One man’s dream with the support of a nation of visionary leaders will see a unique living concept take shape on Umm Al Quwain’s shores within the next five years.
Spread across a 5 sq km natural island the AED 25bn ($6.8bn) mixed-use island development, Firdaus Sobha is a joint venture between the government of Umm Al Quwain and Dubai-based master developer Sobha Group.
The force behind the development is the company’s pioneering founder and chairman, PNC Menon. “This is a dream project. The high-end development will provide the best of living standards to investors. It is built on a very low density area – something like in Florida, and we are planning to make it one of the best on earth in terms of infrastructure,” Menon says.
The project will comprise a tourism resort on Al Sinniyah Island alongside Khor al-Beidah, one of the largest areas of undisturbed coastline in the UAE. A 45-minute drive from Dubai airport, the island will be connected to the mainland and highway network by a 1.1km long bridge, to be built by the developer.
“The choice of Umm al Quwain was because there are no natural islands available in any other part of the UAE – it is like a gift from God. There aren’t many islands which are available for development of this scale. This is an end-user project for people to enjoy life,” said Menon.
Firdaus Sobha will be developed in phases, the first of which should be completed in three years. A firm will be appointed to handle master planning and detailed designs will be ready in six to nine months.
The development will feature 700 units spread over 24 million sq ft of built-up area. It will include four to five resorts and hotels, an 18-hole golf course, a separate par three course and an academic complex as well as boutique retail units, two villa communities, low-rise apartment blocks and a marina.
Sobha will also develop a series of canals and lagoons around the site, with adjacent boardwalks within the waterfront project. A unique feature will allow owners to anchor a boat or yacht at the backyard of their own home.
The company plans to break ground on the project this year, aiming for a completion in the next five years.
The Power of Dreams
Originally hailing from Kerala in south India, Menon first set up his base in the Middle East in 1974 when he founded Services & Trade Company (STC) – a small interior fit out firm in Oman.
“I wasn’t qualified and didn’t have any money coming to a new country all of a sudden – the challenge was to build dreams,” he says. Not allowing his financial burdens to hold him back, Menon strode ahead determined to follow his dreams, remaining committed to his values of discipline and honesty in doing business. “You can sleep happily when you do an honest business, because somebody else’s money is also involved. I feel this has been my biggest obligation in my life.”
A call from the Sultan’s office in Muscat in 1984 to do a palace fit out changed STC’s fortunes completely, putting it firmly on the path to success. Further jobs for royalty in Oman, Bahrain, Qatar and the president of Tajikistan ensued.
While Menon manages the operations in UAE, his son manages the company’s Indian business from its base in Bangalore, India.
Track2Realty, an India-based independent research centre and news service, has ranked Sobha as India’s number 1 real estate brand.
Sobha Group currently has around $10bn worth of ongoing projects in the UAE, which Menon believes will keep him “busy for the next 10 years”. Sobha Meydan, an $8bn project in partnership with Meydan, was launched in 2013 and a year later the company launched the $4bn Sobha Hartland.
Sitting in his Business Bay office, PNC Menon is quick to hail the impressive development around him. Having made Dubai his home, he believes in the nation's potential to be a global leader and "one of the best places on earth to live in".
"This region, especially Dubai, is one of the best construction sites in this part of the world with continuous growth,” he says. “In the whole of Africa, Middle East, Indian subcontinent – Dubai is the only international city of this standard. Dubai is beyond 2020, I see 30 years ahead for Dubai.
"Currently, the country is growing. A lot of people who visit Dubai would like to come back here. It is like a magnet. We have a current population of 2.8mn people. So long as it grows at 3 to 4%, which is the current case, opportunities should continue.
“Out of the total operators in the market, there will be scope for those who have a good reputation and a brand (value). Over a period of time all this will play a big role. Sobha aims to reach that in the next three to four years."
What makes Sobha different from other property developers is that it is involved in the full value-chain of a project from design to delivery. It has its own architecture practice and structural and mechanical engineering departments, as well as a huge team of landscape, interior, furniture and graphic designers.
Sobha Group is currently in the process of setting up a new furniture division that will offer a complete end-to-end interior solution. The company expects to open the 1 million sq ft factory in Abu Dhabi’s Kizad freezone in the Q4 2019.
“Any company that is forward-looking must have a department in research & development,” Menon says. “Today there is a rapid growth of technology. Unless we have a department completely dedicated to innovation, we won’t be able to survive.”
The Group is now also looking to expand its business into new markets. Menon is considering projects in a country close to his heart but is also looking further afield. “We are discussing projects in Oman, we will know in the next 3-4 months whether we want to go ahead with the project. That is a country which created me. I have an emotional connect with the country,” Menon says.
“We need another geography, and are definitely looking. The next country that we choose has to necessarily be Europe, primarily the UK, or America.”
Menon says that the company’s success has been the result of a never-ending pursuit for excellence. “Although I am 70, I believe mentally and emotionally I am young. I have been in this business for 49 years, of which 42 has been in the Gulf. It is an endless pursuit to perfection and perfection is very dynamic. I’m directly involved in the business and I have no plans to retire.”