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In Dubai’s new Uptown hub, all the talk is of diamonds

Ahmed bin Sulayem prepares for a critical meeting of the Kimberley process

DMCC executive chairman Ahmed Bin Sulayem is also chair of the Kimberley Process, the global governance body for the diamond trade Reuters/Christopher Pike
DMCC executive chairman Ahmed Bin Sulayem is also chair of the Kimberley Process, the global governance body for the diamond trade

Most people know Downtown Dubai, home to the world’s tallest building the Burj Khalifa, but now the emirate has a brand new commercial, residential and leisure hub, Uptown, some kilometres south along Sheikh Zayed Road.

I’d been intrigued for years by the enormous construction project under way not far from my stomping ground in Marina, so was pleased to receive an invitation to get a closer look from the man whose brainchild it was some 10 years ago – Ahmed Bin Sulayem, executive chairman of the Dubai Multi-Commodities Centre (DMCC).

In my experience, time spent with Bin Sulayem is always time spent profitably. As the architect of arguably the most successful freezone in Dubai, the DMCC, he knows more about what’s really going on in UAE business than most, and is deliciously candid in private conversation.

Within minutes of greeting he is off like a whirlwind on the many fascinating trading areas of his DMCC domain – gold, diamonds and oil, among others. These subjects have only become more interesting in the post-Ukraine invasion sanctions era, and he is a mine of information.

“You can’t write that, I’ll just deny it,” he says at one point in our conversation about one juicy bit of gossip. So I won’t repeat it.

But back to the Uptown development itself. Uptown adds a big chunk to the footprint of the DMCC, which last year won the annual “global free zone of the year” award from the Financial Times’ fDi magazine – for the ninth consecutive year.

Uptown is a significant step in the southward march of Dubai, and a link in the development chain that will soon extend all the way to Dubai World Central (DWC) airport as it aims to become the world’s biggest aviation hub. When the world is flying to DWC, Uptown will be the first business stop on the journey into Dubai.

As things stand, the centrepiece of the development is Uptown Tower, an 81-floor shimmering glass edifice that dominates the southern end of Jumeirah Lakes Towers.

Luxury commercial space mixes with upmarket residential and a five-star hotel, the SO Uptown, managed by Accor, over 10 floors of the tower.

Corporate tenants started moving in last year, when the DMCC itself moved its administrative offices from Al Mass Tower, previously the tallest building in JLT. The gold bullion and diamond vaults remain in Al Mass.

From the DMCC HQ midway up the tower, you get a whole new perspective on Dubai. Familiar soaring skyscrapers to the north, of course, but to the other points of the compass the swanky villa estates inland and industrial sprawl of Jebel Ali moving Gulfwards.

I was half expecting to make out Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi as I followed the winding ribbon of Sheikh Zayed Road.

It’s a tense time in the diamond trade. The West wants Russian gems designated ‘blood diamonds’

The next phase of the Uptown development will see the addition of several other commercial and residential buildings, an entertainment arena and more food and beverage options, and what is diplomatically planned as the second tallest tower in Dubai, the Burj2020 tower.

In the chairman’s office we sat around a small primus stove as Bin Sulayem indulged in his latest passion – roasting, grinding and brewing his own coffee. Over a cup of Jamaican Blue Mountain, he told me what was most on his mind.

On Monday, Uptown hosts a critical gathering of the Kimberley Process, the global governance body for the diamond trade of which the UAE is chair this year, for a second stint.

It’s a tense time in the international diamond trade. The West, via the G7, is seeking to have Russian gems designated “blood diamonds” because of the ongoing aggression in Ukraine, and looking to impose a certification system to track them through Antwerp in Belgium.

African gem producers object to this as another layer of bureaucracy impeding trade in their own precious stones. The Uptown debate will be lively.

As chair, Bin Sulayem will have to adjudicate proceedings impartially, though he clearly has a view about the practicality of what he calls an “imperialist decree” by the G7 and how it will negatively impact the African diamond business.

But he is well used to controversy, and has little hesitation diving into it. Many western news organisations, like Bloomberg and the Financial Times, have felt the sharpness of his online ripostes to critical articles.

“I’m OK with all of them, they can say what they like. It’s just if they’re bull I go after them. I know where to poke,” he says.

Frank Kane is Editor-at-Large of AGBI and an award-winning business journalist. He acts as a consultant to the Ministry of Energy of Saudi Arabia and is a media adviser to First Abu Dhabi Bank of the UAE

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