Today's generation is now taking over the running of the country. We interview some of those leading the UAE into the next century
If nothing else, it is one of the most profound universal truths that older generations and the nation see not only by their families, but children also, as the hope for the future.
In the UA, the generation of late twenty and thirty year olds, who have been brought up and educated since the founding of the Federation in 1972, are the first to benefit from the wealth generated by the discovery of oil in the Emirates. They are the first to have full and almost immediate access to modern education and health-care enabling them to enjoy a standard of living and quality of life that would have been almost unimaginable just a generation earlier.
Today, this generation is rapidly taking over the running of the country, both in the public and private sectors. And though criticized in many instances for never having had to face the hardships of previous generations, this generation has its share of leaders who are prepared to pick up the task of developing the nation and securing its future from their elders. One such individual is Mohammed Al Habtoor, the current chief executive officer of the Dubai National Investment Company. He is quick to point out, that although he was born with the proverbial silver spoon, it wasn’t all as easy as that.
“I suppose it begins in childhood,” he says. “As children, my father never spoiled us with too much money or unrestricted freedom. Quite the contrary, he was strict and we were treated like we were in the army. Everything we did had to be accounted for. We didn’t just get the best of anything because of who we were, we had to earn it!”
That may not sound too much like the school of hard knocks, but that pragmatic approach to parenting has been one that stands this generation in good stead. Work and its value too were ingrained as a vital factor in personal development. “My father wished me to enter working life early,” says Mohammed Hareb Al Otaiba, the youthful chief executive of the Mohammed Hareb Al Otaiba Group of Companies. “So I began working as a trainee in banks during my school vacations. My father also believed that I should take my first working steps outside take my first working steps outside our establishment, so that I would appreciate the value of work. As a result I worked in the Abu Dhabi Investments Company after university, until I took over the family firm on my father’s sudden demise.”
For Mohammed Habtoor, it wasn’t so much external experience as much as in house training that shaped his attitude towards the value of work. “After completing my studies in hotel management in London and the US, I returned to join the Metropolitan, our family hotel,” he says. “At that time, we had only one hotel and I was given a rotation of working ten months in every department of the hotel. This meant that not only did I stand behind the reception desk, but I also made up rooms, worked in the kitchens, waited on tables and every other kind of work involved in the hotel. The philosophy is that if you want to control a hotel, you have to know every aspect of the business and see it with an insider’s eye. And the only way to get this sense of the business is to work of it.”
Both Al Habtoor and Al Otaiba share the view that it takes time before anyone is capable of taking on the responsibilities of managing large and diversified firms independently. “A successful business,” says Al Otaiba, “is based in its employees, goof management well chosen and executed decisions.” Al Habtoor agrees with the view: “It is very important to rely on your management team. When I was promoted to CEO, I was given only a share of the responsibilities of the entire group. I was only slowly that I was given more complete control.”
Perhaps the one constant in the lives of this generation has been the equation between them and their predecessors. While most young businessmen and technocrats value and respect the wisdom of the previous generation, many feel that the challenges they have to face are not exactly the same as the ones faced by their fathers. “It is difficult for us too,” says Mohammed Al Habtoor. “We face a different set of challenges and values. Today we have far more competition than we did before. For instance, when the Metropolitan first opened, there were only four hotels in Dubai; now there are dozens. Also, the capital structures needed to start something are much larger. Before, you could start a major business with Dhs 100,000 or 200,000; today couple of million would more likely be the figure.”
For Sultan Al Mansouri, the deputy director of the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the relationship and criticism from the older generations is not surprising. “We have to remember that the generation which criticizes us today is the same that came under fire from their elders when they were in our shoes. My generation has new ideas; enthusiasm for work and the pragmatism of modern life.”
Obviously, an extension of these challenges is also the fact that the new generation of leaders see the future of the country on a much more open plane. “We are not afraid of competition from internationals. We know our turf and our strengths as they know theirs,” says Al Habtoor. “What we need to do is diversify and strengthen our base so that we are ready for any eventuality.”
According to Al Otaiba, the country has a high potential for medium scale manufacturing. “I don’t believe that the countries which have succeeded in establishing a strong manufacturing base are any better than us. We have a stable business environment that is backed by a supportive government.”
Moreover, the question of a cultural onslaught from foreigners is faced with a much more pragmatic and sober realization. “The simple fact is that everything has a price,” says Al Mansouri. “The economic growth of the country has led to growth in education, work and the opening of our society. It is true that a lot of this has come from exposure to other countries. However, everything that comes from the others is not bad. At the end of the day we are the judges, and we can choose what suits us and leave what does not. Despite all the development, we remain conservative in our traditions. The most important thing to remember is that we are preparing a future where educated generations can take over the nation.”
The current process of Emiratisation too faces some suggestions from Al Habtoor. “As a chief executive and a UAE national I would love to have nationals in our firms. But this will take time. More than anything else, the youth must be aware of the fact that they cannot just start at the top in the private sector. You have to start at the bottom and grow your way up. That mentality, fortunately, is changing.”
Not surprisingly, most of these young nationals are a confident lot. Confident that they have the enthusiasm and courage to make new things happen; they are willing to undertake new projects. The Metropolitan Beach Hotel for instance, is a project that Mohammed Al Habtoor was in control of from day one, as is the new Metropolitan Palace. Al Otaiba too, has started industrial projects and is not looking seriously at entering tourism in a big way. For the technocrats, the strategic development of Dubai is critical, with plans such as the Dubai Shopping Festival, the expansion of the Airport and the streamlining of government procedures to deal with new realities.
What is clear is that as this generation begins to assume the reins of power, their views and ideology are based on traditions but tempered by the realities of a new age. In the end, that could well be what the country needs to step into a new era.