Born in Dubai, Mohamed Alabbar is nothing if not a patriot and a constant champion of the Middle East, often eschewing more lucrative options in favour of cultivating homegrown business and building Dubai’s reputation on the world stage.
The eldest of 12 children, Mohamed Alabbar caught the business bug from his father, who captained a dhow (a traditional trading vessel). During the 1970s, he won a scholarship to study business and finance in the United States, graduating from Seattle University with a degree in business administration in 1981.
On returning to Dubai, he started his career as a banking manager at the Central Bank of the UAE before relocating to Singapore to be the director of Al Khaleej Investments, a government-owned company.
Taking all that he’d learned in an evolving, hyper-capitalist Singapore, he established himself as the founding director general of the Department for Economic Development, working directly for the Dubai government to expand the region’s business prospects and turn it into an investment hub in the Middle East.
It was during this period that he built up a strong relationship with His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, an exacting boss by all accounts. Rumour has it that when Alabbar showed him his nine designs for the Burj Khalifa, the Sheikh simply walked out of the meeting, leaving him to ponder whether he liked it or not.
Dubai shopping Festival
He also oversaw his plans to kick start the Dubai Shopping Festival, which attracts more than two million visitors every year. Alabbar eventually rose to being one of His Highness’s most senior economic advisors, helping him to diversify Dubai’s industry in non-oil sectors. Alabbar reportedly was paid a minimal salary for the position – around DH22,000 – “but to me it was not work,” he says. “I was fulfilling a vision and an ambition, a passion that I have.”
The next year, 1997, saw him leap off into the unknown to start his own private real estate company, Emaar Properties. At the time, it was a big risk, but Alabbar drew inspiration from his merchant father. “As captain of a ship, my father took risks, he went into the unknown. He sailed with no GPS system, no weather forecast, there were pirates at sea, and these ships used to leak. Who chooses to sail for days on end with that in mind? You have to be brave and learn how to make big decisions,” said Mohamed Alabbar in Abu Dhabi at the Salama Bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Forum for New Ideas.
And the rest, they say, is history. Today, the business is one of the leading international property groups in the world, with an annual revenue of USD5.83bn, and ongoing projects in Africa, Asia and North America in addition to the Middle East. It has since diversified into hospitality – signing a deal for a chain of luxury hotels with Giorgio Armani in 2005 -, education and healthcare. There are even plans for a new tower in Dubai, close to the International Airport, that is a “notch” higher than the Burj Khalifa. Called simply ‘The Tower’, it is set to be an icon on opening in 2020.
Mohamed Alabbar has also become a demanding boss, sounding the death knell for the 9-5 job in an interview with CNN. “I want people who sleep in the office,” he says. “Want to go walk your dog in the afternoon and all that? I’m not the guy you work for.”
Tech is the next frontier and Alabbar has already gained some important strategic territory. He has a foot in the luxury e-retail sector with shares in Yoox Net-A -Porter Group, in the Dubai-based courier company Aramex, and through his son, Rashid Alabbar, who founded luxury e-retailer SIVVI. Rashid has been instrumental in convincing his father that tech is the future.
“It was about smart data,” Rashid Alabbar says, when asked how he did it. “My father is very analytical, and when you show him the right data, he gets it.”
Noon, the resulting e-commerce platform that aims to feed Dubai’s growing tech scene with investment, is now worth $1bn and is one of only three ‘unicorns’ – $1bn companies – in the region’s tech sector. He also put in a $800m bid to partner with Souk.com, an online retailer that eventually struck a deal with Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and he is also looking to set up a Middle Eastern competitor to messaging app Whatsapp.
Mohamed Alabbar is such a major player that his very name is inspiring others to believe in Dubai’s future as the Silicon Desert. “What I have seen is that in some markets, like in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, the younger generation is getting the go-ahead from their parents who are like, ‘Oh, if Mohamed Alabbar is doing it, maybe the thing you’re talking about isn’t so crazy, so I’ll give you a little bit of money to go and invest in this tech start-up stuff.’” says Hasan Haider, CEO and founder of Tenmou, Bahrain’s first formal angel investment group.
The face of Dubai has changed rapidly over the past 20 years, but if there is one certainty about its future, it’s that Alabbar will be a part of it, guiding his beloved homeland towards its destiny as a truly global, modern city.