By Courtney Trenwith
A straight shooter, billionaire businessman Khalaf Al Habtoor has become as well known for his uncensored views as he has for his eponymous developments. In this exclusive interview, the Emirati elder delves into US interference in the Arab world, calls for the GCC to put troops on the ground in Syria and admonishes media freedom in the UAE
Anyone who reads the almost-daily opinion pieces by Khalaf Al Habtoor could be forgiven for fearing a meeting with him. The veteran Emirati businessman not only has an opinion on just about everything, he is unafraid to make it public in a part of the world where doing so is not always welcome.
But sitting in a leather chair by a window in his enormous office – so elaborate it includes two separate sitting areas and a sprawling desk flanked by multiple family photos – Al Habtoor is as warm as the sun under which he basks.
Keen to welcome his guests, he takes us to the furnished attached balcony, where he points out the four minarets of the Al Farooq Omar Bin Al Khattab Mosque and Centre, which he built in the 1980s and then several years ago expanded to become the largest mosque in Dubai. Further in the distance, below the unmistakable Burj Khalifa, three buildings under construction, each a little more advanced than the next, mark his largest and most momentous development yet: Al Habtoor City.
Not his first eponymous development, the $3bn city is the grandest of Al Habtoor’s projects and marks the tremendous growth of his family business over nearly half a century. The master-development includes three five-star hotels to be operated by Starwood Hotels & Resorts, three residential towers, a polo and equestrian club, a unique theatre that will host water-themed productions curated by the company behind Cirque du Soleil, an indoor tennis academy and an array of restaurants.
The St Regis hotel is already in its soft opening phase, while the the Westin and W Hotel are expected to receive their first guests in May.
For the first time, Al Habtoor will be selling residences in the towers, two at 74 floors and one at 40 floors. The 1,460 luxury apartments go on sale on March 15. They include three ultra-VIP penthouses at 3000 square metres, with 360-degree panoramic views of Dubai and seven bedrooms, plus at least six two-storey penthouses ranging from 795sqm to 820sqm and featuring a private sky garden and swimming pool.
The apartments are being fitted out as construction continues just three floors above. Al Habtoor says while not any construction firm can manage to juggle the dual stages, it is more efficient.
The Al Habtoor Polo Resort & Club, worth $270m at the time of its announcement in 2013, includes a polo academy, a riding school with 500 stables and three professional polo fields. Matches are already being played there, while the 156 luxury villas, 24 of which will be St Regis-branded, and stables are under construction, Al Habtoor, a polo enthusiast, says.
The entire project spans 10 million square feet on land alongside Sheikh Zayed Rd near Business Bay. The billionaire has owned the land freehold for more than 30 years – it once housed the now demolished Metropolitan Hotel - but its value grew multi-fold in 2014 when the Dubai government announced it was going to build a canal that would coincidentally flow alongside Al Habtoor City, adding lucrative waterfront property to his portfolio.
“It was by luck. We didn’t think the canal would border our land, but this is God’s gift,” Al Habtoor, now the second largest hotel developer in the UAE, behind Jumeirah Group, says.
In what is perhaps a display of sentimentality, Al Habtoor is also rebuilding the Metropolitan Hotel within Al Habtoor City. It will be one of his only four-star properties, with 360 rooms, and is expected to open in May.
Al Habtoor says he has kept the hotel at four stars because Dubai “needs variety”. Although there is a limit to that variety – low-budget backpackers need not come, he says.
“We need better quality people to come. We don’t want people with a limited budget, we want people to come spend money, like in London, in Paris, they spend a lot of money. We need those people. We have this, but not enough, we need more,” he says.
“We don’t want people with the bag … like Europe, he’s on his bike, with his bag, he takes his bike into his bedroom; we don’t want that. We need more high calibre [visitors] to spend money in the country.”
But when it comes to residents in the UAE, Al Habtoor says everyone is treated equally.
“In this country, there is no differentiation between whether you’re a citizen of this country or whether you’re Asian, African, European [or] British. Wherever you come from, this is your family. That’s the most important to us in this country,” he says.
It is precisely the attractiveness of living in the UAE, including security, high quality education and comfort, that will continue to feed demand for property in the country, Al Habtoor says, lambasting “desk jockeys” who forecast doom and gloom.
The entire Al Habtoor City is expected to be completed within the first few months of 2017. Usually a man with a never-ending list of projects, Al Habtoor claims there is nothing else in the pipeline, yet.
“I have to breathe; I have to take a deep breath,” he says.
Al Habtoor handed over the day-to-day running of the group to his middle son Mohammed several years ago and his youngest son Ahmed oversees Al Habtoor Motors, which has the UAE exclusive selling rights to brands including Mitsubishi, Bentley and Bugatti. (His eldest son, Rashid, ventured out on his own in the late 1980s). But any break he may take will be short-lived; this is not a man who rests on his laurels.
“I will not consider retirement at all. Retirement to me equals death,” Al Habtoor says. “I feel, myself, I am young, I feel myself 24 years. I take care of myself, I can think, I can suggest, I can discuss with my team - every morning at 7.30am we meet to discuss the strategy.”
He has put forward an official proposal to the Egyptian authorities to build a second Al Habtoor City there, but he says he has not received any response from President Abdel Fattah El Sisi since he wrote to him with detailed plans in December.
Apparently surprised by the lack of response, Al Habtoor says sarcastically: “I don’t blame them, maybe they are busy with other things, priorities more than $8.5bn.
“Maybe they have enough [investment].”
It is this kind of lax attitude that gets under Al Habtoor’s skin. He has for decades risen before the sun and expects his 10,000-plus staff to be in the office or on site by 7.30am, which is still long after he has arrived.
“Success doesn’t come like that [instantly],” he says. “You have to be disciplined, you have to organise your time.”
However, Al Habtoor denies that he micro-manages the business - he simply oversees it, he says. Yet that impulse to know every detail of the company has repeatedly interrupted plans to go public. Every two or three years since the 1990s, he has engaged advisors to consider an initial public offering, the most recent in 2014, but every time he had ended up with cold feet.
“My shareholders, that’s my worry… I’m sure they will be happy because we are making profit [but] if one year we don’t make money, I will feel guilty. [It’s] mental more than anything else,” he explains.
Reluctance among family members also has been a factor, as it is with many GCC family businesses that fear public scrutiny. But Al Habtoor believes it will happen, “one day, one day”.
Al Habtoor’s success in Dubai has given him somewhat of a platform to speak out on all manner of issues, from the lifting of sanctions on Iran to who is to blame for the crises in Syria and Iraq. But one such public boast – in which he backed Donald Trump to become US president – eventually backfired.
From one businessman to another, Al Habtoor was quick off the mark to support the billionaire when he launched his presidential campaign in June, 2015. But the support was short-lived. In a rare retraction, Al Habtoor admitted in November that he had made “a mistake” and vehemently dis-endorsed Trump for his “bigoted statements and behaviour”.
He now tells Arabian Business that he has never met Trump, although he has enjoyed many a coffee at the Trump Tower in New York City. “Now, I am scared to go there,” he jokes, following his numerous critical op-eds about the Republican frontrunner.
Al Habtoor explains that he – too quickly, in hindsight – favoured Trump because he was not the typical politician.
“I was thinking, the world is fed-up with the politicians from the United States, they’ve done a lot of damage in the world. They’ve damaged Iraq, Syria, because of their politics and because of their way of politics, they’ve brought terrorism… because of their hesitation. Therefore, I thought a businessman would be better, to create jobs, to create business – they’re more knowledgeable than them.
“When Donald Trump entered the race, I thought ‘he’s the only one’, because he’s been bankrupt many times and he bounced back once again. He’s very clever, and until now he’s very clever. He’s very smart, very shrewed and he knows what he’s doing and I have respect for people like Donald Trump, until now I respected him, but I was disappointed. I was disappointed when he marked everybody bad, then he hit the Latinos, the Jews, the blacks, then finally he slaughtered the Muslims; he wanted to ban them from coming to the United States.”
Al Habtoor wrote in January that Arab investors would pull billions of dollars from the US if Trump became president. But if push came to shove, he would not abandon his own investments there, which include the President Abraham Lincoln Springfield, a DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel “America is an institution, it’s not a grocery store,” he says, when pressed on why he would not pull out.
Al Habtoor has now shifted to the Democrats, disappointed by the Republican candidates’ “war” on each other. He now endorses Hillary Clinton for president because “at least she has experience, she knows how to control the world”.
Yet the man she would be replacing, fellow Democrat Barack Obama, is, in Al Habtoor’s view, to blame for the current mess in Iraq. While much of the “damage” was already done by George W. Bush (unlike his father, who Al Habtoor says was “excellent in Iraq”), Al Habtoor says Obama’s insistence on following through with Bush Jnr’s troop withdrawal plan, leaving the country to manage its own security from December 2011, and his reluctance to return military forces when it became apparent that militia groups such as ISIL had moved in, made him culpable for the current insecurity.
“Obama left Iraq as a forest of wild and starving animals,” he says. “They handed over Iraq to a person who is not loyal to the soil of Iraq [Nouri Al Maliki]. [Al Maliki] dismantled all the Sunni officers and replaced them with Shia officers. They ran away from ISIS; what leadership is that?
“This is the mistake, the work, of Obama.”
Obama’s failure to follow through with his now infamous “red line” threat to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad in August 2012 also played into the hands of ISIL, Al Habtoor says.
Yet he also calls for his home country and other GCC states to claim responsibility and take the most decisive action possible - sending ground troops into Syria.
“We have to cut the snake’s neck in Syria and Iraq before it comes to us,” he reasons. At the least, the GCC should be supporting the Free Syrian Army, he says.
“I will not depend on the US, or the West, I don’t trust them. I said the same thing to Ukraine … negotiate with Putin, don’t negotiate with the West.”
Al Habtoor says the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, in support of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, was a show of the GCC’s ability to fight “without the help of the US or any country in the world” and should be a prelude to a similar act in Syria.
The Yemeni conflict is widely considered a proxy war with Iran, an arch foe Al Habtoor vehemently dislikes. The businessman says he predicted “this dark day” when economic sanctions would be lifted “years ago” and describes the deal struck by Obama last year as “so detrimental to Arab interests and security”.
“At its core, this has little to do with nuclear weapons and all to do with facilitating Iran becoming a regional power in league with Washington to exert control over Arab states, in particular, Saudi Arabia and Gulf states, and to rebalance regional power in America’s favour,” he recently wrote in his self-published biannual magazine, Al Shindagah.
But he also decries some fellow Gulf states, who he says are colluding with the trans-peninsula enemy.
“Sad to say that among our GCC sister nations there are those enjoying close relationships with Iran in a less than transparent way. We know that behind the scenes they have been furthering Iranian interests during its years of virtual isolation,” he wrote in Al Shindagah.
“Now they are no longer needed, it is only a matter of time before Iran turns on them too. They need to be cautioned by the GCC and if they continue their pro-Iranian policies, then we have no choice but to build a Trump-style wall between us and them.”
Al Habtoor too has issued advice on Iraq, calling on the UAE government to close its diplomatic missions in the country, “as long as it behaves like an enemy state”. Although he is sure to always add that his political views do not encompass lay Iraqis, Syrians and Iranians, many of whom have lived in the UAE for decades and who he counts as his friends. They are “most welcome” to invest in his country, he says.
Despite launching his own voice piece nearly 20 years ago, Al Habtoor’s uncensored views have not always been welcomed by authorities – causing media freedom to be added to his list of concerns.
“I’m not happy about it, some of my articles don’t get published,” he says.
For a man willing to speak about almost everything, the interview has reached nearly an hour and Al Habtoor’s third meeting of the day – it is barely 9.30am - is patiently waiting for him. We wrap up the interview and a fellow Emirati in national dress takes the now vacant window seat as Al Habtoor asks his butler for a bottle of water. Presumably, it is to refresh for what will undoubtedly be another intriguing conversation.
And so the day goes for one of the UAE’s most laudable elders.