From the top of the RAK International Corporate Centre, foreign tycoons can glimpse a city’s transformation. A long stretch of the desert lies toward the north, luxury villas dot the Persian Gulf coast to the west, and Las Vegas-based Wynn Resorts Ltd. is planning a project that it says is intended to be a $3.9 billion gaming resort.
The emirate of Ras Al Khaimah is trying to make its mark as the latest destination for high-net-worth individuals seeking an alternative to Dubai, the United Arab Emirates’ glitziest city. The efforts include luring foreign investors with a citizenship-by-investment program and building a free zone to attract companies developing virtual assets. Immigration consultants say the efforts have boosted the number of wealthy visitors to RAK, which aims to translate the tourist surge into longer-term economic benefits.
RAK, a northern territory of the UAE, is less than an hour’s flight from Dubai and is smaller than Rhode Island. Its leaders, led by a Michigan-educated sheik, plan to turn the city into an international business hub. But they face many hurdles. For one, the emirate’s size has made some outsized projects struggle to take off. RAK’s ruler has canceled some, including a soccer-themed resort that would have hosted Real Madrid. Its organizer, a Luxembourg-based company, later defaulted on payments.
But some of RAK’s big plans, such as the upcoming casino project, have taken off. The new hotel-casino, slated to open in 2020, will be bigger than any in Las Vegas, including the 631-foot Encore at Wynn Las Vegas and the 679-foot Marina Bay Sands in Singapore. Its configuration will match the curved shape of an island on the property and offer ocean views from nearly every room.
RAK’s leadership seeks to lure more foreign investment by lowering taxes and expanding an incentive program that gives selected investors citizenship. It’s also promoting itself to wealthy investors and industrialists from countries ranging from Russia to the Czech Republic. The emirate’s sheik has delegated much of the country’s financial strategy to his daughter, Sheikha Amneh Al Qasimi, a Stanford Business School alum who chairs RAK’s investment and development office.
Sheikh Amneh has brought in a team of international specialists, many with experience in the Caribbean and Europe, to lead RAK’s effort to lure more overseas business people. Schoen, for example, has more than 30 years of experience opening and operating prestigious integrated resorts. Sheikha Amneh has also promoted a cultural initiative to promote local music, food, and architecture to give visitors a more authentic taste of the region. She has endorsed a festival that celebrates the art of weaving and has helped set up an exhibition of rare manuscripts that showcases the city’s rich history. It’s a far cry from the flamboyant gaudy palaces and shopping malls that dominate Dubai. The emirate’s cultural emphasis reflects its Islamic and Arab roots, as evidenced by the frequent calls to prayer heard from the minarets of the city’s mosques.