Dr Amina Al Rustamani interview: Zone of success

From Dubai Media City project engineer to one of the Arab World's most powerful women in just 10 years
Dr Amina Al Rustamani interview: Zone of success
By Anil Bhoyrul
Sat 25 Feb 2012 08:36 PM

Dr Amina Al Rustamani started her career in 2001 as a project engineer in Dubai Media City. Just over a decade later, she has become one of the Arab world’s most powerful women, looking after 4,500 companies at TECOM Business Parks.

The figures are impressive. Very impressive. In the last twelve months, 654 new companies were registered across TECOM’s business parks in Dubai — a rise of eleven percent on the previous year. Right now, TECOM has a staggering 4,500 companies under its umbrella.

The only person not fazed by these numbers is TECOM Business Parks CEO Dr Amina Al Rustamani. “Is the recession over? I think so, for Dubai I think it is. This is the year for growth, but we are still going through the restructuring and the plan that has been put after the crisis. But the worst is over… it’s time to be positive again,” she says.

Dr Al Rustamani has a lot to be positive about. Just over a decade since operations first began, TECOM has become a global brand and institution. It has created from scratch eleven major business parks in Dubai, including the likes of Dubai Media City, Dubai Internet City and Knowledge Village. Industry giants such as Oracle, Thomson Reuters and MBC have moved here and stayed through thick and thin, while TECOM’s clusters now cover ICT, media, education, science and manufacturing.  While Dubai Media City may take much of the glamour and headlines, it is the other parks — such as Dubai Outsource Zone, Dubai Studio City and DuBiotech that have really helped drive growth.

And in the past three years, while the big players were forced to scale down, Dr Rustamani wasted no time chasing new business in new markets, adding a host of freelancers, consultants, marketing and events professionals to set up in her business parks. She explains: “At the end of the day, when you face difficult times, you have to re-engineer your approach to the way you do business. We are now 2012 I don’t think it’s as bad as people expected — Dubai is a very dynamic city and so you have to be dynamic with what’s going on in the market. There have been previous events like the Gulf war, we always had flexibility,” she says, adding: “2011 was a tough year because of the competition and the supply in the market, but for the industries we focus on — mainly ICT, media, education, science, biotech, energy — it’s been wonderful for these sectors. If in 2009 I was told we would have 654 new companies registering two years later, I would be very happy, I mean, really really happy with that figure.”

The current projections certainly make happy reading for Dr Al Rustamani. ICT spend in the Middle East is forecast to hit $81bn by 2015. This year, Saudi Arabia is expected to lead that growth by reaching $32bn, with the UAE second, by growing its ICT spend to $16.15bn.

Advertising revenue in the MENA region is expected to grow at 8.4 percent, with the UAE and Qatar the biggest beneficiaries, while the total number of students in the GCC is forecast to reach 11.3 million by 2020 — nearly two million more than in 2009. Add to that the fact the UAE’s manufacturing sector contributed thirteen percent of GDP last year, and it soon becomes clear that the knowledge based sectors around which TECOM has built its empire are the places to be.

Dr Al Rustamani says: “The fact is we have diversified our offering, and you can see the results.  We have data centres, studios and warehouses. So the opportunity is there. Could we get to 7,000 companies in ten years? Yes, we could get to that,” she says, adding: “It’s not that people just get amazed with what they see physically — the first thing they look at is the legal framework, not just the real estate.. What made these projects successful is two factors — the Dubai factor, and the second is the commitment of the government to make this a free zone and really operate as a free zone.”

Though the good times appear to be rolling back, it is only three years ago that the picture looked bleak at best. The collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008 was quickly followed by a crash in the Dubai property market, with prices falling by over 60 percent. Media — the bread and butter of TECOM — was amongst the worst sectors hit, and the doom-mongers were already preparing the obituaries.  But Dr Al Rustamani admits that while it was a tough period, there were still positives to be found.

“It was a period of huge uncertainty. I got a lot of phone calls saying this place will become a ghost town. We had some companies leaving, but we were very careful to understand what the customers were going through,  especially those who had been here for ten years — we made sure we listened to them to see how we could support them, and help them sustain their business.

“We started running networking events and sessions for them to learn from different people. We had sustainability sessions with consultants and legal firms, and various schemes to support our people. At the end of the day, looking back, I don’t think 2009 and 2010 were as bad as the market perceived.”

She adds: “The growth we had was tremendous and as human beings to have been here, and to see that growth, was amazing. But you really learn so much also from challenges, you learn how to reverse your thinking and look for efficiencies. Today we are seeing growth because the cost of operations and cost of real estate is reasonable.”

Of that there is little doubt. Within the ICT cluster, companies including Oracle, PetroChina and EMC have expanded their bases, while others such as Philips Electronics, Visa and DHR have joined the cluster. Occupancy rates are running at a strong 84.5 percent, with the area’s population now standing at 26,000.

Equally healthy is the growth in the education cluster, with 82.1 percent occupancy rates thanks to major expansions, while the media cluster has been able to attract new companies including Al Jazeera Satellite Network and Lufthansa Systems AG. Between them, the five clusters now host a population of nearly 70,000.

“The last three years were about efficiencies. But I’m really energised and geared up for 2012. I think this is a year of growth, there is a shift in thinking and I think there is really huge potential,” she says.

Dr Al Rustamani has certainly seen it all before. She joined the company in April 2001, after doing her PhD in Electrical Engineering at Georgetown University. She says she was “passionate” about research, and on returning to the UAE had applied for various jobs at universities. “One of my friends told me about what was going on at Media City and they had some interesting projects related to engineering. So I got a job, working as a project engineer.”

Her rise to the top was nothing short of meteoric. She quickly began working on different projects related to broadcasting, and within four years of joining was a director in the company, having worked in the sales, marketing and technical design sides of the business. She was promoted to become the broadcast director at Dubai Media City, and became instrumental in the launch of Dubai Studio City, before becoming Dubai Media City’s executive director. Then in 2008, just seven years after first joining the company, she was appointed as CEO of TECOM Business Parks.

She says: “I never thought I would become CEO. I was not interested in power — what drives me is challenges, and developing people. The first thought in my mind when I woke up as CEO was that I was serving my country, which is a great feeling. You go through your life and you go through major changes. To move out of research and become a simple project engineer was a big change. But the transition from just looking at the media sector to looking after everything was not a big surprise for me. It was something I felt ready for.”

Dr Al Rustamani has quickly become one of the region’s most respected business leaders. With 4,500 companies under her TECOM umbrella, it is little surprise that she was named last year as one of the Arab world’s ten most powerful women by CEO Middle East — when the list is published again next week, most experts are tipping her to be in the top five.

She explains: “My advice to succeed is you need to love what you do. A CEO has to be patient, and have experience of leadership and management. You need that ability to motivate people to do their job. I believe it’s better to use the carrot rather than the stick. But this comes with experience, and the different situations I had to deal with… I was never really daunted by having to take on such a big role. The first question in my mind when I got the job is can I do it?”

The answer, so far, has been an emphatic yes.

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