Nadia Zaal, CEO of Zaya Group on Making Real Estate Dreams a Reality

Lindsay Judge   |   16-04-2023


Established in 2008, Zaya is the Dubai-based boutique real estate development company behind projects such as Al Barari and Abu Dhabi’s Zaya Nurai Island.


Led by CEO Nadia Zaal, the company strives to create communities that bring people together and offer more than just a place to live. The company has already developed more than $6 billion worth of unique real estate and extraordinary experiences and it seems this is only just the beginning. The company’s latest project Zuha Island, an island off the coast of Dubai, will combine luxury living with five-star hospitality, sustainability and a community feel. The private island will house a boutique retreat, spa, beach club, restaurants and 30 limited-edition private residences upon completion.


For British Emirati Nadia, who learned much of her knowledge of real estate from her father Zaal bin Zaal, real estate is about so much more than building houses. Her entrepreneurial mindset helps her to create experiences and a united feel for those who live within her communities. There is a strong focus on sustainability, connecting with nature, and living life to the fullest. With the company’s projects so far, the have pushed the boundaries of real estate, bringing the unexpected and proving there are no limits to what can be done n the UAE. As the latest project Zuha Island is revealed, we find out more about the vision for the company.



Tell us about your role as CEO of Zaya Group. 

As CEO it’s my job to look at market trends, stay close to what’s happening in real estate markets around the world, identify opportunities, and create the vision and the briefs on our projects. I’m very involved in acquisition negotiations and design briefs and I’m always on site. I guess I am a little bit of a control freak, I do quite a lot and I’m involved in every aspect of the development cycle from acquisition to delivery. 



What is the vision and positioning of the company today?

There are amazing big developers in Dubai and on the contrary, we are more of a boutique developer, we like to focus on niche products. For me, building is exciting and you can create beautiful spaces with high-end finishes, but what really excites me, is how a community functions, even within a building itself: what the public areas are, what the design is like, is it encouraging residents to spend time outside? Are there enough spaces for neighbours to actually meet each other? As cities grow we often lose a sense of community and that’s something that I find really important and something that excites me. So in terms of positioning, I think we are starting to be known as the developer that looks at the human aspects of life and how that works within a community. 



Let’s start by talking about Zaya Nurai Island and your role in the development of this project – what can you tell us about the resort and what makes it unique?

At the time we started working on ZayaNurai I remember Dubai was booming, Al Barari was doing very well, and so we started to look at Abu Dhabi. I remember looking at various islands, and I stood on Nurai island and fell in love immediately. So I created the concept, sold the real estate and built the resort. I was not planning on operating the hotel at the time, that happened because of changes in contracts, so I actually got into hotel operations by accident, but it was an amazing experience, we learnt a lot, and now we have a great hospitality team. 


What makes Zaya Nurai unique is that you have this island resort feeling and yet you are so close to Abu Dhabi. The other aspect is that people really appreciate the privacy of Nurai as well as the very personalised level of service. Nurai was acquired by Aldar last year and I’m not sure what their plans are but I’m sure they will make it even more beautiful.



Moving onto Al Barari tell us about your role in that community today.

I started Al Barari with my father before working on Zaya Nurai Island and various other projects and then I took over at Al Barari again a few years ago. For me, Al Barari is Dubai’s best-kept secret. When I returned I wanted to take it to the next level by building more projects within the community and bringing more life to it. So we are focused on bringing in retail and a lot of community events. We have completed thirteen new buildings, we’ve extended the gym, we’ve built a new spa, we have a new space called Nature Escapes which is focused on children’s activities connected to nature, and we have approximately 300 new villas under construction. So we’ve definitely been busy bringing the rest of the community to life. 




We know that sustainability is a key value for your – tell us about this and where it fits into your strategy today.

Sustainability is hugely important for us. We recycle all of our sewage treatment water. We filter sewage water and use that for irrigation. On Zaya Nurai we have the region’s first floating solar plant, which was at its peak, generating forty per cent of the island’s power. 


For our new project Zuha Island, we are also looking at solar energy, we are looking at marine life and coral transplanting and also creating micro-climates and reducing our carbon footprint by planting trees. Al Barari is of course the greenest community in Dubai. Everyone talks about sustainability in terms of the planet but I think we should also look at the human aspect; how we feel as human beings, how we make human life sustainable and how we remain happy. That’s a key element when we look at development and design. We assess how a person will feel within a space and how we can encourage this person to wake up and sit on his or her balcony in the sunshine and enjoy the space he or she is in. We consider ways that we can get neighbours to meet each other and have that human connection. We ask how we can improve the daily lives of people in these communities. These are the things we consider very seriously. 



As an Emirati woman in a powerful position, how do you ensure your voice is heard?

As an Emirati woman, I have no issues getting my voice heard! I think it’s a misconception that Emirati women somehow have to prove themselves, I think we are encouraged by our leadership and in fact, I feel like it helps that I’m a woman, people are more receptive towards me and the government departments are very supportive and encouraging.



What are some of the biggest challenges you face and how do you overcome them?

At the moment one of the biggest challenges I have is growing the team and finding people that have a “can do” attitude. We have a highly entrepreneurial culture at the company, we are very efficient, perhaps some say not very structured at times – decisions are made very quickly, and it’s not always easy to find people that are comfortable within that kind of culture. So I would say that’s a big challenge for me. Sometimes things move too fast for people and it’s not comfortable. 


The other challenge I’m having at the moment is that we are developing an island in Dubai which is something completely new, and this means government departments are not familiar with what the regulations should look like and it can be difficult sometimes. So I guess pioneering has its advantages and disadvantages. 



What are you currently working on and what is in the pipeline for the rest of 2023?

We are working on delivering around 300 villas in Al Barari. I am working on Zuha Island in Dubai. We have just started construction and that is going to take up a lot of my time because island developments are always more complicated. 



What is your overall vision for the group moving forward?

I would like to be recognised as the developer of choice for someone that wants to be part of a community that has a soul and that human touch.



What is the professional motto that you live by?

Just get it done! I like people to take action and not overthink things. Of course, planning is important but I think a lot of people have a lot of plans and don’t actually take action. I always encourage my team to make decisions, even if they turn out to be wrong you can make another decision to fix it, but at least things are moving.