The Sheik and I

Though the likelihood of an imminent American strike on Syria receded last week, nerves in the Middle East rattled on.

Hotel designer Jeff Ornstein of global interior design firm J/Brice Design was making final preparations to fly out to Daha, Qatar, to speak at an architecture conference, when on Sept. 9 he received an email alert from Bond Events President Oliver Needs.

“Our security consultants have advised that an attack on Syria could precipitate a ‘lockdown’ of Qatar’s airspace, meaning that our staff and delegates could be stuck in Qatar for some time,” part of the email warned. “There was even mention of attacks on U.S. assets in Qatar.”

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Jeff Ornstein with Sheikh Fahd Alireza

Multiple phone calls from Bond followed, confirming that the conference, originally scheduled for Sept. 14-16, had been postponed until February.

“I can guarantee you that the U.S. is not bombing Syria in the next five days,” Mr. Ornstein assured a Bond representative on the phone—but to no avail.

Three days later, Mr. Ornstein arrived in the Middle East. Admittedly, the Qatari intelligence may have caused a fright for someone unfamiliar with the Middle East, but for Mr. Ornstein the scenario was no cause for alarm. In fact, cancelling the trip never crossed his mind.

“I just booked my flight to Qatar,” Mr. Ornstein told The Commercial Observer from a Dubai hotel room on Thursday, just hours after stepping off a plane.

He had already planned a full week of Mideast travels around the conference before it was called off. His business dealings would begin in Dubai, regarded as a business mecca in the region, followed by a trip to Qatar and finally Saudi Arabia.

“You need to show up and constantly show face time,” he said of doing business in the Middle East.

Besides, Mideast unrest was nothing new. Mr. Ornstein, who broke into the region roughly a decade ago, has spent years living off-and-on in the region, living and working in the shadows of dozens of riots and power struggles.

He was in Egypt when the controversial video depicting Mohammad, “Innocence of Muslims,” caused uproar last September, when 30 were killed in March during a riot associated with a sentencing of supporters of a local soccer team and when former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was jailed this summer.

He took precautions, steering clear of Tahrir Square, taking local cabs, dressing in modest attire and taking other steps to “not to look like an American,” but 10 years designing hotels in the region comes with a certain comfort level too.

“I don’t feel particularly threatened here, and I know if there was ever any trouble that my sheiks would call and send for me,” he said. “It’s a very long process to be trusted. But once they give it to you, they really embrace you, almost as if you are a family member.”

Mr. Ornstein, whose firm has designed more than 200 hotel and restaurant interiors, as well as a diverse portfolio of corporate and residential interiors, works with big names like Hilton, Marriott International, Trump and Starwood.

But international projects have more recently become a staple, having completed projects at the Al Khaleej Palace and Admiral Plaza Hotel in Dubai, the Grand Heritage Hotel & Spa in Doha, Qatar and the Al Khobar Hotel and Towers in Saudi Arabia, to name a few.

J/Brice’s latest project abroad is the new 1,200-room, $160 million Royal Tulip Hotel in Alexandria, Egypt, which overlooks the Mediterranean. The Tulip is owned by the nation’s Department of Defense, which specializes in luxury and mid-range hotel and resort developments. The army, the largest employer in the country, owns and controls many of its staples, as well as most of its hotels.

Mr. Ornstein reported directly to General Abdul al-Sisi, the Egyptian defense minister and Armed Forces chief, whose legions deposed President Mohamed Morsi.

“Morsi was supposed to be coming, and then, about six days before the grand opening, the president was disinvited,” Mr. Ornstein said. “They said, ‘We don’t want him here. We think there’s going to be a march on June 30, and there will probably be a regime change.’”

“I was really looking forward to meeting him,” he added. “I even posted about it on my Facebook.”

Despite the unrest, and the missed connection with Mr. Morsi, the hotel opened days before the June 30 march on Cairo, just 12 weeks after Mr. Ornstein was hired to complete the then 10-years-stagnate project.

He contracted with dozens of countries, spanning China, the U.S., Indonesia and Europe, to arrange for the shipment of 1.2 million objects and more than 400,000 cubic meters in shipping containers, allowing for the completion of the interior design and installation of all furniture, fixtures and décor, and the design of multiple restaurants, suites, a ballroom, conference rooms and media centers.

“Having access to the army’s manpower and resources at our fingertips helped,” he said.

A Westchester native who attended Brandeis University, Mr. Ornstein founded Boston-based J/Brice in 1989. His stateside projects have included the repositioning of the Muse in New York City for Cornerstone Real Estate Advisors and more recently the Helmsley Hotel, which sold for $40 million more than the asking price about a year ago. He redesigned Long Beach, Calif.’s Queen Mary Hotel and a range of projects across the Northeast.

In the 1990s, Mr. Ornstein worked on a few small luxury projects in the Middle East with the Taj Group, which forged relationships that would later mold his enduring presence in the region, leading to contracts for the first Kempinski Hotel in Saudi Arabia, as well as a luxury hotel in Jeddah and restaurants at the $40 million SeaWorld Aquarium.

Today, he deals directly with Arabian royals, Saudi sheiks and Egyptian generals. Indeed, Mr. Ornstein speaks of Qatari Sheik Mohammed Bin A. Rahman Al Thani as if he were an old friend—as does the sheik of Mr. Ornstein.

“He and his designers not only bring to the project a highly unique and distinct passion for design and its finery, but … a remarkable sensitivity and respect for the Arabian culture and marketplace,” the Sheik wrote in a letter regarding Mr. Ornstein and J/Brice’s work at the Grand Heritage Hotel & Spa Qatar, which was redesigned for the Qatari royal family.

Mr. Ornstein transformed the interior design, originally based on an amateur plan that was “wrong on every level,” to include 139 guest rooms instead of the originally planned 60, while retaining the strict exterior style that Shiek Mohammed requested.

“My response was that if you build this you’ll certainly be one-of-a-kind, because it’s a French chateau in the Middle East,” Mr. Ornstein said.

Since its completion in 2009, the hotel has become a preferred gathering place for locals, as the absence of alcohol and a 400-tea lounge featuring live chamber music caters to the locals’ sensibilities, he said.

“It has become a favorite among the Qatari elite,” he said, noting a coastline that is a mish-mash of big-brand hotels largely filled with expats. “You would not go out with your wife to drink at the Ritz-Carlton.”

Mr. Ornstein said that a decade ago nearly every new hotel or office building in the Arab Peninsula was created in a similar international style. With that in mind, he strives to incorporate Arabian design motifs to reinforce the region and culture but also to incorporate modern elements.

“A decade ago, nearly every new hotel in the Arabian Peninsula bore the same style,” he said. “But today the region is transforming the hospitality industry. They want to retain their Arabian heritage while having a place in contemporary society.”

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