© Mark Lowey 2021. All rights reserved.
All photographs courtesy of Desert Designs except where noted.
In this piece, Mark Lowey chronicles the story of Desert Designs and its founders, Qamar Ahmed and Farid Bukhari, who own the unique, family-run interior design studio, home décor gift shop and art gallery, in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia, that is dedicated to Saudi culture and Islamic design.
MUMBAI, INDIA, 1976
India’s annual monsoon begins in June, and rainy, relatively cool weather will last until September. When Saudi schools let out for the summer many Saudi families, seeking to escape the searing heat of the season, turn to India for relief.
In 1976, Farid Bukhari, age 13, was looking forward to his vacation from middle school in Dammam. Together with his father, mother, and three younger siblings, he traveled to his aunt’s holiday home in Mumbai. Farid enjoyed reuniting with his Indian cousins each summer. There were other families in the neighborhood with children his age to befriend. Young Farid was the cool kid from Saudi Arabia.
New to this neighborhood in Mumbai was the Ahmed family. Parents Mazharaldeen Ahmed and Zainab Kazi were friends of Farid’s aunt. They had three children, the youngest was their daughter, Qamar (“Kim”), also age 13.
The Bukhari family of Saudi Arabia had a decades-long connection with India. In the 1950s, Farid Bukhari’s grandfather, Ahmed Jamal Bukhari, and his partner, Mohamed Ali Zainul Ali Reda, founded a jewelry business in Saudi Arabia that featured jewelry products imported from India. The business prospered and these altruistic gentlemen established the first all-girls school in Mecca, Al Falah School, as well as a free school in Mumbai for the poor and needy.
When Farid’s father came of age, he became involved in the family business and enjoyed frequent visits to India. Eventually, Farid’s Saudi father, Muhammad Ali Bukhari, met and married his Indian-born mother, Razia Sayed, and they settled in Dammam to raise a family.
Over the years, Farid’s family continued their annual visits to Mumbai. “Their priority was to come to India each summer. As soon as school was out, they were booked,” said Qamar in a recent conversation. “Farid returned every year!”
These families followed the traditions of Muslims the world over and were strict when it came to fraternization between boys and girls. When the group of like-aged youngsters, boys and girls on summer break, roamed the neighborhoods and rode bicycles and motorbikes, they were always chaperoned and under the supervision of adults or older siblings. “Farid loved motorbikes, and he was always on one. He was a funny guy and very cool. I loved bikes and was always cycling,” recounts Qamar. It was during these easy-going times that Farid and Qamar first became acquainted.
Was it love at first sight? “Our first meeting was just a normal ‘hello’ kind of scene for me,” Qamar recalls. “We were in a new neighborhood, and he was our first neighbor. I came to know he was visiting from Saudi. So, along with our brothers and sisters, it blossomed into a fun friendship.”
“Our families were a bit strict, and there were many restrictions. So, we took lots of walks and hung out, always properly chaperoned by my friends and his sisters and mine. We laughed a lot.”
Farid agrees. “I loved going to India to meet up with my relatives and hanging around Kim’s family was epic. Her family was amazing – that’s when I truly felt unconditional love.”
Through their teenage years, when Farid returned to Saudi during the school year, they maintained their friendship, corresponding as pen pals through the post. “I was busy first with high school and graduation and then years of college,” says Qamar, adding, “Then he started just ‘casually’ being there around the time that I returned from college. So that’s that. I don’t think we shared a meal or anything for a very long time.”
MARRIAGE IN 1984
Farid and Qamar knew their bond was strong and, eight years after they first met, they were married. The wedding was held on July 7, 1984, in India. Qamar remembers, “It was a mix of Arabian and Indian families, a joyous celebration of cultures and people.”
Looking back, Farid says, “Yes, it was love at first sight. I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with Kimi. Alhamdulillah, it just felt right and still does. Masha Allah, she’s the most amazing wife and business partner.”
The newlyweds made their home in Saudi Arabia. Farid worked at his father’s business that catered to vinyl audiophiles, importing high-end, British-made turntables, amplifiers, and speaker systems. Qamar, having recently graduated from Sophia College of Arts in Mumbai, started freelancing with considerable success. Her early work focused on graphic design, company logos, and stationery letterheads. Later, Aramco commissioned Qamar to design the interiors and create wall murals for the Abqaiq school and golf club and the dining halls of the Abqaiq and Udhailiyah residential communities.
One of Qamar’s early designs at the Aramco school in Abqaiq.
Children soon followed. Daughter Raneen was born in 1987, a son, Raif, in 1993, followed by a second son, Radi, in 1996. Proud father Farid said, “All three are independent and working in different design fields. Raneen is an independent art curator (and a big influence in Desert Design products), Raif is a musician and engineer, and Radi works at Desert Designs.”
Qamar Ahmed and Farid Bukhari.
DESERT DESIGNS, A HOME-GROWN VISION
As they began setting up their home in the late 1980s, Qamar’s interior design sensibilities and creative talents became apparent. Farid recalls, “The compliments we received from friends about our home’s interior style got us thinking that selling some of our favorite ideas as gifts and home décor could be turned into a business and would allow Kim to work from home.” And, thus, Desert Designs was born. The initial concept was to sell handmade and curated gifts.
Little did they know that the start of their business would soon collide with the beginning of the Gulf War in August 1990. During the war, American, British, and other coalition troops were stationed at the Dhahran Airbase, formerly Dhahran International Airport. Undeterred, the first Desert Designs gift shop was set up in a tent near the base, where they sold Saudi artifacts and souvenirs primarily to the soldiers.
Asked if she could remember the first item they sold, Qamar replied, “Wow, it must have been a camel saddle. The customers had never seen one before and were excited that they could take one home, display it, and tell a story about it.”
The tent shop at Dhahran Airbase, 1990.
Demand and popularity grew, and the first Desert Designs store was opened in a rented space on Prince Mohammed Street in Al Khobar on December 16, 1990. Business thrived, and Farid and Qamar expanded their mission to “encourage the forgotten local art and desert culture to become a part of modern life.”
“We regularly visited local artisans to see their original works and invested in their arts. We bought from Bedouins to encourage them to continue working and maintain their traditional handicrafts. We endeavored to look within the culture and traditions and revive appreciation for it.”
Qamar and Raif in front of Khobar storefront in 1995.
Raif in the carpet section in 1997.
Young Radi in 1998.
A PERMANENT HOME
Over the ensuing fifteen years, Qamar and Farid’s passion, skills, and expertise grew steadily as did their client base. Soon, it became clear that they needed more space. On May 5, 2005 (5-5-05), their dreams of a building of their own were realized. Custom-designed by Qamar, their newly constructed, multi-story flagship storefront was opened on King Abdullah Street in Al Khobar. A unique presence on that busy thoroughfare, the shape and contours of the building echo Saudi Arabia’s regional architecture.
The flagship store on King Abdullah Street.
The ground floor of the building is open plan and divided into sections that surround a central water feature with casual seating. Resembling a colorful Byzantine market, there are separate areas for carpets, copper and brassware, furniture, Bedouin jewelry, and wall hangings. Upstairs are galleries for contemporary art, a pearl shop, breakout spaces for presentations and workshops, and administrative offices. Also upstairs, a chic café coffee bar fits snugly in one corner, a thoughtful addition for customers to linger and relax over a caffe latte or mint tea.
The central water feature at Desert Designs.
A best-seller, hand-painted coffee mugs.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR WOMEN AND LOCAL ARTISANS
Over the years, Farid and Qamar have been visionaries and staunch supporters of women in business and in the arts. In 1990 when their first store opened in Al Khobar, women were seldom seen in the workplace.
Farid recalls, “In the 1990s, women were not allowed to work in private nor business sectors. At times, dearest Kim had to ‘hide’ in our store’s small storage room upstairs while helping me out as much as she could.”
Proud of their accomplishments, Qamar said, “We are constantly teaching new female Saudi hires different techniques from salesperson to cashier, administration, and updating the social media platforms.”
“Saudi artisans, women and men, we see their skills and guide them and encourage them to use their handicraft which was passed down to them from generations, and we give them work to do that we can then sell in the store.”
Traditional Bedouin handicrafts promoted by Desert Designs include Sadu weavings, bead jewelry, silver and leather work, and basketry. Contemporary artisans include tailors, painters, and artists.
MADE IN KSA
“From day one we made sure most of our products were acquired locally and designed with Saudi heritage as the key element,” Qamar explains. In 2015, in accordance with the government’s Saudi Vision and the anticipated opening of Saudi tourism, Desert Designs stopped importing products from abroad and committed to 95% “Made in KSA.”
Farid said, “This shift of platform has given us recognition throughout government and private sectors. It has helped us tremendously.”
SAUDI TOURISM PROGRAM
Tourism in Saudi Arabia has historically revolved around religious pilgrimages to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. In recent years, the Saudi government has boosted the tourism sector and, for the first time, in September 2019, began issuing tourist visas.
“The new Saudi Tourism program will eventually help – after Corona [the COVID-19 virus pandemic] we will note the difference,” says Qamar. “Many visitors come to Dhahran to visit their family, and it’s always a pleasure to see that we are on their ‘must-visit list.’”
NEW STORE IN OLD AL ULA
In northwestern Saudi Arabia, the city of Al Ula is the gateway to the ancient archeological site of Madain Saleh. With its long-abandoned original neighborhood now undergoing extensive renovations, Al Ula is expected to be a prime Saudi tourist destination. In anticipation of the Kingdom’s post-pandemic reopening, Desert Designs Al Ula was opened March 15, 2021.
“Al Ula as a true visitor destination will definitely be good for us. Insha’Allah, we will help tourists understand Saudi cultures and appreciate the different arts.”
For the Al Ula store, Qamar describes a new silver jewelry line and a range of furniture inspired by “the different regions of Saudi Arabia from the Eastern Province to the Najd to Asir – and now inspired by the heritage of Al Ula” and the greater Hejaz region.
A SIMPLE PHILOSOPHY THAT INSPIRES AND ENDURES
Whether in Al Khobar or Al Ula, discerning locals and expat customers discover that there is something for everyone’s taste and pocketbook at Desert Designs. The merchandise changes regularly as new items arrive, so it’s not unusual to see customers making frequent repeat visits. In her design studios, Qamar not only strives to preserve the heritage of the past, but reimagines and reinvigorates it, often creating a modern interpretation and vernacular for the beautiful and often practical collection of objects and art, old and new, offered at Desert Designs to her wide-ranging clientele.
While Qamar and her staff are responsible for most of the concept and design of products sold in the shop, they are always open to new ideas from their broad range of clientele, both local and expatriate. “We listen to all artistic ideas from anyone,” explains Qamar. “Our ideas are always outward thinking and inspired by an old weaving, or, perhaps, a chat over tea with one of our clients.”
Asked about the secret to Desert Designs’ success, Qamar says, “We only sell what we would love to own ourselves – it’s a simple philosophy.” A simple philosophy that has made them an essential part of the expat scene in the Eastern Province and beyond.
The new store in Al Ula.
Hand in hand, Qamar and Farid explore the village of Namas.