No matter if it is a commercial or residential area, suitably decorated interiors create the totality of any building, and in the 21st century, the interior design industry is going stronger than ever before, offering a fresh vision of the way we want to live. Today, interior design and decoration is much more than making the place look beautiful; the industry has become an important aspect of any construction project.

In the GCC, the interior contracting and fit-out sector was worth USD 7.35 billion in 2014, according to a study published by research firm Ventures Middle East. The interiors industry is propelled by huge building project across the region.

There are more than 10,000 projects under construction or in the design and planning stage in the GCC, while the estimated value of construction projects that will be completed in the next decade is USD 1.4 trillion.

Ventures study says USD 72 billion worth of completed projects and USD 103 billion worth of awarded projects are forecasted for 2015, and as a result, the interiors market is likely to grow by 9 percent, to an estimated value of almost USD 8 billion in 2015.

Michelle T. Sterling
Michelle T. Sterling, founder of US-based, parent company of
Sterling Home Styling Dubai

Evolving trends

A competitive, ever-changing and hectic industry, whose key players, much like in fashion, every season set new trends, is very buoyant in the region, where the interior contracting and fit-outs sector constitutes approximately 10 to 22 percent of the average construction project value.

With the most commonly used materials – like stone, for example – the cost of stone and tile used in finishing a building can be, for some projects, as high as 12 percent of the overall cost.

The costs are significantly higher than in Europe or Asia: for example, some high-end interior projects in Qatar, UAE or Saudi Arabia – leaders in the regional market – can easily exceed USD 25 million.

Asked about the main trends in the industry, Diane Thorsen, principal design director at Dubai’s branch of Perkins+Will, an international multidisciplinary architectural and design practice, emphasises that each project is unique and designers are required to respond in a very open and flexible way to a client’s style, budget and timeline.

“Trends are constantly evolving in this region as art exhibitions, museums and cultural events in the region become more prevalent. There are new trends in experimentation with contemporary design and finishes, reflecting the raw and natural as opposed to polished and decorated. Design in the region has typically drawn references from the past; however the boundaries and limits are open to explore new experimental trends.”

According to Sophie Johnson, assistant professor at Canadian University in Dubai, the motto “less is more” is only now taking hold in the region whose tradition of rich textiles, vibrant colours and playful ornaments is woven into almost every contemporary interior             design project.

“I think the time for big and bold is vanishing slightly and now you are beginning to see smaller projects with a more humanistic scale to it. With these smaller projects comes a very interesting material palette for this area, materials which might not really be considered in a residential or commercial environment, such as prefab concrete, or raw materials.

A move away from the high quality materials previously associated with the Middle East. However, these rawer materials are mixed in with marble or traditional patterns and they take on a new dimension,” she explains.

Diane Thorsen
Diane Thorsen, principal design director at Dubai’s branch of Perkins+Will

When less is not enough

Michelle T. Sterling, founder of US-based, the parent company of Sterling Home Styling Dubai, sees things differently. Less isn’t more when it comes to her experience with interior design in the region.

“The trends are decadent interiors with the use of metallics like gold or silver, blended with rich fabrics and textures in upholstery and tapestry. The use of paint to add contrast and dimension to a room is also popular depending on the size of the space,” she says.

“Clients from the region are first and foremost concerned about beauty. Therefore when we first work with clients, we always identify their interior style preferences and define a colour palette that is most suitable before commencing a project so we are able to meet their aesthetic needs.

Then we make recommendations on interior style trends whether it is from furniture, lighting to flooring so we can deliver a look of opulence that begins from the structure and framework of the home to refining the interior touches of the décor,” says Sterling describing the work process.

According to Ventures ME, this year’s interior and fit-outs spend (including internal wood works, soft and hard furnishings, lightings, partitions, flooring, kitchens, bathroom fittings, etc.), in residential sector projects are estimated at USD 3.1 billion.

Residential projects traditionally represent the largest share – 42 percent of the overall GCC interiors market in 2014 followed by the commercial sector with a 17.15 percent share corresponding to a value of USD 1.26 billion and the hospitality sector with 13.51 percent share and a value of USD 993 million.

The Ventures study forecasts the value of the commercial sector interiors projects likely to be completed over 2015 to reach USD 1.3 billion, while for the hospitality segment, especially hotels, the study says that (hotel) projects completed in the year 2014 are likely to translate into an above mentioned interior spend of USD 993 million, an approximate 22.5 percent of total project costs of USD 4.4 billion, growing to USD 1.3 billion on projects likely to be completed in 2015 worth USD 5.9 billion.

For the healthcare sector, interiors and fit-out are estimated to earn USD 297 million on 2014 projects worth USD 3.7 billion. It is expected that the interiors spend in this year will reach USD 569 million. When it comes to the education sector, interior contracting and fit-out developments are estimated to earn USD 571 million on last year’s projects, worth USD 7.1 billion, states the Ventures report.

Such rapid growth comes with more than one challenge – for Johnson the most important one is to try and make spaces (urban or interior) feel local in size. “To think how that design has a place in history, what it says about design in the 21st century in the UAE”, she says, while Thorsen emphasises high pressure timelines and slow decisions as the main challenges for interior designers in the GCC.

“The speed of projects and time to design is always a negative factor for architects, designers and contractors in the region. Quality design and manufacture deserve reasonable time and energy to think and be creative to deliver exceptional results”.

We are often asked to produce a full design in the RFP (request for proposal) which is a high cost to any business.

For Sterling, the biggest challenge of operating in the GCC is inventory. “It often takes a long time for international furniture brands in the GCC to order items or have things custom made. This process often works for our clients on an incremental budget.

However for the client who would like their home completed in an expeditious timeline, we have to use our connections with many of these luxury brands in the US and Europe, and are therefore able to accommodate our clients’ needs.”

sophie johnson
Sophie Johnson, assistant professor at the Canadian University in Dubai

Brand awareness

The GCC region is known for its well-developed luxury market and young, brand-aware population, which is always keen to explore new and innovative products, no matter the cost. This trend is reflected in the interior design confirms Sterling.

“Most of our clients in the Middle East are brand conscious, from high end appliances in the kitchen to branded sinks, toilets, and light fixtures and luxury brand furniture and accessories. They prefer that we style their home to perfection using only the best brands, therefore if budget is a concern we implement changes in stages,” she explains.

For some clients “quality is more” and Thorsen says brand awareness is linked with the quality of the product rather than a brand for the name’s sake. “Refined clients understand the quality associated with a quality brand and demand the best in terms of form and function. There are always those clients who prefer to focus on budget rather than quality but that is not our market,” says the Perkins+Will principal design director.

Johnson’s opinion differs:  “I don’t think people are that brand conscious. In regards to design and fashion yes, but with things like furniture and textiles, I think people tend to go with what they like as opposed to what has history to it or a story to tell.

There are several furniture shops in the UAE that stock copies of 20th Century Modern furniture (their prices are not far off the real prices) but the shops are always busy, people buying without being aware that they are not the genuine  product even when there are shops like Icon House which distribute real 20th Century pieces. Really this doesn’t matter so much for residential, but if you are paying to stay at a top hotel which is stocked with ‘fake’ furniture, that is a problem,” she points out.

Saudi Arabia, with USD 52.5 billion worth of various construction projects currently underway, is the biggest interiors market with a 43 percent share, estimated at USD 3.57 billion – it is estimated that spending on interior finishing items will grow by 13.7 percent by 2017.

The second-largest interiors and fit-out market valued at USD 2.73 billion and representing 31 percent of the market share is the UAE. The home furnishings market in the UAE is forecast to reach USD 1.63 billion in 2015, according to research company Euromonitor International, compared to USD 1.58 billion in 2014.

Qatar is in third place: currently there are USD 22.7 billion worth of projects due to be completed, while the interiors and fit-out sector had an estimated value at over USD 1.3 billion during 2014, and it is expected to grow further, especially because of the projects revolving around the 2022 World Cup.

The Ventures team predicts hospitality and infrastructure sectors are likely to be the primary drivers of growth for the overall interiors and fit-outs market in Qatar. Just the commercial interiors and fit-out spend is forecast to grow to USD 80 million in 2015, compared to USD 60 million last year, while USD 175 million was the spend for residential interiors.

GCC interior marketThe most buoyant sector in the country was new retail developments – Qatar ranks the first among the GCC courtiers with completed retail projects worth USD 362 million, and for 2015 this figure will grow to more than USD 550 million, with retail sector interiors spend around USD 130 million, more than anywhere else in the region.

Kuwait is in fourth place on the list of interiors spending in the GCC with USD 7.1 billion projects worth in the pipeline, and last year’s value of the fit-out market at USD 400 million.

Of the same value is Oman’s fit-out market, data by Index (leading MENA design exhibition) shows, while Bahrain’s fit-out market value in 2014 was estimated at USD 200 million.

Exploring new trends

All across the region, thanks to steady economies, tourism and big events like the World Cup 2022 and Expo 2020, major construction, renovation and refurbishment projects are under way.

“The market is evolving and maturing to understand and accept new trends being explored,” says Thorsen, adding that the luxury market is dominant which brings inspiring concepts that are starting to visibly shape the look and feel of today’s Middle East.

“The more exposed to international trends the market becomes through travel, exposure to art, fashion and culture, the more open clients will be to new ways of thinking about design,” she says. And if the definition of design is, as Donna Karan famously said, “A constant challenge to balance comfort with lux, the practical with the desirable,” the GCC interiors market is set for a sustained future growth.



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