Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor is a well-known and respected personality throughout the entire Gulf region – and beyond. The self-made businessman, who step by step built his small business into an empire, came from humble beginnings and has remained humble despite his rise to fame and fortune. The outspoken Chairman of the Al Habtoor Group recently "revealed all" with the release of his much-anticipated autobiography. Joanna Andrews reports…
As soon as Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor: The Autobiography hit the shelves it became an instant sensation, making it straight into the UAE’s 'best sellers' list. The book was not only flying off the shelves, but was crowned a textbook for cultural facilities in the UAE. And it is easy to see why.
The autobiography, written in English and Arabic, was first unveiled at a private event at the Habtoor Grand Resort and Spa on Tuesday November 13. The 350-strong audience, many of whom were Mr Al Habtoor’s family and friends who had flown in from all around the world, were shown a glimpse of the making of the man. From his early days living in a palm frond hut to his many attempts to build a successful business to provide for his young family.
The guests included His Highness Sheikh Nahayan Mabarak Al Nahayan, the UAE’s Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research; former US Congressman the Honourable Paul Findley, Dr Rafia Obaid Ghubash, former President of the Arabian Gulf University (AGU) in Bahrain and Founder of the Women’s Museum in Dubai; Ahmad Al Jarallah, Editor in Chief of Al Seyassah and Arab Times in Kuwait and other dignitaries.
Having lived through some of the most crucial turning points in history, Al Habtoor recalls his life against the backdrop of momentous world affairs. The birth of the UAE Federation in 1971, the Gulf War in the early 1990s and the 9/11 attacks are just some of the events he records. He wrote of his concerns after Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait.
“When it sunk in that Saddam’s ambitions may extend beyond the borders of Kuwait. I was fearful. Everyone in the UAE was, even if they didn’t admit it. Every day when I woke up for morning prayers, I would stare out of the window at the purple-black pre-dawn skies and would sometimes imagine that a moving light was a missile heading our way. I remember being so on edge that even the sound of a truck exhaust backfiring would be heart-stopping.”
FAILURE & SUCCESS
The autobiography also recounts his hopes and dreams and how Al Habtoor defied the odds and through his determination and hard work rose to become the Chairman of one of the region’s biggest business conglomerates.
Al Habtoor is not one to give up – and stares adversity squarely in the face, “Success doesn’t come easily,” he says. “I was guided by strong principles, unflinching self-belief and a bold ability to take risks.”
“I drew a lot of wisdom from the founding fathers of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum. They helped me along my journey,” he adds.
He also gives praise to his “gentle” father. “Ahmad bin Mohammed was my rock from the day I could walk and talk. I don’t think any child has been showered with more devotion than was lavished upon me throughout my young years,” he writes. “Abouya adored all his children, but for some reason, he loved me more than my siblings. He would hardly let me out of his sight. Perhaps he thought of me as a mini-copy of himself or a ‘chip off the old block’ because we looked so much alike in terms o features and physique.”
He says, “My autobiography took more than two years to write; it was a very time consuming project. I am pleased to see it finally in print and am very pleased that so many people came to the launch.”
A JOURNEY THROUGH TIME
The event started with an exhibition of striking black and white photographs portraying Khalaf Al Habtoor’s journey through life. We got a rare chance to see pictures of Al Habtoor over the years with the likes of the late His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, founder of the UAE and the country’s visionary; Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the man responsible for turning Dubai from a small cluster of settlements into a modern port city and commercial hub; Sheikh Nahayan Mabarak Al Nahayan, the UAE’s Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Prime Minister and Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.
In the autobiography, which was co-written by Linda S Heard, Al Habtoor gives thanks to the “forward thinking leadership of our founding fathers”. He adds, “We had the opportunity to establish a country of distinction that would merit the international community’s respect and admiration. This was achieved and thankfully, we now have a highly regarded state.”
Other images showed him with American astronaut Buzz Aldrin (the second man to walk on the moon) and Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, who is a personal friend of the polo-loving Al Habtoor family. As is former US President Jimmy Carter, who also donned the exhibition walls. The room was packed with friends and dignitaries, who it was plain to see have the uttermost respect for the man. And that became more evident as the night went on – in heartfelt speeches from his close friends.
Once the guests were guided into the main ballroom they were treated to three excerpts from the book.
The first revealed in a light-hearted way how even the Habtoor’s remain uncertain to this day about where the name Habtoor came from. One theory, raised by a friend “the late Jack Briggs, who was Dubai’s last expatriate police commander,” said Al Habtoor translated to ‘Short Foxhunter’. “Needless to say, I wasn’t very pleased. I quite like the ‘foxhunter’ part but who on earth wants to go around with the label short.”
Another theory came from the former President of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who told Al Habtoor one day in Lebanon some years ago, “You are a Yemeni,” he insisted. “We have a large Al Habtoor Tribe in my country numbering around six thousand. They must be your relatives.”
“Are they rich?” he asked.
“Not rich, but well-educated.”
“In that case I think I’d better leave them to you. I don’t have enough hotel rooms to host them all,” he concluded.
First onto the stage was His Highness Sheikh Nahayan Mabarak Al Nahayan, who was full of praise for the man he has known since childhood. “Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor is a unique, special and patriotic personality,” he said. “I value the book and cherish the writer.”
“I enjoyed reading the autobiography; I couldn’t put it down. It has a captivating style; once you start reading it you become entrapped,” he added. “Congratulations to the Arabic reader for this valuable book full of experiences, vision and fine details."
Next onto the stage, was former US Congressman, the Honourable Paul Findley, who at 91 had travelled from Jacksonville, Illinois specially for the event. Findley, a close friend of Al Habtoor, was first elected in 1961 and served 22 years in Congress.
His speech was followed by another delight from the book, this time showing the stoicism and determination of the young Al Habtoor who learned a valuable lesson in life. He recounts how he applied for a job as a translator at an American geological company when he was fourteen. “There was just one minor problem besides my age and lack of qualifications or experience,” he writes. “I only knew two or three words of English.” Nonetheless he got the job. One day his boss asked him to sweep the floor. He refused point blank. Undeterred his boss picked up the broom himself and did the job himself. “I stood watching him for a while, still seething inside. Then it hit me that if my boss was prepared to do domestic chores, why was I complaining?” he writes. “I learned the meaning of humility. There is nothing debasing or degrading about doing an honest day’s work whatever its nature, and nobody should be too proud to clean up their own mess.”
The final tribute came from Dr Rafia Obaid Ghubash, former President of the Arabian Gulf University (AGU) in Bahrain and Founder of the Women’s Museum in Dubai.
FAILURE IS NOT AN OPTION
The final story proved that success hasn’t come easily for Al Habtoor. The narrator recounted how he struggled to turn his many ideas into a fruitful business. He told how he refused to give up, despite nearly going broke on more than one occasion.
Al Habtoor left his job to start up Al Habtoor tenting. He planned to import beautiful Scandinavian tents and managed to scrape together enough cash to pay for them. But when they arrived he discovered they were one-person tents and he became the butt of his friend’s jokes. It was not to be.
He later decided to open a soap factory. But it was doomed from the start. He couldn’t get a franchise with a reputable company so decided to do it alone until customers broke out in hives and rashes. “We didn’t think the idea through well enough,” he writes. “There is a saying in Arabic ‘You learn from your own pocket’, which in my case was so true. I always advise people now to concentrate on businesses or careers that they know inside out or in which they have a natural interest. I wish someone had told me before I learned the lesson the hard way.”
At the end of the event Khalaf Al Habtoor took to the stage and diverted the attention to his friend the Honourable Paul Findley whom he honoured with a trophy of appreciation for his years of service to the Arab world. Findley has long supported efforts to rid the world of anti-Islamic sentiment and to drive peace in the Middle East.
Once the event was over the guests couldn’t wait to get their hands on a copy of Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor: The Autobiography. As the doors of the ballroom opened into the foyer, where a book signing event was taking place, the guests bee-lined for a signed copy.
It was evident that is much-loved man is a testament to the foresight of the UAE’s founders and deemed a national treasure. It was certainly a night to remember!