History risen

Emaar chairman Mohamed Alabbar reveals the challenges of building the world's tallest tower - and how it has changed him as a person.
History risen
By Anil Bhoyrul
Mon 04 Jan 2010 04:00 AM

Emaar chairman Mohamed Alabbar reveals the challenges of building the world's tallest tower - and how it has changed him as a person.

We are standing on the balcony of Mohamed Alabbar's private office, admiring the world's tallest building a few yards in front of us. The chairman of Emaar is putting the final touches to its grand inauguration, just a few hours away. And as always with Alabbar, nothing is being left to chance.

"Sheikh Mohammed is my boss, and I want him to look at it and smile and say well done. And I want my people in the city to say; ‘Yeah, yeah, that's ok.' Because this building is theirs, it's not ours anymore," he says.

The chances are Alabbar will get more than a few pats on the back from his boss, not to mention millions around the globe. Barely six years since breaking ground, the Burj Dubai is a reality. It is here, it is real. Alabbar has - once again - delivered.

For Alabbar more than most, it is has been a rollercoaster ride of emotions. Eighteen months ago, speculators queued through the night outside the very building we are standing in, desperate to get a slice of the property pie as Dubai's boom looked unstoppable.

But then came Lehmann Brothers. Then came the crash. Then came the recession. And then came the Dubai debt crisis.

As the new decade begins, both the Burj Dubai and Alabbar are still standing - and like the original plans for the tower, which were far less grand, Alabbar has undergone a transformation.

"Am I a different kind of leader now? Without a doubt. I got better in many things along the way. I'm sure I made valuable mistakes, but I am becoming more emotional. I don't know if it's age or what. Or so much beating by the shareholders," he says wryly.

So is this a new softer Alabbar we are seeing? No, not quite.

"I'm a harder leader now, you know," he admits. "I mean, I'm a hard leader anyway...On the boss side, I am much tougher. Some people who got a job from me four years ago wouldn't get it today. It's [been] proven that so many people don't actually work. Productivity of people is pretty bad. In those market conditions [before the crash], everyone was employed and spoilt. So I laid off a little bit, and then discovered there are mistakes - so now I am back in the same style."

Alabbar is known for his proactive leadership style and attention to detail. Some of his critics have rounded on this in the past, but the Emaar chairman says that if anything, the recent financial crisis has shown that his way is the right way.

"I am trying to learn," he says. "In times like this you need to relearn. I think I thought ‘I'm conservative in my business policies'; but maybe I need to revisit that. My management style is hands-on and a lot of people criticise that. I think they have been proven wrong. I believe that hands-on is the only way to go."

He leans forward. "But I've learnt a lot. I've done a lot of good things that I should do more of and I should avoid a few things as well."

Few would argue that the Burj Dubai is one of the "good things." Emaar 's fact sheet on the tower is several pages long, but the words ‘record breaking' appear in almost every paragraph. From the tallest building to the amount of concrete used; from speed of construction to the speed of the lifts - you name it; the Burj Dubai has broken it.

Alabbar is rightly proud of the achievement, but says a lot of the credit belongs to his "boss", the Ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

"He is a tough boss but a fair boss, and a great boss when you make a mistake," he smiles. "He is there behind you like a mountain. You push hard and then you make a mistake, but His Highness will pick you up, and I love him for that.

"I have learned a lot from him - especially optimism and that you never go down," he continues. "He pushes more than you think. This [the Burj Dubai] would have not happened without him, it would have been an 80-storey building. I assure you, that is where my vision gets - 80, 90 that's about it."

Alabbar pauses. "He'll take you for a 5km walk in the desert. He just calls you and says; ‘Let's walk. Never mind if you don't have the right shoes, let's walk.' In that 5km you learn so much. Some people don't get it even when he explains it, but I grasped a lot from him. He gave me the chance to become a recognisable person in society and that is so special."

The Burj Dubai should, according to financial experts, give Emaar 's share price a much-needed lift. It is down 68 percent on the year to date - although with Q3 profits of $178m the trend, along with market sentiment, is increasingly positive.

Alabbar concedes that "maybe... maybe" he was guilty of excessive optimism in the past, "but as long as we can manage during tough times, maybe we are not as guilty."

Emaar has suffered like other companies purely because it is in the property sector. But Alabbar is adamant that the firm's fundamentals are as strong as ever, and in the "New Dubai" it will shine.

"This is the city of the future for 500 million people," he says firmly. "With respect to all other cities, this is the one. It will grow, growth is coming back.

"I think...there will be one player. Other players are a little injured. The market changed, we are tight and we have learned from our mistakes but this city will move on. Other friends of mine are hurting and I wish them well, but we will be the player... I feel it's a new chapter for the city."

He concedes there needs to be more liquidity in the banking system, but says 1-3 percent growth in 2010 will be achieved "comfortably".

On to real estate, and does he believe the property market has bottomed out? "Without a doubt, without a doubt." So would he advise his own son to buy property in Dubai today? "Yes, absolutely."

As for the likes of Moody's downgrading Emaar 's ratings, "that doesn't bother me." Or the foreign media that  has been putting the boot into Dubai? Alabbar shrugs.

"That's part of the game, part of life. Dubai is successful and sexy, it has all the glitter and the glamour. It is newsworthy, [with] good days and bad days which get to be dramatised. And bad things do happen. Are there some people who wanted to take advantage of it? Yes, but that's human nature, we are born like that."

Some critics would argue that Emaar would have been better off as a private company, without having to subject itself to the rigours of the financial markets on a daily basis, but Alabbar says the opposite is true. Looking back, he has no regrets at all over taking the company to the stock market, despite all the ups and downs along the way.

"Yes, I feel it [the fall in share price] because I am responsible to the shareholders. I am an employee. I work for them and I should show them better value," he says. "But regret going public? Not really. Going public gave us great discipline and put on us a pressure to perform. It created a much more resilient Mohamed Alabbar."

So what is next for the new, more resilient Mohamed Alabbar? He is now in the gym every two days, rides for 30km three times a week - not to mention the spontaneous 5km walks in the desert with Sheikh Mohammed. And he talks about doing social work in India at a later stage in his life.

As the interview ends, I ask what his advice would be to youngsters in the Middle East aspiring to be the next Mohamed Alabbar. Like him, they want one day to be remembered for building the world's tallest tower.

"Nothing comes easy," he tells me. "You have to be determined and optimistic but you have to earn it by working really hard and long hours. The idea of making it, then thinking ‘I'll get a free ride,' well you can, but it'll all be fictitious. Experience comes by sweating it.

"And when you make it,they'll call you lucky, but you're not really lucky. Nothing is easy. Work hard and you'll get a chance."

For all the latest construction news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.