He’s one of the most high profile businessmen in the UAE, respected not only for his entrepreneurial prowess, but his opinions and writing ability, and he is the head of a respected Dubai family. But as Khalaf Al Habtoor tells Al Shindagah his beginnings were far from grandiose.
On the eve of the magazines 100th issue, he talks about his childhood; how he got to where he is today and why he named the magazine after the place where he was born…
Sliding wooden paneled doors mark the entrance to the office of Khalaf Al Habtoor, the Chairman of the Al Habtoor Group. They open to reveal an expansive room with plush leather bound sofas, heavy Mahogany furniture and large windows offering views of Al Wasl Road, Dubai and letting in the crisp morning sunlight. Sitting behind a very big, heavy wooden desk, one which you have to step up to reach, is Khalaf Al Habtoor.
Al Habtoor has a big personality, as all who know him will testify. The Chairman of the Al Habtoor Group, one of the region’s largest family-run conglomerates, likes to rise early. For all of his life, he has been getting up before 6am and going to bed by 10.30 each night. This is a man who plays tennis every day, for at least an hour, sometimes two, and who is fastidious in his adherence to a healthy diet.
His self discipline is obvious from his appearance – he has that healthy glow that only those who are extremely strict manage to achieve and which cannot, no matter how much money you possess, be bought. This, combined with an alertness and an air of contentment, makes him appear younger than he is.
It’s well he might be content. A self made billionaire, Al Habtoor has been counted amongst the top 500 wealthiest men in the world and has appeared in the Forbes list on a number of occasions. His first job was with the Al Mulla Construction Company in Abu Dhabi. But in 1970, wanting to have his own business, he set up the construction firm – Al Habtoor Engineering.
Fast forward 40 years and he now employs over 40,000 people. What’s more, the Al Habtoor name is known throughout the Middle East. Although it started out as a small construction firm, it is now spread across six main industries – construction, real estate, hospitality, car sales and leasing, education and publishing. And while other companies have lost millions in the recent financial crisis it appears to have weathered the storm rather well – showing no signs whatsoever of slowing down. What’s more, the company is associated, not only with a string of successful achievements – in business, sport, academia and the arts, but with a well-respected family who have long had roots in the area.
The Al Habtoor family hails originally from ‘Al Shindagah’ – once, not so long ago, it was a small coastal district, bordered by the Arabian Gulf on one side and the Creek, a natural seawater inlet which cuts through the centre of Dubai, on the other, with just a few manmade structures and a very small community made up of pearl divers, fishermen and Bedouins. Now it is best known, some would say sadly, for the four-lane underground tunnel which connects the enighbourhoods of Deira and Al Shindagah and goes under Dubai Creek. This huge change could be seen as symbolic of just how the city has changed in so little time. But change aside; it’s a part of Dubai which will always hold a special place in the heart of Khalaf Al Habtoor as it’s where he was born.
His father Ahmad Al Habtoor was a small scale pearl dealer who also raised camels. When Khalaf Al Habtoor was still a child his family moved to an area known as Al Jumeirah – just a stone’s throw away from Al Shindagah. Jumeirah, with its palm tree-lined streets and large single storey villas, hidden behind bougainvillea-laced walls, is now the most affluent residential area of Dubai. It’s where the wealthy and the older residents choose to live – those who remember a time before the massive transformations took place and in less than 30 years made the city into one of the fastest paced metropolises in the world.
Al Habtoor is being interviewed today in celebration of the fact that the company’s publication Al Shindagah is celebrating its 100th issue and he’s clearly proud of the fact.“ I am delighted that the 100th issue will soon be published,” he says, adding that it, like his birthplace which it is named after, has changed and improved over the years. While he’s proud of the great strides Dubai has made, he also recalls with great nostalgia, a time when life was more simple. “As kids we had no shoes; we used to run barefoot in the sand,” he says. “And we were always climbing on things and falling down. But we used to pick ourselves up and continue …”
The third child in the family, Al Habtoor lived with his parents and two of his siblings in a small traditional-style hut made of barasti leaves, the same type of dwelling people of the desert had lived in for centuries before him. “We had one bedroom in which we all slept and it was very small – about two by three metres,” he recalls. “But we were always outside playing and often in the sea. We used to bathe in the ocean each day; swim in it for recreation and the sea provided us with food. It was everything to us,” he smiles, remembering times gone by. But far from lamenting the lack of luxuries available, he says he had a very happy childhood. “It was different for children back then, but – we had great freedom.” He adds that things we take for granted these days like clothes were limited. “We had just one dish dash which we washed each evening, hung out to dry and wore the next day.”
Few people he says had cars back then. “My father bought a secondhand car which had been used by the British military and his driver used to drive it without a driving license - as everyone did.”
He continues: “We ate simply but our food was healthy. We only had fruit and fruit juice when we were ill as they were considered luxuries and the only vegetables available were radishes and the leaves of the Al Ghaf tree that grew locally – we ate them; we used them as fuel for the fire and gave them to our sheep, goats and camels. They take days to digest…” he chuckles, adding: “Despite the fact that we had very little of everything, I remember those days with great joy.”
Of course his life now is far removed from that existence, but how did it come to be so and who was it that encouraged him in his ambitions? “My father was a great man,” he says, the tone of his voice a little lower, as he fights not to show emotion. “He was a big influence on my life. He taught me how to ride camels; how to use a gun in order to hunt and how to swim – which was all important growing up by the sea.”
His father however was not a businessman. “His passion in life was racing camels and from an early age I used to accompany him on trips to the desert. We’d take the camels to race. We always had the best camels and they nearly always won… I liked to accompany him and my elder brother too when they visited people’s homes.”
As a result, Al Habtoor became used to the company of adults. “From a young age I preferred to be with people who were older than me,” he says. “I used to listen to their conversations and in that way I learnt a lot – both about how to do business and about life in general.”
He recalls too how, as a young man, he himself loved to ride camels. “These days I have no time [to ride] unfortunately. Things have changed so much,” he says a little wistfully and looking out the window for an instant. “There is of course not the same atmosphere there used to be in Dubai,” he admits. “Or the same sense of community. I used to see my friends all the time for example. Now I only meet them at funerals,” he shakes his head.
But for Khalaf Al Habtoor the glass is always half full and while he can appreciate that there were many benefits to living in the era of his youth; he can equally see the myriad of advantages offered by modern day Dubai. He adds matter-of-factly: “These changes are simply the downside of progress. Let’s face it, if you want to become a developed country, then you have to be willing to compromise certain aspects of your culture and realise that life is going to be lived at a faster pace.”
In fact he’s proud of the way his city has changed. “Both the UAE and Dubai in particular have developed a lot – Dubai is now a safe haven for people of many different nationalities from all over the world and it is a great thing,” he says with conviction. “We offer so much that other countries do not,” he adds, pointing out that for Emiratis there are many benefits to living in Dubai. “It already has one of the best infrastructures in the world. What’s more, factors like education, medical treatment and housing are all provided by the government. Funding is even available for weddings or to cover the cost of divorce.
“What’s more, the system here works,” he says referring to the system of government. “The foundations [of the law in Dubai] which were laid down by Sheik Rashid are very strong. He always emphasised the need not to differentiate between different nationalities and this, I believe, is one of the main reasons that Dubai has thrived.
But because of the influx of different nationalities, does he think Dubai has lost its Arabic culture? Al Habtoor shakes his head. “There have always been people from different parts of the world living here. The British had come long before I was born and there have been Indians doing business here for hundreds of years; people have been coming from Europe too for centuries to trade and to purchase pearls. It has long been a hub of different nationalities and yet the Arabic culture has always remained.”
Al Habtoor should know. He follows not only interntional political and sociological trends with keen interest, but is most knowledgeable about the region. Indeed his strong views are frequently published both in the Middle East and abroad. He travels frequently too and enjoys meeting with heads of state as well as other successful businessmen, not only to discuss business ventures, but because he enjoys the company of those who are well informed. “Whenever I go anywhere in the world, I represent my country and I’m always aware of that fact,” he states, clearly proud of his nationality.
As for the secret to his success, he advises the following: “First of all, you have to believe in yourself. But be honest too about your capabilities and remember that God created all of us differently – some are born to be leaders; some to be rich and others to be poor. If we were all the same, life wouldn’t work the way it is supposed to.
“Secondly, you have to choose the right people for the right positions in your company. You should not choose them because they are your friends or your relatives, or because of their race or their appearance. Judge them only on their personalities.” So perhaps he’s a good judge of people and this has helped him to get to where he is today? “Maybe I am,” he says a little hesitantly, reluctant to blow his own trumpet and adding: “You have to give employees a certain amount of freedom but their power should also be limited. I usually make joint decisions with my directors,” he continues. “But if I’m not convinced of something I’ll decide not to go ahead with it no matter what others think. I always review my decisions too and if something isn’t working out I won’t be afraid to change my mind about it. I never stick to anything purely out of pride that, in my opinion, is nonsense.
He is very well organised. “I never leave a even piece of paper on my desk at the end of the day,” and acts swiftly in all matters of business: “I cannot sleep if I’ve something to do and I never put anything off. This, I believe, is one of the reasons for my success.”
Known by his family, friends and work colleagues as an optimist, Al Habtoor counts this as another reason for his business and indeed life achievements. “Always look forward, instead of backwards and be positive,” he states. “I will never accept a negative attitude from anybody.”
Indeed while others around him voiced their fears and openly panicked at the onset of the recent financial crisis, Khalaf Al Habtoor was one of the few to keep his cool. He nods as he remembers that time over two years ago. “I used to say to people, ‘Go away. I don’t want to talk to you’. I would kick them out of the office if they were too negative,” he says with all seriousness. “There is no excuse for a negative attitude. In the case of the financial crisis for example, what happened all over the world, happened in the UAE as well. But our attitude was, ‘So what? We will fix the problem’ and now look at how things are already improving.”
Maybe it’s a sign of his optimistic attitude, but while others his age are contemplating retirement, Al Habtoor’s head is full of the projects he still wishes to accomplish. “There are always things I want to do,” he states. “I want to expand my business; I want to create landmarks – things that will be remembered; I want to aid charities and help those less well off than myself – no matter what their culture, their background or their religion. Of course, I cannot make everyone rich but I try my best to help as many people as possible.”
He mentions the Al Farooq Omar Ibn Al Khattab’s Mosque and Centre, a recent project he has personally financed in Jumeirah, Dubai. The mosque, due to open this month, will be one of the largest and most beautiful in the UAE and he’s clearly very proud of it. Its obvious religion is important to Al Habtoor, although he considers himself moderate in this respect. “I’m a Muslim and I practice in all areas of my life, but I’m a moderate,” he asks without being prompted. “I believe in the acceptance of all other religions and I’m against people who condemn the religion of others. The teachings of Islam are clear. It has nothing to do with terrorist bombings and the killing of others. No one is permitted by God to kill other people.”
He’s clear too about the difference between politics and religion. “Like any religion there are some people who will use it [Islam] as an excuse to kill,” he says. “People are killed in war situations, but there is a more civilised alternative in the form of negotiation and communication with others.” Comments such as this are typical of Al Habtoor. Clearly a thinking man and one who is not afraid to go against the crowd, he’s confident of his own opinion.
When he’s not philosophising, however, voicing his political opinions or indeed negotiating business deals, Khalaf Al Habtoor is very much a family man. In fact, nothing gives him more pleasure than to spend time with his grandchildren, of which there are 24. “I have lunch each day with my children and afterwards I spend time with my grandchildren,” he says. “Just being with them gives me energy; they are my fuel.” His eyes light up more so now than at any other point in the interview. “You know, I was speaking to my good friend Paul Findley (the former US Congressman) recently.
I turned to him and said: ‘Paul my grandchildren are like oxygen to me and he said, ‘No Khalaf, they are like little pieces of heaven.”
He smiles at the thought of them and for an instant he is no longer the philosophising chairman of a business conglomerate or a serious political commentator, but a doting grandfather who still retains something of the child himself. “My grandchildren jump up and down and run around and we play and pretend to fight,” his eyes twinkle. “They make me feel young again. They are so innocent,” he pauses. “And it’s fantastic…”