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Benjamin Spillman

Dubai firm sets sights on LV hospitality

9 June 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada –- It's been less than two decades since business leaders in Dubai sought to transform the desert emirate into a leading global tourism destination.

Now an investment firm that grew from the roots of Dubai's transformation wants to reinvent hospitality in Las Vegas, long one of the world's top tourist spots.

"We should be able to do it better," said Mohammed Ali Al Hashimi, head of Zabeel Investments, a financial firm that recently bought a 50 percent stake in the Las Vegas-based Light Group.

Zabeel is a private company with a stake in everything from real estate to aeronautics and a property portfolio with an estimated $5 billion value, according to news reports.

Its deal with Light Group came in February shortly after the Dubai government's sovereign wealth fund, Dubai World, bought 50 percent of MGM Mirage's $9.2 billion project CityCenter.

Al Hashimi, the 36-year-old executive chairman of Zabeel, says the goal is to help the Light Group grow into a globally recognized hotel brand with products such as the sleek Harmon Hotel under construction in CityCenter.

"It is not about a company that is going to put a restaurant here or there," Al Hashimi said. "It is about a company that has the potential to be the next major hospitality company in the world."

With the Arab tourism industry expected to generate more than $3 trillion in future investments, both Dubai and Light Group seem well-positioned for the transformation.

When the deal was announced, Al Hashimi said Zabeel would gain from Light's experience creating nightclubs, restaurants, and, more recently, developing hotel brands. And Light will get financial support to help it expand in the United States and abroad.

Al Hashimi was recently in Las Vegas and reportedly scouting out more property in the United States.

The visit to Las Vegas was also another chance for Al Hashimi to do what he always does -- visit a place known to be good at something, watch as the work is done, then figure out how to make it better.

"The way we look at it ... is very simple in Dubai," Al Hashimi said. "If there is opportunity in something and you feel it is going to make sense, then do it."

Under Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Dubai has a reputation as a business-friendly country, which has contributed to its rise to global economic prominence.

The emirate is home to an indoor ski slope, a man-made island development shaped like a palm tree and the site of Burj Dubai, a development that is expected to become the world's tallest structure.

Dubai has also faced its share of criticism. Allegations of poor treatment of foreign workers who are imported to meet demand for construction jobs prompted the government's labor ministry to crack down on some companies.

A construction trade publication reported that in 2004, 900 foreign construction workers died in Dubai, but it didn't report how many deaths were work-related, according to The New York Times.

"If the UAE wants to be a first-class global player, it can't just do it with gold faucets and Rolls-Royces," Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director for the activist group Human Rights Watch, told the Times in an August 2007 article. "It needs to bring up its labor standards."

But most of the attention on Dubai is on the success stories.

Dubai, like Las Vegas, rose swiftly in an unlikely location thanks to the willingness of its leaders to dream up audacious projects and spend money to build them.

So while Al Hashimi says he's learned things about the hospitality business from his Las Vegas partners, the companies in Dubai have a lot they can teach Las Vegas.

"Dream it, live it, build it. That is Vegas. Dubai is exactly the same," said Andrew Sasson, founder and owner of the Light Group. "(Dubai) is on a bigger scale because their canvas is bigger. It is a country. Vegas is just one city."

The partnership's highest-profile project in the United States is Harmon Hotel. It's a 47-story guest and residential hotel with a glass facade and condominiums priced from $1.2 to $9.2 million.

Sasson says the idea is to create a property for the post-boomer generations, a market with an upside both in Las Vegas and Dubai.

Both he and Al Hashimi say it is time for younger companies to build projects to match their vision in the same way boomer-aged businesspeople built today's skylines on the Strip and in Dubai.

"The majority is us," Sasson said. "The minority is the baby boomers because they are disappearing. We are the market for the next 20 years. But unfortunately the decision-makers are mostly the baby boomers."

Modern touches on the Harmon include use of reclaimed water, recycled wood and nontoxic compounds in finish materials.

Zabeel also appears to be taking the sustainable approach in Dubai. The company recently announced a hotel partnership with a Los Angeles-based company that has enlisted actor Brad Pitt as a consultant.

A Zabeel executive also recently said the company wants to increase its real estate holdings to as much as $25 billion in value.

Al Hashimi said the economic downturn in America could present more opportunities to achieve that goal in places such as Las Vegas and Miami.

"There are opportunities, certain advantages that were not there a year and a half ago," he said. "We are looking to do some things in the U.S., looking at some property that we were not looking at a year and a half ago because it was too expensive."

It will be a major opportunity for Light Group, which made its name in Las Vegas creating clubs such as Caramel and The Bank in Bellagio, Diablo's at Monte Carlo and Jet in Mirage. Light has also branched into restaurants with Yellowtail at Bellagio and Brand at Monte Carlo.

Sasson said the partnership works because each takes a cross-cultural, urbane approach to hospitality.

"What they are doing in Dubai is building for tomorrow," he said. "Since we clicked on that philosophy it was kind of a perfect marriage."