Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor autobiography: Part three

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Khalaf Al Habtoor with HH Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum and engineer Yusef Shalabi reviewing plans at the Dubai Petroleum Complex in the early 1980s.

Khalaf Al Habtoor with HH Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum and engineer Yusef Shalabi reviewing plans at the Dubai Petroleum Complex in the early 1980s.

I can never forget their staunch moral support throughout those tense times. They were under enormous pressure, but not once did they consider bending to it; they even used to forward copies of those letters of recommendation, so that we knew exactly who was sending them. As relieved as I was to receive Mitsubishi’s support, there was still a major hurdle to overcome.

Every distribution agency had to be registered with the Ministry of Economy and Commerce.

Ours remained in the pending tray of the Undersecretary, who, as we came to understand, favoured other interested parties. After a lengthy and unusual wait, I called the Undersecretary to ask him to expedite registration, but it soon became clear that under his watch, that wasn’t going to happen. He and whoever was pulling his strings clearly believed Mitsubishi would eventually get fed up with the delay and dump me.

However, when I discussed the matter with my Japanese partners, they said, don’t worry, we’re with you. We’re prepared to be patient for as long as it takes. They knew that we were a young, energetic and enthusiastic team and saw how successful we had been in construction and in our other business ventures. We were in frequent communication and were always transparent with one another, which laid a solid foundation of trust.

When Sheikh Rashid formed a new cabinet, he appointed Saif Al Jarwan as the new Minister of Economy and Commerce. I think that Mr Al Jarwan already knew about the underhand attempts to cut me out of that contract. As soon as he moved to the Ministry, and without any prompting from me or my people, he instructed that my distributorship should be registered forthwith.

Nobody asked him to do that. He did it because he was a man of principle who wasn’t about to give envious bigwigs free rein to steal bread from the mouths of their fellow nationals.

That rocky start to our relationship with Mitsubishi in fact cemented our business relationship. They looked upon us more like partners than just another one of their distributors. I was happy to give them every support. When we took over the Mitsubishi agency, the climate was just right. Japanese cars were relatively inexpensive, but had acquired a reputation for quality and reliability – and importantly for the UAE, they came with good air conditioning systems that didn’t overheat on a hot summer’s day like some of their American and European competitors.

In earlier decades, Emiratis and some expats believed bigger was better when choosing an automobile, which was why American ‘full size’ brands with their plush interiors, cruise control and comfortable suspension were popular. But as petrol prices soared worldwide and parking spaces were at a premium, car manufsacturers began downsizing according to the demands of the market. Those problems weren’t yet noticeable in the Emirates, but smaller, more compact cars were viewed as more trendy and more fashionable than the American dance halls on wheels.

Consumers started realising that big might be beautiful but was no longer practical, which provided a perfect window for Japanese makers. In the UAE, Mercedes and BMWs remained popular choices for men and women, but more and more families were looking for more economic second and third cars for their children while companies began buying utilitarian Japanese cars for their employees. In later years, of course, Japanese manufacturers successfully targeted the luxury car market.

With the Mitsubishi franchise, Al Habtoor Motors was born. In the years that followed, we added Bentley, Rolls Royce and Aston Martin to our stable and enjoyed a long and fruitful partnership with the manufacturers of the latter two, until we amicably parted ways some time ago. More recently, the Turkish coach and truck manufacturers Temsa, McLaren sports cars; and the crème de la crème of luxurious, high-speed cars, Bugatti were great additions to our showrooms.

In 2009, the company emerged as the number one Dealer of Bentley Motors Worldwide for the year 2008, which was an amazing achievement for my brother, Sultan, and my son, Ahmad, who take care of the motoring arm of my group.

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