At the C3 US-Arab Summit at the Union League Club in New York City on Monday October 6, 2014, Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor delighted the audience with a candid conversation with Tony Mullikan. We bring you some of the highlights.
In your keynote speech you said you wished the West would “Stop trying to fit us to Western moulds”. What doesn’t fit?
A lot of things. For example, people from the Western world come to the UAE and smuggle drugs. Their embassies have to work hard to try secure their release. But how can you release a criminal, who is smuggling drugs or committing a crime? If someone commits a crime in London or New York and are caught then they will go to prison. But in my country if we imprison them, the media have a field day about our lack of human rights.
So it is an issue of keeping people safe on the streets?
Exactly. When people come to the UAE they come because they want to. People want to work there, retire there and be buried there because we take care of them, we feel they are part of us and they feel we are part of them. Our country is multinational, with people from all over the world. In fact, we are the minority as UAE citizens. We try to make everything great for everybody; we provide them with nice homes, good infrastructure, and two of the world’s best airlines are from the UAE, we provide good education and healthcare. You cannot compare it to anywhere else in the world.
Why do you think the United Arab Emirates - and particularly Dubai - recovered so quickly from the global economic crisis? Would you say that Dubai winning the bid to host the World Expo in 2020 is a major win?
Some areas were affected but not a lot of areas, especially in Dubai. Our successful bid for the World Expo 2020 was a major win especially as we were competing against giants like Russia, Turkey and Brazil. But Dubai’s growth is not dependent on the Expo, I consider it an addition, or a bonus for the city.
Your motto for you company, the Al Habtoor Group, is ‘Growing with the UAE’. Tell me about this?
We are thinking in parallel with my country, and we are growing in parallel with it. We are working for the success of the country, and we are always carrying the flag of the United Arab Emirates high. We work very hard jointly with the government, to partner with them for the growth of the country. We share our ideas and we discuss our infrastructural projects with them.
You have set up a foundation in your name, the Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor Foundation. Tell me more about this?
I donated 20 per cent of my company shares to the Foundation. It was launched in January 2013 with the aim of improving the lives of impoverished people, providing aid to people abroad and providing assistance and grants to researchers and scholars. It is based at the Al Farooq Omar Bin Al Khattab Mosque and Centre in Dubai.
Something very close to your heart is trying to fight world poverty. Tell us about your Poverty Alleviation Plan?
I am studying an idea and we are going to discuss it in Illinois College in Jacksonville with the former Congressman Paul Findley and former President Jimmy Carter. It is based on the main faiths which urge followers to ‘give back’ to the community. For Muslims, we call it Zakat. The Jews have something similar and the Christian faith also encourages to give to the poor. If we gather all these funds then I don’t think there will be any poor people in the world.
Your plan calls for world governments to put a percentage of this wealth into a pot to help alleviate poverty?
Yes. I am not suggesting they take any more funds from people's pockets or personal wealth. Governments can take it from the income tax they are already getting. It should be run by a non-governmental body in a neutral country and independently audited.
Another topic close to your heart is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I know you have strong views on this?
For a very long time, all over world, including the most powerful country on this earth - the United States of America - unfortunately, no-one has put enough pressure on both sides in my opinion. There is a weak side and a strong side, and they need to be brought together and they have to work together. Believe me, if the US and the West wanted to put an end to the crisis they could, but unfortunately no-one is interested.
So this is why you are taking an active role instead?
Yes. The governments have no real interest. I’m working with President Carter and Congressman Paul Findley and Illinois College. We will organise seminars with the faculty and students. We are planning to send them to Israel and Palestine to visit schools, universities, etc. We want them to come up with several scenarios to try and put an end to the conflict and come up with a lasting resolution. I cannot guarantee success the first time, but we will do our best and keep trying.
Is it true that you have personally written to world leaders telling them where they have gone wrong with some of their policies?
I wrote to two world leaders. I wrote to US President Barack Obama and I wrote to British Prime Minister David Cameron. I received a response and acknowledgement and thanks from David Cameron personally, and then I received communication from the Commander in Chief of the British Armed Forces. But unfortunately I have not received any acknowledgment from the White House.