When it comes to Arab women in senior positions across the UAE, Khadija Al Bastaki is a name that never falls from the conversation. As Executive Director of Dubai Design District (d3), she has been the leading force behind making the neighbourhood a destination for design, fashion, architecture, art, and retail.

Khadija has always been involved in business administration and development, along with a master's in the field, she has over 15 years of experience growing different kinds of businesses and managing diverse portfolios. Right before assuming her role as the Executive Director of Dubai Design District, she served as the Director of Business Development for Dubai Media City, Dubai Studio City, and Dubai Production City. This prepared her immensely to manage integrated creative ecosystems and attract skilled creative talent. 

We recently spoke with Khadija on the periphery of Arab Fashion Week regarding her role, responsibilities, and much more. Full of pride for playing a key role in cultivating d3’s reputation locally, regionally, and globally Khadija is passionate about enabling a strong design and creative community as well as attracting and nurturing homegrown design talents in the country. An insightful chat that gave us a deeper understanding of what it takes to spearhead a colossal cultural-creative initiative such as d3. 

Khadja Al Bastaki

S.M.: What does your current role as d3's Executive Director entail?

K.A.B.: As the Executive Director of d3, it is my responsibility to oversee the growth of our business ecosystem and build our profile as a leading destination for design, fashion, architecture, art, and retail. The leadership of Dubai aims to significantly transform the Emirate’s creative economy by 2025, and strongly aligned with this, we at d3 are committed to cementing Dubai’s reputation as an ideal destination for creative businesses and entrepreneurs from around the world.

Collaboration is key to my role and I am in regular contact with our various business partners to ensure that our district is supporting their success with our business-friendly ecosystem, advanced infrastructure, and opportunities to work together. I also work with my team to pursue strategic partnerships with other public and private institutions in developing innovative events that put Dubai and its wealth of talent on the global map.  We are continuously on the lookout for exceptional talent that delivers on ingenuity and originality.  

S.M.: Can you tell us about some of the main challenges you face in your work right now?

K.A.B.: d3 is home to a diverse community of businesses that are at varying stages of evolution and growth, and there’s no one size fits all solution when it comes to the kind of support they need to thrive. It is an exciting challenge to explore how we can best bolster their success by tailoring solutions that address their ambitions. We are constantly re-evaluating and enhancing the scope of opportunities and assistance available to them and conceiving innovative ways to boost their visibility for future investment, partnerships, and prospects. 

The last two years have of course brought challenges for us all – it has been an unprecedented time for the creative sector globally. We explored all sorts of ways in which to support the industry and we took measures early on to help our business partners minimize uncertainty, ensure business continuity and maintain financial resilience. I am proud of the way that our community has come together during these times. As the beating heart of the region’s design and creative scene, we have absorbed learnings from the pandemic and got to rethink the regular by embracing the inevitability of change and becoming active architects of the future creative landscape.  Our community at d3 is closer-knit than ever. We stand today having tested and expanded our ecosystem’s potential for collaboration and innovation. 

S.M.: In just a few short years d3 has firmly established itself as a creative hub, what has been the formula for its successful evolution?

Dubai Design District

K.A.B.: Without a doubt, it is our commitment to rethinking the regular – and this is at the heart of everything we do. Our community is made up of creative individuals who not only have extraordinary technical skills but also are insatiably curious and eager to define the future of design. d3 is truly like no other creative community in the world, housing global corporations, growing SMEs, disruptive start-ups, and visionary entrepreneurs in a shared address. With such diverse talents, resources, and perspectives in our midst, we offer a uniquely rich landscape where our eclectic business partners can come together, collaborate and innovate. High-profile events like Arab Fashion Week and Dubai Design Week play a significant role in amplifying these qualities to a far-reaching, global audience, cementing Dubai as the ideal destination for creative companies and talent from around the world.  

S.M.: How would you describe the d3 community and how do you ensure it remains unique and diverse?

K.A.B.: I would describe our community as innovative, imaginative, bold, eclectic, and cosmopolitan. d3 is a design destination where creativity inspires novel experiences, products and satisfies those with deep hunger for new, fresh and different experiences. We provide the state-of-the-art infrastructure that enables businesses and individuals at different stages of their journey to grow and co-create. We offer stylish offices, studios, art galleries, showrooms, and retail spaces where international businesses can expand their business activities and tap into a multicultural market in the MENA region, as well as scalable solutions to SMEs. 

We are home to the Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation (DIDI), which offers the region’s first multidisciplinary Bachelor of Design and is nurturing a new generation of future-ready and design-minded students. Along with that, we have in5 Design, a business incubator that is empowering start-ups and entrepreneurs in the region with access to exclusive advisory and mentorships, networking events and workshops, creative facilities – including a state-of-the-art Fashion Lab – and investment opportunities.

S.M.: What is the most rewarding part of your job?

K.A.B.: Watching our business partners grow and challenge the perceived boundaries of design and creativity is by far the most rewarding part of what I do. The talent brewing in our community, as well as the wider region, is a force to be reckoned with, and when we can elevate their technique and imagination before a global audience through events like Arab Fashion Week, it’s truly a point of great pride. It’s especially rewarding when our entrepreneurs and SMEs get a chance to rub shoulders with industry giants and engage them in long-lasting relationships.  

S.M.: Arab Fashion Week is just one of the events planned for this year’s busy roster, what does it take to put together an event like this?

K.A.B.: Collaboration, collaboration, and collaboration! We are continually pursuing strategic partnerships with public and private entities to bring our great ideas to life and increase the visibility and credibility of Dubai’s creative landscape. For Arab Fashion Week, we partnered with the Arab Fashion Council and other key businesses whose networks, resources and expertise help us deliver ground-breaking experiences time and time again. For the latest Men’s edition, we also teamed up with Meta to live stream the shows virtually, expanding the event’s reach to a wider audience while keeping in line with the precautionary protocol. 

S.M.: What are some of the important elements to maintaining an active and supportive creative cluster such as d3? 

K.A.B.: We maintain a supportive creative cluster by ensuring that our business partners always have a common ground upon which to meet and engage and learn from each other. Along with our high-profile events, we organize a busy annual calendar of community networking events, workshops, keynotes, and panel discussions so that our creative industry can easily come together, share insights and develop long-lasting relationships. Business partners and industry leaders can exchange their various experiences, how they overcame certain challenges and provide valuable learning opportunities for others – especially young entrepreneurs and SMEs. Businesses in our community are also part of a vibrant lifestyle hub offering popular culinary experiences, which provide ideal environments to casually catch up and network.   

S.M.: How do you maintain the balance between local and global establishments in d3 and have there been any interesting collaborations between them? 

K.A.B.: As I said previously, there’s no one size fits all solution for any kind of business. Local businesses have different ambitions and strategies from global ones, and it’s important to ensure that you are giving the right kind of support and environment to enable each effectively. For homegrown companies, we work to help them achieve sustainable growth while, for international businesses, we try to ensure that their products, service, and brand reaches the intended audience within our region. 

Despite its challenges, the pandemic was a time when we saw the different members of our community come together and develop incredibly valuable partnerships. We joined forces with the Arab Fashion Council for the #AThread4Cause campaign, calling upon UAE-based fashion designers to use their craftsmanship to make surgical attire for the UAE’s healthcare industry. d3 became a central logistics hub for the campaign which saw seven business partners representing more than 50 tailors and pattern makers producing personal protective equipment. It also saw a greater focus on the local and homegrown, given the restrictions on travel that resulted.  So this has seen more local talent and designers rise.  And indeed this is also supported by the ever-growing sustainability mindset as well – and consumers thinking more and more about where their products have come from, who made them, and their carbon footprint. 

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