Hot Property

In a rare interview, Hashim Al Dabal tells Alicia Buller how he built an US$82bn empire.

  • E-Mail
By  Alicia Buller Published  August 13, 2006

|~|32-dancingtower-200.jpg|~|Building up rhythm: The Dancing Towers, set to be completed in 2008, will be a star feature at Business Bay. |~|In a rare interview, Hashim Al Dabal tells Alicia Buller how he built an US$82bn empire. For a man who earns his bread and butter masterminding luxury properties, his own office is not overly sumptuous. Yet perched on a standard black leather chair in a relatively nondescript room, Hashim Al Dabal appears larger than life. “I will tell you everything,” promises Dubai Properties’ CEO, ignoring gulps from his PR posse. “But if there’s something don’t want to answer, you’re not allowed to push, okay?” Dabal − who is also sitting on around US$82 billion worth of real estate − might be joking, but who knows. After only two minutes into the interview, he has exhibited a dry humour not typically associated with ex-bank managers, as well as a prickliness that often is. “I’m not a bean counter. Well, not all of me,” he smiles. Clearly. The first time Dabal pulls his hands to his chest and genuinely appears excited is when he outlines his plans for Culture Village, a recently announced US$14 billion project for the city of cranes. “Dubai needs more culture. It’s something that runs deeper than real estate. “It’s the one really close to my heart.” he gushes. Culture Village is in its early stages, but the desire is to assemble a group of properties to showcase art and creativity. The combined residential and commercial district will feature low to medium-rise homes, plus various academies for painting, music, dance, pottery and other forms of self-expression. Dabal's vision chimes with the creative fervour currently permeating the region. Abu Dhabi has designs on becoming a global cultural destination with starchitect Frank Gehry’s planned Guggenheim Museum for the UAE capital while the highly-anticipated Museum of Islamic Arts, will soon open in Doha as will an expansion to the existing Qatar National Museum designed by celebrated French architect Jean Nouvel. “When Culture Village is open I want to really be a part of it. I’d like to be able to walk there and listen to music − all kinds of music, on the streets. And the sooner, the better,” he says, referring to the dearth of major artistic attractions in Dubai. “I want to show how this part of the world believes in culture and its importance. I don’t mind where the artists are from; it’s just about an exchange of global cultures so that we can learn to appreciate each other,” he explains. “I like to count the numbers, but I also know that it’s important to feel. I combine maths with the ‘let’s do it’ mentality.” That last remark might just be a contender for understatement of the year. This autumn Dabal is set to unveil the largest completed single-phase real estate development in the world. The Jumeirah Beach Residence is set on 1.7 km of Dubai coastline and features 40 towers, of which 36 are residential and four are hotels. Moreover, the complex is one of the few projects to be completed on time and on budget since Dubai’s real estate frenzy first began. But Dabal is not content to bank the accolades. “Don’t laugh,” he says, “but you know what I wish I’d done?” The room goes quiet, because it’s not often that Dabal admits to weakness. “I wish I’d built 100 of them, 100 towers. They said I couldn’t build 40 towers in a single phase. Well I did. I only wish I’d built more to prove them wrong. I knew the demand was there. But that’s life.” He says his appetite for business began very early on when he held raffles at his childhood home. For a small fee, Dabal's friends would be invited to pick a balloon from a board for a prize. Four of five times, he gave out winnings. The rest, Dabal kept. He was ten years old at the time. “My hands were itching even then to get started,” he says. “I used to look at the small groceries shops and saw how the man behind the till had lots of cash in his till. I thought how do I get that? My parents used to give me a dirham every morning but when I asked for another one in the afternoon, they’d usually refuse. So that’s when I started to try and make my own.” Dabal says that it was this experience that instilled within in him one of his foremost business values: fairness. “The moment I started to make money I didn’t take it off my parents anymore.” But there’s more to him than wanting to control his own affairs − behind the dark eyes there’s a well of passion and ego; but most importantly, he says, he dares to dream. That, Dabal says, he learned from Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. “His Highness has said that the sky has no limit and I agree with him. Dubai has a unique confidence and the aggressiveness. And he’s been very smart to come as far as he has. We’re the hub for trading and the talent industry, as well as finance, media, tourism and real estate. There’s still room to improve – perhaps in the area of high technology – but nothing, as we’ve seen, is impossible.” The property guru has continuously pushed the boundaries of his business. In less than two years, Dubai Properties − a subsidiary of state-owned Dubai Holding − has bulked up to become one of the emirate’s heavyweight real estate trio. Current projects in the works include the ambitious Business Bay freezone district (US$41 billion), and the sprawling Dubailand’s Villa complex (US$1.7 billion). Rival, Emaar, is the largest real estate company in the world by market capitalisation, and has pulled in US$1.3 billion in profits this year alone with projects throughout the UAE, Syria, Egypt, Morocco, India, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Meanwhile Nakheel, Dabal's other main competitor, has designs on becoming the world’s most successful waterfront property name, with a slew of projects rising up and out of the Gulf’s seas. The scale involved is indeed staggering. At a rough estimate, the three companies are currently involved with projects with a combined value of more than US$100 billion. Nakheel has projects worth more than US$30 billion under development. Emaar has already announced projects worth more than US$21 billion this year. But the roles of the Big Three are evolving quickly. Once, Nakheel stuck to coastal developments, Emaar to residential buildings while Dubai Holding tackled commercial developments and business districts Now all three are competing directly for Dubai’s residential property market, and internationally. Emaar is the only major real estate company listed on the Dubai stock market, and as a result the firm has seen its share price nosedive by 30% this year. “I don’t like to comment on the competition,” Dabal offers, before he is even asked. “But certainly I watch them, to see how they’re doing, what countries they’re developing in. We will also go to new countries but only the right place at the right time.” “If you look at the whole picture business-wise, I know that people worry about falling prices and it’s a fair question, but people forget that Emaar is not the only property company. There’s a deluge of respectable companies out there, which indicates that we’re onto something. The fact that they are all here is no coincidence. The supply of property is exactly in line with the needs and demands of Dubai – we research everything down to the smallest detail on a macro- and micro-economic level, oil prices, consumer needs in terms of home sizes and prices. It’s this kind of research that is accelerating the market,” he says. Dabal adds: “Dubai has room for even more, I know it. There is still massive demand for real estate today, even though the market is maturing. It’s not just single owners who are coming to Dubai, it’s now becoming institutional with the arrival of fund managers. The real estate market segment is very varied. Dubai Properties' buyers are very international – 35-40% international, 30% GCC and 30% local. I am happy with this number and we want to maintain this mix. I would never raise a project if I didn’t have sufficient data to back it up” Although he now exudes the confidence of a man who knows he is in the right place at the right time, it was not always like this. “One of the most challenging times for me was when we first announced Jumeirah Beach Residence, people just didn’t believe me. They didn’t believe it was possible. It was a challenging announcement too because it involved so many audiences and everybody had their own questions. It was the world’s first single phase project of that size. I was confident that we could do it because I knew the demand was there, but we had our doubters.”||**|||~|32_NIK9346-200.jpg|~||~|Now, in the shadows of the ready-to-go 40 towers of Jumeirah Beach Residence, the naysayers will be forced to wander home with their tails firmly between their legs. The multi-use complex is ready to accommodate 25,000 residents and is, according to Dubai Properties, 90% sold out. Dabal says that while the project was the most difficult he has had experienced professionally, Jumeirah Beach Residence also marked his most ecstatic moment. “We did it, even when they all said it was impossible. I must be doing something well, as my staff tend to follow me when I move. And if I didn’t think I was the best man for the job then I’d let the better man take it,” he says. “There’s three more major announcements in the pipeline, but I’m keeping quiet for the moment so that I’m able to back it up this time.” While Dabal talks freely, often he talks freely only about subjects of his choosing. When asked what he thinks of America, he volunteers: “I think it’s important to motivate your staff.” Later, when asked about his notion of power, he simply states that he is saddened by the Lebanon crisis. “I hope that the arrival of the Culture Village will be something to help us all to accept each other in the future. The UAE is currently a very multi-national country, but I want it to become a multicultural country. There is a lot of conflict in the world and I’m sure that sharing our cultural gifts can make it better. Do you know what I mean? We will get taught about what makes other countries tick. It’s something beautiful and it all helps.” Dabal, like his country, is brimming with dreams. And so far, many of his visions have become reality and profitable. The real test though will come when his projects open to the public and, of course, much will depend on the buoyancy of the UAE’s real estate market. According to analysts, the good times could be set to roll for some time yet. The escalating price of commercial properties shows no sign of abating. Annual increases of 20-35 per cent are forecast for the next five years, depending on whether properties are located in free zones, commercial districts or industrial areas. With businesses reluctant to tie up working capital, demand continues to outstrip supply. Shahli Akram Juma, deputy CEO at Dubai-based Amlak Finance predicts “It’ll be three to five years before there is a slowdown in price growth.” Until then Dubai Properties will continue to deliver ‘quality and people", says Dabal. “There are various factors that companies can compete on − price, value for money, and luxury. Anyone can try to copy these but we have more, something that’s very difficult to copy: we combine quality with delivery of services. These are the real resources and it’s very difficult to copy our main ingredient − our people. We invest in them and give them freedom and stability to pursue their ideas.” In full flow, he continues: “It’s important to incentivise the staff. You can reward them simply by the lifestyle you give them, and the environment they work in. You can even reward them with interaction; sometimes just a smile is enough. More responsibilities. More bonuses. There’s so many ways. You have to reward employees for loyalty too. I try to treat others as I would like them to treat me.” The principle of fairness is a theme which Dabal often returns to. “You know what?” he asks, suddenly warming up. “I was arguing with a friend of mine and she was saying that money is everything. I said ‘no, it’s meaningless if you don’t know how to make it work’. A person only needs as much money as they can spend. But above this, it is just not yours. That money should go to creating jobs or doing useful things". He points out that this opinion is hardly unusual for the region. "It’s my Muslim religion. Okay sometimes it pains us; imagine how it must make a billionaire feel when they have to give 2.5% to charity from their earnings every year!" − presumably this is his dry humour kicking in again − “But what you can spend is yours, the rest is not.” But even Dabal is not immune to the occasional indulgence. If there is one thing that excites him more than the prospect of Culture Village it is driving fast, something else not unusual for this region. “I used to change my cars all the time but then it got too expensive,” he laughs. “So now I only change them every two years. I have a small sporty BMW 645, and I have a 4-wheel drive Land Rover.” Unusually for a person in his position, Dabal does not employ a personal driver. He says he likes to drive himself because “it’s no fun when you don’t.” Having already demonstrated his tendency to steer conversations towards his favoured subjects, Dabal now appears to be ready to discuss the pleasures of burning rubber for some time. As the interview draws to a close he protests: “but there’s time, we have more time.” One gets the feeling that it is not often he gets to open up about what really drives him. There is little doubt that Dabal has already achieved more than enough to secure his place in Dubai's property history. And the future promises to be just as exciting, with Emaar, Nakheel and Dubai Properties vying for the title of the world's greatest ever property developer. Whether or not Dabal wins it, only time will tell. ||**||

Add a Comment

Your display name This field is mandatory

Your e-mail address This field is mandatory (Your e-mail address won't be published)

Security code