The Executive Chairman of Zabeel Investments tells Edward Poultney why the economic boom is helping to encourage an awakening for the region’s young business leaders.
Mohammed Ali Al Hashimi is a perfect example of the upcoming generation of young business leaders who are fast-tracking the current regional growth. At the age of 34 he has already been Managing Director and CEO of Amlak, the largest publicly listed Islamic finance house in the UAE, before taking over the reins at private corporation Zabeel Investments.
What sets him apart on first meeting him, other than his relative youth, is the passion with which he approaches every facet of his professional role, and how seriously he attaches social responsibility to his position. "Our tagline is ‘Zabeel Investments, just the beginning', and I love that," he says. "It's not just the beginning for us alone, but for the nation."
We are not cheap in the things we do; both in the quality we deliver and the price we charge, but we believe that there are great opportunities in the market.
Founded in February 2006 by "prominent UAE nationals", as Al Hashimi puts it, Zabeel Investments is a private institution, with a diversified portfolio running into hundreds of millions of dollars. "We thought that, in the condusive environment that exists in Dubai, an opportunity for an investment house such as ourselves was too good to pass up," he explains. "The market is extremely attractive to all forms of investment and we wanted to be in the financial capital of the GCC, because we're a serious investment house."
Primarily focusing on the real estate sector, Zabeel is aiming exclusively at the very top end of the market. "There's nothing wrong with what's going on at the lower end, but that's not our niche," says Al Hashimi. "Our business is very much centred around quality. We are not cheap in the things we do; both in the quality that we deliver and the prices that we charge, but we believe that there are great opportunities in the market that we are targeting."
The group's Tiara residential and hospitality project, due to come online in 2008 and already 70% sold, is a prime example of the sorts of opportunity that Al Hashimi is focusing on. Tiara will offer a gated community off the trunk of the Palm, with 360 degree sea views and the hotel's leisure and entertainment facilities accessible to residents. The types of resident that Al Hashimi anticipates buying into the lifestyle are from all corners of the world. "There are no global boundaries any more, the richest man in the UK is an Indian, Mittal," he points out. "It's about people who have been successful, like top end executives, who are looking for an opportunity and a certain lifestyle."
Faced with the perennial question of whether demand will match supply in the luxury property sector, Al Hashimi and his team have put in the research and are convinced that the projects will bear returns. "People are paying astronomical amounts for property in London, we've been, we've looked! Why not in Dubai?" he says excitedly.
"But you can't try and sell people a product and tell them that it's high end and then not deliver to that standard."
"Can we do better than what's out there?" Al Hashimi asks. "Definitely, because we are not benchmarking ourselves against Dubai, we're benchmarking ourselves against London, Paris, New York. And although they [our projects] are expensive in Dubai, they are still, for what you get, affordable and highly attractive. If you are getting quality and service you don't mind paying, it is the moment that you don't feel you are getting that, that price becomes an issue."
This confidence in both his abilities and his group's product underlines how driven Al Hashimi is. "We're a little bit brash, but there's nothing wrong with that if you can lead the way," he says. "At the end of the day, if you don't have a passion for your work, if you don't want to be number one, then don't do it. I don't get out of bed just to sit and earn a pay cheque. That doesn't drive me, success drives me, challenges drive me. If you can walk the walk and talk the talk, that's fine."
It is also this knowledge, that success is defined by results, that drives Al Hashimi. "You have to take ego out of the equation," he says, explaining why he stepped down from his previous role with Amlak to focus his attention on Zabeel. "We all like to have fancy titles that look good on the cv, but it comes down to performance. I'm proud of what I did there, but now it's time for someone else to take over. It's better to do one thing exceptionally well than to struggle to do two things ok."
Al Hashimi expects the same high standards from his management team as he demands from himself. His senior staff are allowed to set their own targets but they are expected to achieve them. "They are in their positions for a reason," he says, "and I support them. However they must deliver at the end of the day, if they don't deliver they're fired. Everyone is replaceable, there is always going to be someone who's a little bit hungrier."
This is also the basis behind the young go-getter's personal business motto. "There are three F's to success; follow up, follow up, follow up. I may ask twice, but I am only going to ask a third time. The key is the ability to manage your time and be on top of things," he asserts. "If you don't follow up, if you don't manage your time effectively, manage your resources effectively, you are going to fail miserably."
There are no global boundaries any more, the richest man in the UK is an Indian. It’s about people who have been successful.
One notable aspect of Al Hashimi's success is the willingness with which he seeks to give back to the community. Zabeel formed charity Bidaya (which stands for "beginning" Al Hashimi proudly tells me), along with partners Emaar and Nakheel, with a view to helping young UAE nationals with educational scholarships and internships. "It's not just about the money," Al Hashimi says earnestly. "It's about having a role. We mentor them and support them financially. If we get to benefit from that at the end, then great. But it doesn't matter, they can go and work and contribute to the economy, so indirectly we too benefit."
Nor is this, largely behind the scenes, initiative publicity based. "We actually want to do something where we do something good and get something in return," Al Hashimi assures me. "We get so much out of Dubai, we're all doing so well, what's wrong with putting a little bit back in and making a difference?"
It is not only Dubai, or the UAE, that Al Hashimi wants to make a difference to. As a member of the Young Arab Leaders Organisation he is at the focal point of the change in attitudes and perceptions that is propelling the region forward. He is also a firm believer in the ideals for change. "In the past, if something was going wrong, it wasn't culturally correct to admit that there was a problem," he says. "We just wanted to focus on areas where we were doing well, but that is changing.
Historically Arabs were good talkers but not good doers, that is why people continue to be shocked at what is happening in Dubai, because they've never seen it before in the Arab world. If we want to be recognised as on a par with the rest of the developed world, this is part of it, we need to address those issues. Someone needs to stand up and take the lead, it's our duty."
With many young leaders like Al Hashimi rising to the challenge, both professionally and politically, the region's future looks bright indeed.