x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Twins modernise the majlis into a 'factory of ideas'

The brothers have turned their father's old warehouse in Dubai into a place where people can launch ventures, rent offices or seek opinions.

Their first business was an online delivery service. That morphed into the magazine Brown Book. Now the bin Shabib brothers - Rashid is the one on the left - have dreamt up a warehouse stocked with brainpower.
Their first business was an online delivery service. That morphed into the magazine Brown Book. Now the bin Shabib brothers - Rashid is the one on the left - have dreamt up a warehouse stocked with brainpower.

Dubai // Four and a half years ago, when their father's nail factory was closed to make way for a pedestrian zone, the twins Ahmed and Rashid bin Shabib came across an unexpected business opportunity.

As the Government's plans for River Walk stalled, the factory, a large warehouse in the heart of Al Quoz in Dubai, gathered dust. The brothers seized their chance, and launched The Shelter. As Ahmed puts it, The Shelter is a "factory of ideas", a community workspace designed to serve as a meeting place for creative professionals. People can go to share ideas, or rent office space and start businesses. Artists use it to exhibit their work. The space can also be used to host film screenings, workshops, lectures and corporate events. Last week, 300 volunteers gathered there, preparing 26 tonnes of relief packages that were delivered to the emirate's labourers.

Ahmed and Rashid, 26, who are from Dubai, wanted to inspire the grassroots community. They drew from their own roots, from the tradition of the majlis. "No one had ever thought to modernise the concept of majlis," said Ahmed. "We had nothing for the young community here in Dubai, no street culture. The UAE is a collection of people from all over the world but someone needed to take the initiative to get people together and do things for a common cause. So Rashid and I launched The Shelter."

The brothers set about creating a place to sit, feel inspired, drink good coffee, watch a film and enjoy art or good conversation. "We are not creators of content, just enablers of it," said Ahmed. It was important to create a relaxed environment, agreed Rashid. "The element of casual and conventional networking was very important to us," he said. "We didn't want the ambience to be stifled." Choosing the warehouse as a venue helped, Rashid added. "We launched our first businesses from a warehouse, so we understood the utilitarian concept of a warehouse.

"You are not in a tower and there is a connection to the outdoors. It changes the medium of development because it is not a corporate environment. "Being in the middle of an industrial estate and doing artistic things - all norms are challenged." The Shelter is the brothers' third business. Their first, brownbag.ae, opened in 2006. It was the UAE's first online delivery service. Any item from any store would be delivered to a customer for a small fee.

When businesses expressed interest in advertising with the bin Shabibs' company, they produced flyers. The flyers became small booklets enclosed with every delivery, and from this came the concept of their second business, Brown Book - a bi-monthly art, design and lifestyle magazine launched in January 2007. Rashid is now its editor-in-chief. The magazine has a circulation of more than 25,000 and is distributed in London, New York and Paris.

The Shelter is also expanding. Next month a second branch will open in Sharjah. There are plans to open a third in Abu Dhabi and possibly franchise the idea, with an eye on Doha and Singapore. The brothers were educated in Britain and the United States. Both graduated from Suffolk University in Boston in 2004. They have lived in Tokyo, Geneva and London but are now settled in Dubai. They say the way their parents raised them provided the inspiration and the determination to succeed.

"Our mother is amazing," said Ahmed. "She educated us beyond the ways that school did. She took us to summer camps to learn German and French, she sent us abroad to New York so that we could learn how to manage our lives and, at home, she constantly took us out to museums. It broadened our minds." "If there's anyone we are grateful to, it is our mother," said Rashid. "She raised us to be confident and make the most of ourselves."

The brothers say their relationship is intense. "We are extremely close," said Ahmed. "If we are not together we speak at least four times a day." "Ahmed is more professional and business-savvy but I lean more towards the creative roles," said Rashid. "I barely get into finances, HR or staffing, and Ahmed leaves me to deal with the philosophical and artistic challenges. We work together very well."

The brothers say they are not financially motivated. "We want to help people transform their ideas into reality," said Rashid. "The Shelter is not and never will be a cash cow but it covers its own costs. It was a risk we wanted to take because we wanted to do as much for the community as we could. "In a country which is very much 'business, business, business', we wanted to do something different. We wanted to help those who had plans for social development work, or with brilliant ideas but no place from which to launch them.

"From the beginning, it was about enriching ourselves but not financially. We want to continue helping the community and that's what we always come back to. If we don't do it, who will?" aseaman@thenational.ae