In 1992, Al Tayer, a Dubai trading company best known for keeping the local sheiks and emirs rolling in the latest Jaguars and Land Rovers, decided to add jewelry and fashion to its portfolio. Shopping in Dubai at that stage was largely theoreticalthere were just a handful of retail options and lots of eye-popping plans on architects' drawing boards. But shopping was said to be a cornerstone of the master plan to draw tourists to Dubai, and the Italian jeweler Bulgari, among others, was looking for a partner to break into the Middle East. Al Tayer headhunted Shireen El Khatib from the advertising industry to manage the first Bulgari store.
"Thinking jewelry, they probably thought a woman would be more appropriate," says El Khatib, 44, now ceo of Al Tayer Group's luxury-fashion arm, Al Tayer Insignia. Though she is not Emirati, El Khatib had lived in Dubai from the age of 8 and also had a multicultural edge: her mother is Egyptian, her father was Palestinian and her parents had encouraged her to study business at the American University in Paris after high school for exposure to both American and European cultures.
At Al Tayer, she threw herself into learning Italian, fine jewelry and Carrara-marble qualities and shrugged off telephone calls to the store from confused locals looking for visa information for Bulgaria. "It was Bulgari's first store in the Middle East and No. 18 worldwide. There was a lot to do in terms of educating the customer here," she remembers. Quickly Al Tayer struck a deal for a store with Giorgio Armani, and those stores attracted other Western brands.
Although Al Tayer was new to fashion, the company had established itself as a premium vendor of cars and also ran a well-regarded high-end contemporary- and modern-furniture showroom in town. "The reputation was already 'They bring the best to town, and shopping in their stores is an experience,'" says El Khatib, who translated that corporate ethos for fashion. Under her leadership, the company scrupulously conformed to the European brands' guidelines in terms of windows and merchandising; staff were trained and uniformed; and traditional sales practices, including negotiating on prices, were prohibited.
Sixteen years later, Dubai has added some 20 million sq. ft. (1.86 million sq m) of retail space, and El Khatib finds herself at the head of the largest luxury retailing operation in the Middle East. Al Tayer Insignia represents 35 brands, including its original partners, but also Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent and other Gucci Group labels as well as Loro Piana and Coach. She launched two multibrand storesOunass for fashion and accessories and Azal for fine jewelryto "incubate" niche and promising up-and-coming brands that weren't yet well known enough to justify a freestanding store. She also inked a license deal with the London department store Harvey Nichols.
"Shireen in the Emirates is the epitome of fashion," says Robert Polet, chief executive of Gucci Group, which has worked with Al Tayer for 12 years. He describes her as "extremely articulate" and says he particularly appreciates her "fast and direct" working style. "She has done a tremendous job to help the Al Tayer Group build the fashion and luxury goods empire they have today," Polet says.
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