Story and photos by Art Clark
Qamar Ahmed, co-owner of Desert Designs with her husband, Farid Bukhari, posed with a display of heritage jewelry on the evening that she closed the business after a 33-year run at two locations in al-Khobar.
Qamar (“Kim”) Ahmed is a lucky lady, even though she recently lost one of the loves of her life.
Desert Designs, which she founded in al-Khobar with her husband, Farid Bukhari, in 1990 to preserve, “recycle and cycle” Saudi Arabia’s unique heritage crafts, closed July 31, but not before Ahmed had presided over what felt more like a party for long-time customers and friends—many from Saudi Aramco—than a funeral for the enterprise.
Petite, plucky, quick to smile and easy to laugh, Ahmed was both happy and sad as she looked back on her career that night.
She and Bukhari, from al-Khobar, met in their early teens when his family was visiting other family members in her hometown, Mumbai. That was in 1976. They married in 1984 and Ahmed moved to Saudi Arabia with her husband.
“What’s there to do in al-Khobar?” she asked him. “There’s the beach … and the beach … and the beach,” he replied.
For Ahmed, a college graduate with six years of commercial-arts studies under her belt, that was not especially appealing. So she focused on making her new home comfortable, and interesting, by decorating it with handcrafted items she discovered in the al-Khobar vicinity.
Qamar Ahmed and two longtime Desert Design employees, Nadeem Syed, right, and Vijender Lal, smiled the night they closed down Desert Designs.
She did not have a budget for her hobby right after getting married, but she made do.
“With the very little money that I had—which was basically zero—I’d find things in the city. My home became a reflection of my touring around the area.… I just wanted my home to be a reflection of the city I am living in,” she said in an Arab News story published the day before Desert Designs closed.
“From Dammam and Qatif to Hasa, she made a habit of buying handmade items wherever she went…,” the newspaper reported.
Her home’s decor got compliments from visitors and, drawing inspiration from that, the couple opened Desert Designs on Prince Mohammed St. in “old” al-Khobar in late 1990, when they were in their mid-20s.
That was after Ahmed, assisted by her husband, had taken up an offer to sell local craft items to U.S. personnel military at the airbase near al-Khobar where they’d been posted after Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990.
Brat Lisa (Menicke) Sandefur and her daughter, Elizabeth, made a purchase at Desert Designs during the Expatriates Reunion visit to the shop in March.
The Americans provided a tent at the airbase and Ahmed stocked it with “a few items … that were light and easy to pack,” the Arab News said. It proved “so popular that customers filled the room and blocked the entry…. [Qamar] was a one-woman show: the curator, artists, salesperson and promoter.”
It was not such smooth sailing for the couple’s shop in al-Khobar. They lacked the money to start a business—“so Ahmed went home and took out her wedding jewelry … sold the gold and paid the first month’s rent on a premises.”
They opened the store just before the start of the Gulf War, which virtually dried up traffic by local customers. Initially, just about the only clients for Desert Designs (which took its name from the fact that a desert, seemingly barren, can blossom if one knows where to look) were U.S. soldiers.
“They were our best customers until this date. They built us. The came, they bought, they never haggled,” Ahmed said.
When Operation Desert Storm concluded, the customer base for Desert Designs expanded. Not only that, but people in the kingdom who knew the whereabouts of heritage items ranging from traditional jewelry to heavy wooden doors with hand-carved designs to intricately decorated khanjars (curved daggers) began to get in touch.
The ground floor at Desert Designs in March, four months before it closed.
“Ahmed’s family, with children in tow, would drive to pick up and load their car with the goods,” said the Arab News.
To see if some of what the family found and recycled, or later commissioned locally, visit www.thedesignsouk.com/desert-designs-the-artists-incubator/.
In the shop, however, Ahmed played the role of “invisible partner.”
“In the 1990s, women were not allowed to work in the private nor business sectors,” Farid Bukhari told Mark Lowey in an AramcoExpats.com story in 2021, Desert Designs - Celebrating 30 Years of Distinctive Saudi Design. “At times, dearest Kim had to hide in our store’s small storage room upstairs while helping me out as much as she could.”
The situation has changed dramatically in recent years, the result of the long-range “vision” for the country that’s seen the opening of cinemas and an explosion of expression by women in fields ranging from writing to haute couture to painting. And running businesses, too.
In 2005, Desert Designs moved into a new facility built in the style of a traditional Eastern Province home on King Abdullah St., the main highway between Dhahran and al-Khobar, with Qamar a more visible partner.
An “aerial” view of the main floor.
In 2021, Desert Designs opened a branch in al-‘Ula in northeastern Saudi Arabia.
Up until closing day, customers could still buy gifts like exceptionally long-legged camels and coffee cups with Saudi motifs manufactured overseas, but the shop focused on locally made items. Indeed, in 2015, it committed to stocking 95 percent Saudi-made goods.
Ahmed said the aim of Desert Designs had always been to protect, preserve and popularize the kingdom’s cultural heritage: “It was a mission. We weren’t collecting; we were saving .... and we did manage to save a lot.”
That was not without some blowback, however.
Early on, upon learning that a village was being demolished in Najd, in central Saudi Arabia, “we bought 40 doors, sight unseen,” she recalled. Her father, who was in al-Khobar at the time, “blew a gasket … and thought, ‘My daughter is losing it,’” Ahmed said with a laugh.
The art gallery at Desert Designs, with a café tucked into it, proved a popular destination for visitors.
The doors all sold, but it took 20 years, she noted, adding that she’d tried to market one to Aramco to use in an executive facility but was told by the designers, “There is no such thing as a Saudi door.”
“That was funny,” she said.
Did Ahmed have a “favorite place” in the kingdom to find heritage pieces? “That’s not a fair question,” she replied. “It’s like asking which is your favorite child.”
“Each piece is unique,” she said, adding that “traveling and discovering” was a part of the business that she particularly liked.
She also loved the people who visited Desert Designs over the years.
“My happiest memory is knowing each and every person who came in,” she said. They evolved “from customer to friend to family member.”
The sign at the rear of Desert Designs hearkened back to the shop’s early days.
Running Desert Designs was “not about money What’s important was that each piece finds a good home.”
Nothing pleases Ahmed more than to see an item from the store “take pride of place” in someone’s home. “These pieces are treasured and never going to a landfill.”
The couple’s kids, daughter Raneen and sons Raif and Radi, also got involved in Desert Designs. Raneen, the eldest, managed the art gallery on the second floor; the café tucked into it in 2008 was her brainchild.
Over time, the children’s paths diverged from Desert Designs. Raneen, who played the biggest role, now lives in Los Angeles, Calif., with her husband, Saudi actor and comedian Hisham Fageeh.
With no strong hands in which to place Desert Designs and with its key clientele of Western expatriates dwindling in number, the couple decided it was time to shutter the business.
Did Ahmed have any regrets about closing the doors? She thought long and hard before answering.
When Desert Designs moved from “old” al-Khobar to King Abdullah St., the main thoroughfare between Dhahran and the city, the site was devoid of other buildings. When the business closed on July 31, it was surrounded by multistory commercial real estate.
“My biggest regret is not being able to turn this place into a community center,” she said. “There’s a common thread [for appreciating local craftsmanship] that runs across all nationalities.”
She would have liked to have turned that thread into a tapestry.
In a sense, she did, and its breadth and pattern reflected vividly in her smile on closing night.
What will Ahmed do in her “retirement?” It’s unlikely that will last very long.
“I already have projects in mind … for those who need my services as a designer,” she said, reprising a role she played many years ago with the Aramco Schools and Community Services in Abqaiq and ‘Udhailiyah.
“I’ve been so blessed and lucky,” said Ahmed. “There’s never been a day I didn’t jump out of bed to go to work.
“The last day is still like the first.”