown to a two-hour queue”. It serves organic American classics and all-day, all-night breakfasts, and is famous for its pancakes, fried chicken and waffles.

Mr Samawi persuaded the bakery, which had just started talks to licence in Japan, to give him the Middle East licence. He and his brother Ashraf opened the first branch at Burj Views in Downtown Dubai in 2014 and their second in City Walk this year.

As the deal was for a licence to use the name and recipes, rather than a franchise offering a turnkey solution, Mr Samawi says it has been a steep learning curve. “They liked that we were coming in as brothers and didn’t want to deal with some huge food and beverage operating group,” he says. “But there was a lot of stuff we had to figure out and, with no experience, it was quite overwhelming at first.”

They had just a four-month window to pick their location and deal with builders and engineers to ready themselves for opening - and brother Ashraf, who was working in Jordan at the time, also had to relocate with his family to Dubai. It has taken a lot of work, says Mr Samawi, to get established.

Now his days are divided between the galleries and restaurants: he eats at Clinton Street Baking Company every day and will “swing by” AlSerkal or go to an artist opening at DIFC later on. With 70 to 80 staff, a general manager and head chef, the brothers are focused on growing in the region, with Abu Dhabi the “logical next step”, then elsewhere in the GCC and perhaps Beirut.

They are not “too concerned” about their individual job titles, says Mr Samawi. “Having a partner, someone to challenge you, is a blessing; you can’t think of everything yourself,” he says, adding that “continuous communication and co-operation” is the key to both of his familial working relationships.

What is next? Perhaps a new restaurant from scratch, he thinks, having “learned enough to do our own concept”.

Perhaps just some downtime, while the next Clinton Street space cooks up, with his wife of just a few months. After all, success has not been overnight - “it has been 10 years of hard work.”