Welcome to the life of one of the UAE’s defence and real estate moguls

Emirati rally car champion Mansour Bin Jabr is the COO of his family's conglomerate, Bin Jabr Group
Bin Jabr began his career in the private equity group at Goldman Sachs in New York.
By Lubna Hamdan
Sun 19 Mar 2017 09:51 AM

Mansour Bin Jabr’s idea of a hard life may not resonate with everyone.

“The cars, the jets, they don’t make me happy. I’m a hippie in a way. I love islands, beaches,” says the 30-year-old chief operating officer of Bin Jabr Group, having just returned from a business trip in the Maldives.

“I see myself retired in the Bahamas in a resort I own with my toys. That’s my goal, actually. I want to buy an island, design it all in wood, have my [AED200m] yacht Queen Mavia parked there, have my own personal airport and live a normal life - dive, tan, chill, and if I miss the city life I’m only 45 minutes away from Miami. I can take my plane back and forth.”

Welcome to the life of one of the UAE’s defence, military, oil, contracting, retail, real estate and hospitality “generation Y” moguls.

Sitting in his office on a top floor of Marina Plaza, the young Emirati is surrounded by floor to ceiling windows overlooking the Dubai skyline.

One of four brothers, the business administration graduate joined his father’s Abu Dhabi-based empire at 23 and is already pondering the chairmanship. Set up in the late 1970s by Saeed Bin Jabr Al Suwaidi, the firm was founded with just one company sponsorship agreement with French defence telecommunications firm Thales, before broadening its roots to everything from military vehicles to airline uniforms, restaurants and kitchen fit-outs.

Forty five years later, defence remains at its core, bringing in most of its $1.1bn in yearly revenues. Haven’t heard of it? The UAE’s first Arab-built military vehicle and first Arab-built submarine may ring a bell. It was the group’s Nimr Automotives that formed a joint venture with Jordanian government entity King Abdullah II Design and Development Bureau (KADDB) to produce the 6x6 multipurpose vehicle and later, the maritime machine.

Bin Jabr Group has worked on some of the most significant projects in recent years, including the construction of Port Zayed in Abu Dhabi, the supply of a complete steam system for IMG Worlds of Adventure Theme Park in Dubai, and the installation of kitchen equipment for the Louvre Abu Dhabi Museum on Saadiyat Island.

Nimr, which means ‘tiger’ in Arabic, is a regional leader in the manufacturing of military vehicles.

In his executive role, Bin Jabr focusses on the firm’s hospitality, contracting and real estate sectors.

But if you think his position was handed to him on a silver platter, you are wrong, he says.

“Everything I used to do, my father would say, ‘you can do better’. He always had high expectations of me. I’m not the CEO. If it was easy for me, I would be the CEO by now. But I’m only the COO that overlooks the company,” he says in a strong New York accent obtained while studying at the New York Institute of Technology.

“My friends were working nine-to-five jobs out of college and I was really with my father trying to get things straightened up. So it wasn’t as easy as people might think. It was really tough actually, especially coming from someone [his father] who started from scratch, self-made, back in the times when it was tougher in the UAE.”

And the struggle remains, according to the young Emirati.

“[My father] always compared me to himself back then, which I feel is unfair because it was different back then. There were more chances back then; There were more opportunities. It was a virgin country of oil that just started. Now there’s more competition and people are more educated. The locals are educated, they all study abroad. The governments send them to the best schools and they come back with MBAs and PhDs from Harvard and Yale and Stanford. That’s the competition you deal with now compared to back then. It’s a different era,” he says.

Bin Jabr Group is among the contractors that helped build the Zayed Port in Abu Dhabi.

But the chairman’s son claims he also started from scratch.

“When I first joined the company, my father said, ‘you either work up the ranks as an assistant or there’s a troubled company that’s closing down, you could clean it up’,” Bin Jabr recalls, referring to Emirates Kitchen.

While taking over a company is not the common understanding of “starting from scratch”, the young Bin Jabr asserts it was his revival of the firm that gained his father’s respect. Acquiring Emirates Kitchen in 2009 at the time of the economic crisis, when Bin Jabr says “all projects were on hold and money was held in them”, he used extra equipment in the company’s warehouse to buy equity shares in hospitality businesses.

“A lot of friends were opening restaurants, so instead of getting cash from them — because the banks weren’t giving you equity — if I knew anyone who was trying to raise money as an investment for a restaurant, I would give them [fit-out and kitchen equipment] instead of cash.”

Over the years, Bin Jabr’s move resulted in his part-ownership of up to 48 restaurants in Dubai alone, while Emirates Kitchen, which was in debt at the time, he says, trebled revenues. Soon enough, instead of helping set up restaurants in the city, Bin Jabr decided to launch his own dining concepts.

And they’re not doing too badly, either. The young Emirati took eponymous Italian restaurant Cipriani and Monaco sports lounge Stars & Bars to the Yas Marina Formula 1 track in 2009 with an aim to bring “the Monaco feel to the Abu Dhabi track”.

Despite selling the majority of his shares in Cipriani to the government in a deal “he could not refuse,” Bin Jabr remains fixated on hospitality, opening London’s Mexican restaurant Peyote in Dubai in March and announcing three more projects on the way, including burger concept Burger & Co. All of his eateries will focus on the middle of the market.

Emirates Kitchen is responsible for the installation of kitchen facilities at the Louvre in Abu Dhabi.

“The high-end market [in Dubai] is very saturated. There aren’t a lot of people who can afford a AED2,000 [$545] bill, so I’m focusing on the majority right now,” he says. “I’m doing medium-end outlets. That’s what people can afford. The [cost of] living is not cheap in Dubai. It’s rising and rent is on a high. People are more cost aware now, not like they used to be back in the days of the boom.

“At my level, I still question a bill when I see it, regardless of who I am and my net worth. AED1,800 for two people, that’s a lot of money, especially if you calculate that to US dollars. That’s a lot of dollars. You never pay that in America. People would crucify [the restaurants] on blogs if they did that. It’s too expensive. Another guy who lives off a credit card salary couldn’t afford that, he’d do it once for an occasion.

“That’s why a lot of the high-end places are closing down. They look fancy but I know a lot of them are offering me to buy them out. They’re all suffering. There are a few that I’m looking at in the market right now. I was shocked, because they’re well known in the market. I don’t want to mention names because it will affect their sale. They actually have huge debts, huge. Companies that own ten, 15 outlets that everyone goes to, they have over AED19m debts in the banks.”

Regardless of saturation in the market, Bin Jabr is concerned with a bigger challenge. He likes to call it the “Dubai inflation”.

“From what I see, every F&B brand in the world, if you go to New York, London, Miami, I sit with the big boys out there and they all say one thing: everybody’s asking for big money to move to Dubai. They have this idea that Dubai is filled with cash, that everybody is rich in Dubai and everybody is willing to pay triple. That’s not true,” Bin Jabr says.

“Some people do pay premiums. If you approach any franchise from abroad to get them here, they always ask for a premium. I call it the Dubai inflation. That’s my biggest challenge; negotiations with these guys are becoming tougher because of the word ‘Dubai’. Other than that I think more people are moving to Dubai. I’m focussing on the mid-end sector. I haven’t gone wrong with that.”

Bin Jabr Group’s Enerva General Trading produces cooling systems industry.

Despite what he thinks is a restaurant boom in Dubai, Bin Jabr says he is not eyeing any other cities in the GCC for further expansion of his concepts. Instead, his eyes are set on London.

“I’m focussing abroad, focussing on London. We’re taking advantage of the drop in the pound. I’m not looking at the Gulf or the GCC at all. I’m moving away from it. I don’t trust the market with everything that’s happening. I’m not confident. Anything can go wrong; the risk is high. Oil prices are affecting a lot. The Rouble crash, the Russians aren’t coming out here. [President Donald] Trump’s in power now. There’s a lot of unrest,” he says.

So what does the fellow magnate think of the flamboyant US President?

“I personally like Trump. I personally look up to him as an idol and a role model,” Bin Jabr says. “I think a lot of people misjudge him because he’s an outspoken person, he’s unfiltered, he’s raw and he’s straight to the point. Everything he said he would do, he did, so it wasn’t just for the political elections. Everything he said, he did. And it’s for the safety of his country and his people, it’s normal procedure.

“At the end of the day, I think Trump boosted the economy after he took a seat in the White House; the market boomed. He’s a businessman, he’s not a pure politician, so people want to judge him in a different way. I met him personally, he’s a good person. I think he’s going to do a lot of good changes and America is going to be boosted. The economy is going to boost and we are attached to the dollar, too. If America does good, we do good here.”

In spite of his enthusiasm towards the future, Bin Jabr recognises times are tough in the region. In 2016, he reported sectors such as oil, gas and construction as having slowed down, with 2017 set to be a very slow year as well. High end hotels, he says, are also suffering, having personally witnessed a few five-star hotels being cancelled in Dubai. Yet he is still delving into the business, undertaking talks of a boutique hotel near Dubai Marina in Q3 of 2019. He is convinced boutique hotels are what Dubai is missing.

“There aren’t proper boutique hotels. There is a gap in the market for that. A room is a room at the end of the day. You have high margins on the room and then your overhead is low, your staff is low. When you have a 400-key room, five-star hotel, your staff [numbers are] way too high. If you don’t have 90-plus [percent] occupancy, it’s very hard to make your money,” he says.

“We’re thinking of opening in Q3 2019, one hotel for now here and one in the Caribbean. We’re also looking at Sri Lanka right now; I’m flying to Sri Lanka next week. That will be under our own brand. It’s going to be medium-high, not too high, but it’s not going to be more than 150 rooms.”

Trans Continental Industries, a unit of the Bin Jabr Group, is the first bus factory ever built in the UAE.

When asked about his decision to launch hotels in what seems to be a tough time for businesses worldwide, Bin Jabr cites his father’s words.

“Tough times don’t last, tough people do. That’s what [my father] always told me. Be like a bamboo stick, don’t ever break. How much they squeeze, keep going, because you’re just going to bounce back harder,” he says, New York accent heavy as ever.

Dressed in a traditional white kandoura, Bin Jabr shares his vision of one day taking over as chairman. While outspoken himself, this particular point takes a while for him to admit.

“I have brothers, so it’s not up to me. One of my brothers is a partner with me in the hospitality company. My other brother has [retail fashion group] InStyle, it’s part of the group as well. They’re focussed more on the entertainment side, and my [third] brother has his own company, he does his own thing. I’m the only one who sits on the board and represents but they have a say at the end of the day, so it’s not up to me to be chairman. The company is signed to a trust fund, so I’ll let the trust fund decide, not me,” he says. After a pause, he adds, “Will I want to? Yes.”

Bin Jabr, who is a professional rally driver by night, has a somewhat fearless attitude to him. It is paired with ambitious dreams of surviving his father’s empire. That same intrepid stance won him several UAE rally racing championships and competitions, despite not having had any professional training prior to some of his wins. Does speeding at 235km/h scare him at all, we ask?

“Never. My co-driver says my heart is dead. But I never speed on the streets; I don’t trust the people around me, I trust me,” he says.

Considering he flipped his car 16 times at speed during one race, we trust his co-driver’s statement might very well be true. At least, when it comes to racing. Bin Jabr is a self-proclaimed adrenaline junkie, after all. It’s the adrenaline that keeps him going, he says.

“I’m addicted to the feeling, It’s my buzz. And I’m a gifted driver. With racing, you have to have a quick reflex. You either have it or you don’t have it, and I have that.”

But does he have what it takes to take his father’s place at the helm of the Bin Jabr Group? Well, the 30-year-old already has retirement on his mind.

“I think of retiring every day. I love travelling, I love freedom. And I think freedom is the most important thing in life. If you’re comfortable and free, that’s what matters,” he says. “Everything else, money, it has no value to me. I want to see the world. We live in a beautiful world.

“I love life too much; I’m enthusiastic about life, crazy about life. I love experiencing new things. I’ve been to six continents in the past two months.”

Like many other aspects of Bin Jabr’s life, his understanding of retirement bears little resemblance to that of common folks.

“If I find a hobby, I don’t think I’ll get bored of retirement. That’s why I’m looking for something like opening resorts, because I know I can travel and it’s work but you don’t feel that it’s work,” he says.

Why does he not retire now then?

“I can do that now, but just for future security I want to capitalise on the maximum [finances first]. I want to know that my kids and grandkids, even if an inflation happens, will be good. I’m only 30 years old. I’m giving myself six to seven years [until] retirement,” he says.

“I don’t like the city life, I’m not a city boy. I like greenery and nature and seeing the sea. If there’s a sea in front of me it just relaxes me. I try to always buy houses in green areas where there’s a lot of greenery around me.”

So if the constricting working hours of running a billion-dollar group in the bustling city of Dubai is not his idea of peace then becoming chairman of his family company may not actually be in the cards for Bin Jabr. But the fast talking, self-proclaimed ‘hippie’, who launched a restaurant at 23, alongside an effortless rally driving career, surely has much more up his sleeve.

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