Interview: Not the End of the World, Safi Qurashi
He's an entrepreneur with an insatiable appetite for proving his critics wrong. CW speaks to Safi Qurashi, CEO and founder of Q Group
At 17 years of age, Safi Qurashi would drive his father’s van around south London, selling cigarette lighters and stationery to newsagents after noticing their giant markup.
He is a man of humble beginnings, and even now at 46 years of age, as he sits at the helm of the Q Group companies and plans what to build on his $60m offshore island, Qurashi does not do flashy.
Construction Week met Qurashi at his company’s headquarters, a basic office block in Dubai’s Al Barsha 1 district, though he is planning a move to Emaar Square in Downtown Dubai.
It is impossible to pinpoint Qurashi’s area of expertise. When asked, he simply replies, “businessman”.
“The principles of business are always the same and I think it’s a question of working out where there’s a gap in the market and structuring your management, delivery and your sales,” he asserts. “You can replicate that, irrelevant of what it is.”
The Q Group has divisions in armoured vehicle manufacturing, facilities management (FM), property development, aerial access platforms and investment, but Qurashi’s fortune was borne out of a real estate fluke.
Approximately 10 years ago, he put down a 10%, £20,000 (then AED146,000) deposit on an off-plan Emaar apartment after he was forced to give up his villa when the employment contract that had brought him to the UAE fell through.
A month later, he got a call from his estate agent which changed everything. “She rang me up and said ‘I’ve got a buyer, and it’s double what you put down’.”
He sold it, and immediately bought two more apartments, selling them off just months later, again doubling his money. In six months, he had bought 30 properties, but frustration kicked in.
“The [real estate] agencies weren’t professional,” he said.
“I thought, ‘if I set up an estate agency and run it like I would do in London, I think I’d make a lot of money’.”
Three years later, Premier Real Estate Bureau was employing 100 people.
“I was buying it and selling it and not even getting my hands dirty. It just kept on growing,” he said, making no bones of the reality that timing was everything.
“We hit the curve at the right time – bought in 2006 and sold in 2008 – and we made a fortune.”
Last year, Q Group made its first inroads into construction, partnering with developer Empire Arabia to provide the sales management and legal framework services for the completion of six projects in areas including Sports City, International City, Business Bay and Jumeirah Village Triangle, which had previously stalled under former developer Best Homes during the financial crash.
But Qurashi is best-known for his 2009 purchase of the Great Britain island, part of The World development, an archipelago off the coast of Dubai.
It was a monumental deal which led to him being interviewed by Piers Morgan as part of a documentary on Dubai’s booming real estate market.
A year later, Qurashi was sat in a Dubai jail looking at a seven year stretch for bouncing and cancelling $75mn worth of cheques – convictions which were quashed in 2012.
Despite his ordeal, Qurashi maintains that he is “still a great believer in Dubai”.
“You can’t have it rosy all the time,” he said. “Dubai has always been good to me.”
Even the Dubai that sent him to prison, meaning he was away from his pregnant wife (who sadly miscarried following his arrest), two daughters and son for two and-a-half years? “The rules of Dubai might have done,” he asserts.
“But no matter where you are in the world, there’s always going to be problems.
“Did the government listen? Yes. Did they do something about it? Yes. Are they looking to make changes to close the [post-dated cheque] loopholes? Yes. Now, when you’ve got a government that’s that responsive, how can you criticise it?”
He says that he has no plans to run back to Balham, London, from Dubai as just two years after his release, business was better than ever.
“I can’t think of many places around the world that would have allowed me to do that,” he said.
“Life throws you lots of things; you can lose your freedom, you can lose your health, you can lose a loved one,” he asserts. “I wouldn’t have been able to bounce back from something like that.”
He has clearly moved on, but his reluctance to sign post-dated cheques is one of the residual effects of ordeal.
“As much as I can, I avoid it,” he said, adding that he would like to see an end to the system altogether.
“In the past, there was a lot more trust,” he admits. “We had contracts, but they were very lucid.”
Now, his in-house legal experts ensure the deliverables against any post-dated cheques are crystal clear, although Qurashi adds that “nine out of 10 times”, he is able to avoid them.
“We’re in a position that we’re able to dictate our payment terms,” he said. “People want to do business with us and they have to accept the payment terms.”
Amid its broad business repertoire, Great Britain island remains the infamous jewel in Q Group’s crown.
“The island is definitely a pet project of mine,” said Qurashi, who admits selling it would be a simpler route and revealed that he was recently offered more than what he paid for it.
“It’s like a personal thing more than anything else. I want to create something that hasn’t been done before.
“It’s that thing that keeps me going. Where everyone is saying ‘no’ I’m the one saying ‘I’m going to be able to do this’.”
Work is set to begin this year following Q Group’s signing of a Memorandum of Understanding with Drydocks World, which will design and build the island’s utilities infrastructure. Drydocks typically specialises in building offshore oil rigs with accommodation.
“[Drydocks] do it all over the world and they do it in much worse conditions – the North Sea, places like that, hundreds of metres down in rough sea,” he explained.
The World is made of compacted sand and sits in water between 12-15m deep.
“It makes me laugh when people say it’s going to sink and stuff… it can’t sink,” assures Qurashi.
Working three miles offshore brings construction and logistical challenges, not least the unpredictability of the seas, so as much of the structure as possible will be built on land and shipped out on barges to reduce the construction time and cost.
Construction will begin towards the end of the year, and Qurashi hopes it is complete before the World Expo 2020.
“It would be a huge shame if were not ready by then,” he said. “By partnering with Drydocks, we’ve been able to shave 18 months off the timeline, so what was originally looking like five years is now more like realistically three and-a-half.”
The island will comprise a British-themed hotel resort, including holiday apartments that will be available to buy.
“Ideally, I want to bring in a British-branded hotel,” said Qurashi, keeping coy about partners, stating only that he wants “to bring the best of British” to the island.
“As an example, Aston Martin or Harrods – they’re the kind of names we want to attach to the development,” he said, batting away suggestions that it would be a copy of a British landmark.
“People have always imagined I’d have some kind of cheesy replica of Buckingham Palace or Big Ben,” he said. “That’s not the concept.”
Qurashi is sure the project will be a success, and says it is his doubters that drive his determination.
“Everyone is waiting for you to fall, everyone is there ready to curse you, and that’s what drives me,” he said. “I know it drives the ruler of the country in the same way, and that’s how I feel.
“I fit quite nicely in a place like this.” So what next?
“If an opportunity comes my way I’ll assess it,” he said, adding the only thing he ever rules out is “sitting back”.
“I’d get bored. My wife would probably kick me out of the house,” he joked.
Who is Safi Qurashi?
• Was sentenced by a Dubai Court to seven years in jail in January 2010 for cheque fraud
• Protested his innocence by going on hunger strike for
• Cleared of three charges after courts ruled he had written the cheques as security and they should not have been cashed
• His first business was an internet café in London’s Soho
• His IT company helped launch the British Airways, BBC, Sky, Virgin and Heinz websites
• Spent seven years working in advertising at BT Yellow Pages (a UK phone number directory)
• Has no higher education qualifications and taught himself how a business works
• Admits some of his businesses have failed within six months
• Would consider any business opportunity apart from air travel as he “hates flying”