Over the next five years, Ajman's population - currently about 207,000 - is expected to increase by 50 per cent.
Small emirate shares giant plans
AJMAN // Ajman can start being more "picky" about who it allows to invest in the emirate, says Sheikh Rashid Bin Humaid, a member of the ruling family entrusted with helping to develop the relatively quiet stretch of coastline into a thriving tourist destination. Over the next five years, the population of Ajman - currently about 207,000 - is expected to increase by 50 per cent, while 5,000 new hotel rooms should be ready by 2011.
A Dh12 billion (US$3.27bn) international airport is scheduled to open in 2011, and the Government is setting up a tourism authority to market the emirate. Ajman has only one five-star hotel, the Ajman Kempinski, but the establishment is already planning a major expansion to handle growing demand. In an interview, Sheikh Rashid, who is in his early 20s, notes that the Crown Prince, Sheikh Ammar Bin Humaid, "wants everything done yesterday".
"The other emirates," he says, "wonder how we're doing these huge developments in such a small emirate. It's all about the leadership." Foreign investors from the Gulf, Europe and East Asia are pouring money into projects, Sheikh Rashid says. "If you look at the growth in the population and the size of projects such as real estate, industry, education, tourism and health, it is out of proportion to the size of Ajman.
"In the past few months, we started shortlisting investors. We chose those who have a good track record and a good reputation in the market. As time passes, we can start being picky. At first, we couldn't be like that. We just needed people to start investing. "The rules, regulations and laws of Ajman are straightforward, clear and fast and that attracts people to the emirate." Nevertheless, he concedes that Ajman struggles to offer tourists the same kinds of entertainment already available in some other emirates: "At the moment, after staying in a hotel here there isn't a lot to do so we know the importance of bringing foreign services.
"In the next two years, there will be four new hotels here. We have a beautiful museum which is undergoing an expansion programme and there are three shopping malls under construction now, too. "Over the coming years there will be a heritage centre and two old-style souks are also under construction." The emirate also recently unveiled its second-largest project - the redevelopment of its marina in conjunction with Tanmiyat, a Saudi company.
The development, which will allow only low-rise buildings, is expected to be ready within five years. It will include 500 berths for yachts, restaurants, shops and housing for thousands of people. "It was designed in a way where it's very comfortable for people. We got the idea from international marinas like Portofino in Italy. We don't want it to look like Dubai, where it's made up of towers," says Sheikh Rashid.
He did not reveal the cost of the marina redevelopment, but indicated it was dwarfed only by the emirate's Dh220bn Al Zorah project, which will cover 10 square kilometres along the coastline and include a self-contained city. The project is being developed by Al Zorah Development, a joint venture between the Government and the Beirut-based Solidere International. Sheikh Rashid adds that he and the Crown Prince are very aware that "credibility in the market is crucial".
Instead of trying to mimic Dubai, they are determined to create a more European feeling to attract a different kind of tourist. "In other emirates, there have been promises but no delivery. That only deters exactly what we need, foreign investment and tourism," says Sheikh Rashid, who adds that visitors should feel comfortable and welcome in the scenic coastal town. "Alcohol and dress codes are all issues we thought about a long time ago. There is no benefit to me or the other person if I make a Christian wear my Muslim clothes.
"If I go to another country, I want to keep my culture so I expect to give foreigners in this emirate that right too." The new tourism authority is expected to be another major step in the process. "All components and services of tourism will be clarified under one body," he said. "Many tourists get ripped off, for example, when they travel to other countries as they don't know basics such as the prices of things such as accommodation.
"There is often no clear system where tourists can find out all this information. Under our new plans, this information will be available all over the world. We would never want our tourists to leave Ajman with a bad impression about the emirate or its services," says Sheikh Rashid, who is overseeing the creation of the body. "Tourists bring tourists. Word of mouth is the best advertising - and it's free."
The construction of Ajman International Airport is, according to Sheikh Rashid, "a symbol that Ajman is now ready for major change and a bustling tourism industry". "It's a challenging project because it's being done in a rural area, which, in the next three to four years, will have become a developed area. "It's a town owned by Ajman, but it's about 60km away, towards Fujairah. "The idea is to build the airport and to have a huge free zone terminal to handle big quantities of import and export.
"We had the UAE's first private port, then we had the UAE's first private sewage company and now we have its first private airport. "When you rely on international experts for these things, they add a lot of value to these projects and put you on the worldwide map." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org