Straight shooter: Khalaf Al Habtoor interview

Khalaf Al Habtoor has a reputation for honest speaking. In an exclusive interview, Dubai’s biggest businessman lifts the lid on expansion plans, the real estate market and his views on Syria

Khalaf Al Habtoor needs little introduction. The founder and chairman of the Dubai-based Al Habtoor Group is as renowned in the Arab world for his straight, no-nonsense opinions as he is his vast business interests. He believes the GCC is the only collective group of countries that can successfully oust Syrian president Bashar Al Assad from power, says Nakheel’s decision to try to charge residents in its Shoreline development for beach access risked ruining the reputation of the emirate and warns caution for those looking to invest in the Middle East. Yet he is still most at ease talking shop.

“Giving up work would be very difficult for me. I am the type of person that needs to work; it is my fuel. If I don’t work, I cannot be driven,” he says. “I am in the office before 7am; I have my tea, read the papers and then meet with my directors before 8am. I don’t believe in these people that delegate. I delegate the responsibility but they have to report to me and brief me; even the tennis coaches brief me,” he laughs.

Such a hands-on approach might not be everyone’s cup of tea but it has certainly served Al Habtoor well. It has been 42 years since the young Emirati impressed Dubai’s then-ruler, Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, when his firm Habtoor Engineering Enterprises completed the construction of a new hospital project six months ahead of schedule. Sheikh Rashid awarded Al Habtoor four more projects and offered him a 20-acre plot of land, which would later become the emirate’s first four-star hotel, all of which helped kick-start a business that is now one of the region’s most successful conglomerates.

The privately-owned company, which now boasts a portfolio spanning hospitality, construction, education and automotive operations and employs more than 40,000 staff, has helped Al Habtoor amass an estimated personal wealth that regularly sees him ranked amongst the world’s richest billionaires. But in more recent years it is his opinion pieces in the regional press — including his own Al Shindagah magazine — that have garnered just as much attention as his business interests.

Today, he is keen to talk about the bloody situation in Syria. “The GCC is the only one that has a hope to do something. We should not talk a lot, we should do. We [shouldn’t] care about Russia or China’s veto; we have to interfere. This is our Arabic family… Saudi Arabia should be saluted [because] at least they have been transparent and shown the world that they are [not prepared] to accept what is happening,” he says.

“I agree with [Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister] Prince Saud Al Faisal who said Bashar should go peacefully or by force. I would not wait for Hillary Clinton or Obama to make a decision; I would form my GCC with Jordan and enter into Syria to protect the civilians and to throw him out… He should then be taken to a criminal court.”

Al Habtoor is just as at ease talking about issues in his own country. The self-appointed speaker for the local community was one of the only high-profile businessmen to jump to Dubai’s defence when the emirate requested its $22bn debt standstill in November 2008. At the time Al Habtoor blamed much of the negative headlines on media exaggeration and inexperienced financial analysts.

Property prices in the UAE may be at their lowest for several years with worries of oversupply but Al Habtoor is optimistic about the Gulf state’s economic recovery, particularly in light of the Arab Spring. “There is growth in the country, not only for us as Al Habtoor Group, but also in the country. You can see the improvement; you see the purchasing power, the visitors to the country — we are really seeing that in our hotels. All of the hotels in Dubai are more or less occupied and the rates are acceptable,” he says.

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