Hole in one

There appears to be no stopping Sheikh Faisal’s dream of turning Ras Al Khaimah into a major tourist, business and industrial hub. He tells us why the emirate can only succeed.

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By  Anil Bhoyrul Published  January 11, 2005

Interview|~||~||~|Right at the end of a round of golf with Sheikh Faisal, a curious scene develops. The Sheikh is holding his putter six inches above the ground, attempting to tap the ball into the hole on the 18th green. When one of his public relations team members points out that the putter needs to be level with the grass, he looks up in embarrassment. “OK, I better confess. I’ve never actually played golf before in my life. But I’m going to have lessons soon,” he explains. Chances are, his training facilities will rival those of professional golfers elsewhere in the world, given that the Sheikh happens to own the magnificent Tower Links Golf Course in Ras Al Khaimah. It is just one of a number of ventures he has backed in the past decade, each with spectacular success: two beach resorts, a free trade zone, a pharmaceutical giant and a string of smaller leisure developments. The 44-year-old second son of Sheikh Saqr Al Qassimi, ruler of Ras Al Khaimah — one the UAE’s seven emirates — is on a mission to promote himself and Ras Al Khaimah. And he’s doing a pretty good job of both. “Look around you, my friend,” he says. “I might not be the best golf player in the world. In fact, I’m probably even worse than you. But I challenge you to find a better golf course than this in the Gulf. It’s great, isn’t it? This was all swamp four years ago, and look what I’ve done now. If you put your mind to something, you can do anything, regardless of whether you are a sheikh or not.” It would be obvious to point out at this stage that the Sheikh does have the small matter of a few hundred million dollars behind him, and did so from birth. But there is no need. “And I know what you’re going to say, that it’s all about money. It’s not. Money makes people blind. If you have too much, you are completely blind,” he says, before admitting, “but I have a fair bit I suppose.” The Sheikh’s spending is clear to see, not just on the golf course but more significantly, in the development of the Ras Al Khaimah Free Trade Zone, which opened in May 2000. There are now almost 800 companies registered in the zone, which is divided into three sectors: the business park, industrial park and technology park. With investors offered 100% foreign ownership, 100% tax-free trading, 100% capital and profit repatriation, and high-end seaport and airport facilities, it is little surprise that the venture has been a success. The local municipality has awarded over 2700 construction licenses in the past 12 months, and non-oil exports have more than doubled in the past four years to US$338 million. This represents a growth rate higher than both Mauritius and Singapore in the past two years. More to the point, Ras Al Khaimah is now competing with Dubai. Sheikh Faisal says: “Some people see what we are doing here as competing with Dubai. You can use the word ‘competition' in a negative way, or you can use ‘competition' as a way of complementing each other. Dubai is still the main business hub in the UAE. It is a long way ahead of us, but the point is you can now do business in RAK. We have to take things step by step. Dubai needs its mega projects to compete internationally, but we can be more selective.” But he adds: “Let’s be clear about this. I want businesses to come to Ras Al Khaimah. I think the return on investment is very high, which is why demand right now is very high.” Much of the credit for the success of the free zone belongs to the Sheikh himself. He personally backed the building of the three parks within the free zone, at a cost nearing US$50 million, despite concerns it could never compete with Dubai. And he is in no doubt that demand will keep rising. “I take a very positive view on the current business environment. Some people think there will be a crash in the property market, for example. I don’t take that view. I think the only danger is that we compromise on quality. And if we do that, then yes, we will have a problem,” he says. He refers to Kanoo Group deputy chairman Mishal Kanoo’s recent comments in Arabian Business that the market could crash next year if, as expected, the US raises interest rates, forcing the UAE Central Bank to follow suit. “I can see why he says that, but I don’t accept the argument. Interest rates right now are so low, that even if they rose it would not have any significant impact on the market. The return on investment will still be high. But if you are asking me whether I recommend investing in property, I would say diversify your investments. Not because property is unsafe, but I think diversifying is the best way to make money.” Sheikh Faisal has done more than his own fair share of diversification. Right now he is the chairman of the Department of General Accounts in RAK, as well as the chairman of RAK Free Zone. Add to that the Tower Links Golf Club, the Equestrian Centre, RAK Hilton Hotel, Hilton Beach Club (and a hotel due to be built in the beach club complex) and its associated beach villas. “I’ve been pretty busy,” he says. He certainly has. After graduating in 1983 from Eastern Michigan University, USA, with a bachelor’s degree in business management, he returned home with the long-term vision of being personally committed the development and growth of Ras Al Khaimah. “I enjoyed studying in America, but I didn’t enjoy the weather. I was more than happy to come back to the UAE,” he says. Within three years of returning, in 1986, Sheikh Faisal was in charge of the electricity and water department in Ras Al Khaimah where he led a staff of 600 employees and managed the department operations. Within four years he had re-organised and merged it with the federal ministry of water and electricity. “Since the time I left university, my goal has been to get as much experience as I can, and the best way you can do that is simply by living. Life is the biggest and most valuable experience. You have to learn how to deal with other people, and how to get the best out of them. I know my limitations, and I know there are a lot of things that I don’t know. I rely on other people, and hopefully I inspire them to do well. The biggest danger is crossing your own knowledge barrier. I have seen that happen, and once that happens you are on the road to failure.” There has been no sign of that in the Sheikh’s many ventures. The Tower Links Golf Resort cost over US$10 million to build, but with the sale of real estate properties alone it will, he says, quickly be profitable. With Ras Al Khaimah selling actual land as opposed to only properties to foreigners, his other developments are also turning a quick profit. As he explains: “I am a businessman, so of course I enjoy making a profit. Yes, money motivates me. It motivates every single human being, whatever else they might tell you.” That said, the Sheikh is keen not to take all the credit for the region’s current success, even though much of it has been backed with his own cash. He says: “I wasn’t born with these ideas. I didn’t wake up one day and think why don’t I start a free-trade zone, or build a golf course. I learned a long time ago the best way to learn is from others. Look at their ideas, and yes, copy them. Why not? When I saw the Emirates Golf Course in Dubai I thought, yes, I want to do the same in this part of the country. I’m always looking at what other people are doing and wondering whether I can maybe do it myself. And maybe do it better.” He adds: “What has happened here in Ras Al Khaimah has been very, very good. I am very pleased with what has been achieved in a short space of time, but that doesn’t make me a genius of any kind. I am wrong sometimes. I am only human.” The Sheikh’s developments and projects are still in their infancy. Whether in five years time they match the scale of neighbouring Dubai remains to be seen. As he says himself: “Who knows where we will be in five years. Come back and have a look. All I know for sure is I will probably be better at golf.”||**||

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