5 December 2014, Fridaymagazine
From Batman to Han Solo
The world’s biggest boutique for elite comic book and cult-film collectables has opened in Dubai. Colin Drury meets the owners – and Darth Vader
Something strange happens the first time I see Darth Vader flanked by four storm troopers as they sweep through the spaceship-style white curves of Dubai Outlet Mall… I feel vaguely intimidated.
They’re all 180cm-plus; three of them are carrying blasters; and I know – from seeing Star Wars way too many times – that just because old Darth is wheezing like an asthmatic forced to take the stairs, that doesn’t mean he couldn’t put a strong man in a chokehold from the far side of a solar system.
I have the strange urge to declare myself harmless to them. I want to call out, “I don’t know where those plans are!” But I refrain.
Instead, like every other apparently well-rounded regular adult here, I do something even more bizarre. I queue up to have a photo taken with them. That is to say, I queue up to have my photo taken with what are, basically, five guys in costumes.
Then, when General Grievous (a cyborg from Revenge Of The Sith – keep up, at the back!) turns up, I do the same with him too.
“This is amazing,” declares one fan as he poses with bounty hunter Boba Fett, before addressing the character himself. “But, man, you should never have handed Han over to Jabba.” Boba Fett shrugs slightly.
This is the opening of Comicave, a brand new boutique-style store set to show that when it comes to high-end shopping, Dubai doesn’t just do fashion and jewellery. It now also does sci-fi and comic book collectables.
This, the owners say, is the biggest retail outlet for such memorabilia anywhere on planet Earth. And tonight dozens of geeks (yes, myself included) are being guided around its 17,000 sq ft by both those owners and those Star Wars villains.
The place is astonishing. If you’ve ever wanted to spend Dh40,000 on an Iron Man armour suit (who hasn’t?) this is the place for you. Here you can pick up a bust of Batman (yours for just Dh3,499), a scale model of the Millennium Falcon or comic books that retail at anything from Dh10 to somewhere north of a family holiday.
There’s rare artwork lining the walls, sculptures of Superman behind glass cases and a life-sized Han Solo in carbonite. You love him? He knows.
Mock prop from films are everywhere while table-top games – such as Dungeon and Dragons – are available to play. There’s a workshop room for big screenings and model display competitions; a comic-reading area in front of a towering 3D cityscape of Spider-Man’s New York skyline; and a planned café lounge, which might or might not look like the Mos Eisley Cantina (that’s the fictional café in Star Wars, of course).
Everything here has its reason for being the way it is. The outside is designed to look like the entrance to a Star Destroyer, while customers pay at a cash desk modelled on Darth Vader’s private chamber – “because handing your money over can feel a bit like going to the dark side,” notes one of the owners, Mohammad Nasser Khammas.
“When we started planning this store we weren’t thinking in terms of a comic book shop, we were thinking of a Chanel or Louis Vuitton,” he says. “People of any age can come in and enjoy this – and there are plenty of inexpensive items – but it is aimed squarely at adults. We wanted it to be a high-end experience and a concept destination for serious collectors from across the Middle East and Asia. In a way, this is a permanent exhibition of our stock.”
Indeed, Comicave will be the headquarters for a business that will import millions of dirhams’ worth of merchandise from the US every year, and then distribute it to aficionados – individuals and retailers across Asia, Africa, Australasia and South America.
Yet perhaps the most remarkable thing about this place is neither how beautiful it looks nor the scope of its commercial ambition. Rather, to use the terminology of the X-Men merchandise it sells, it is perhaps its own origins story…
If there’s a superhero in this particular tale, it’s almost certainly Khammas. He was shopping in New York City when he realised a concept like Comicave might well work in the UAE.
The 37-year-old had just spent almost Dh20,000 on sci-fi collectables but when he researched how much it would cost to have his purchases shipped back to the UAE the lowest quote he could get was another Dh20,000. He was astonished. “I deal with logistics every day and my first thought was I could probably do it cheaper myself. Then that got me thinking that maybe I should do it myself.
“Then from there, I started to see how that could develop into a possible business opportunity.”
And if anyone was capable of exploiting such an opportunity, it was him.
In person, the father of three has the easy charm of Peter Parker, the charisma of Star Wars’ Lando Calrissian and the jawline of Clark Kent. Probably more importantly, though, he also has the CEO-ship of a family firm that makes Wayne Enterprises look small-scale.
Al Ahli Holding Group – founded by his father Nasser Khammas some 40 years ago – runs a portfolio of businesses ranging from real estate to construction, engineering to production, plastics to fuel.
It also built and now runs Dubai Outlet Mall, where Comicave is based, and Khammas oversaw the Dubai Outlet City Project.
He joined the company in 1998 after being educated in the UAE, UK and US and now, as CEO, is in charge of acquiring new businesses and expanding the corporation’s global portfolio.
He is also a founding member of the Young Arab Leaders UAE Chapter and developed the Global Business Opportunities and Entrepreneurial Skills for South Americans and Middle Eastern Youth programme in 2008.
Yet in his spare time – and he insists he does find some – he continues to indulge one passion above all others: his childhood adoration of comics and sci-fi.
“I’ve loved comic books since I was five years old and they were published in Arabic in Syria,” he says.
“They offer an incredible world that is fantastic and aspirational, intelligent and imaginative. I would read 10 volumes a month when I was a kid. That was more than I would ever read for my school lessons, but there are important lessons in comic books, I believe.
“These superheroes – like Iron Man or Batman – achieve what they do through hard work and strong principles. They look at the world and they do not rest until they make it better. And for a child I think that’s a very powerful and very positive message. They say to you that the possibilities are limitless and they show you that if you apply yourself you can achieve whatever you want.
“I put some of my own achievements down to that message certainly. You can’t overestimate it, of course. The ambience around you is so important. You need a supportive family and friends, and at work you need to be surrounded by the right colleagues. But I think, often, successful people don’t lose that child-like notion that being invincible is a state of mind.”
Does he see a little of his own favourite character, billionaire industrialist Iron Man, in himself, I wonder? “Well, I don’t fly about in an armour suit,” he deadpans. “But, yes, I have that determination, and he is also very human. Iron Man is not infallible.”
That early love, nurtured while growing up in Fujairah, has rarely faded since. Other interests have come along – he loves his cars and is a board member of Al Ahli Football Club – but comics and sci-fi have remained a permanent passion.
When I ask how much collectable merchandise he owns, he shakes his head, and says, “A lot”. Which is why he was shopping in New York, adding to that collection during a business trip.
But at least now his business targets of diversifying the portfolio of Al Ahli Holding Group and his love of sci-fi have dovetailed nicely.
“This may seem very different to other Al Ahli industries but a lot of the same expertise is needed,” he says. “This is importing, retail and distribution. It may be more colourful than construction but it’s essentially very similar logistics.
“As a business, we don’t just jump in. We looked at the market. We’re a data-driven company and the data showed there was potential here. Starting any new business is a risk to some extent but the thing about high-end merchandise like this is that we are selling quality, often limited-edition items – that means the value of our stock will only appreciate over time, like art investments.”
He and his team liaised with manufacturers and distributors in the US. They signed agreements with 22 partners, giving them almost unprecedented access to products from traditional rivals such as Marvel and DC Comics.
Making it happen took just eight months. It had a soft opening in October before the official launch last month. Now, already, the possibility of opening new bases in places such as Abu Dhabi, New Delhi or Johannesburg are being discussed.
“In an ideal world we would like other people to open up shops and use us as their supplier,” says Khammas. “But, if that doesn’t happen, we are more than prepared to stimulate these markets by doing it ourselves.”
It is an exciting proposition, undoubtedly. And one which, given the swift success in setting up Comicave, seems a distinct possibility. It’s approaching 10pm as we go around the store where people are still seeking out Vader for selfies. I’m hoping to hear him say, “Tear this shop apart until you find those… bargains”. But, alas, he doesn’t.
Not that it matters to anyone here. “For comic book fans,” says one Kristie Templa, a social media manager from Deira, “this place is just like the centre of the universe – it’s incredible for Dubai to have this right on our doorstep. My only worry is how much I might end up spending here.”
With shoppers like this, it certainly seems here that the Force is with Comicave.