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Illustration by Chris Burke for The National
Illustration by Chris Burke for The National

Khalaf Al Habtoor: Shining success rises like the sun

The Emirati billionaire helped to build such projects as the Burj Al Arab, but his Dubai roots go back to humble days before the oil boom.

Khalaf Al Habtoor walks into his majlis at precisely ten to seven every morning, an early start for many but not so for him.

By then, the Emirati billionaire has been up for almost two hours, has played tennis and has prepared for his first meeting at 7:30am.

"The door that invites goodness and prosperity is the morning. The human being has to wake up in the morning to see the sunrise. The light!" says the hotel magnate and founder and chairman of Al Habtoor Group, a family conglomerate based in Dubai.

"I don't know how people stay late partying. They are idiots. They don't care about their health or responsibility."

But Mr Al Habtoor and the dawn were not always such close companions. Back in 1977, in the early days of his company, he received a phone call from the late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, who was then the Ruler of Dubai, at 5.30am. Mr Al Habtoor was asleep and his wife, Hamda, picked up the phone.

"Sheikh Rashid never said good morning, he would just shout, 'Khalaf, Khalaf!'", Mr Al Habtoor says. His wife put the phone aside and told him who it was.

"I drank water, cleared my throat and shouted, 'Yes, who is calling!' at the top of my voice as if I am awake," Mr Al Habtoor says.

"He said, 'You are a liar! you were sleeping!'"

Later that daySheikh Rashid gave him land on which to build Dubai's Metropolitan Hotel.

"From that time, I don't sleep. God rest his soul," Mr Al Habtoor says, chuckling.

With his work ethic it is easy to understand how he has managed to build one of the region's biggest business empires, earning himself a position among the world's richest in Forbes' annual list since 2004.

He was ranked 335th in 2006 and 369th the year after. His wealth was estimated at US$2.5 billion (Dh9.18bn) last year. In a recent interview with Bloomberg, he put his net worth closer to $4bn.

The group has a 40,000-strong workforce and is involved in six core industries: property; construction; education; hotels; motors; and leasing.

Mr Al Habtoor has been behind some of Dubai's big projects that helped put the emirate on the world map, including the Burj Al Arab, the Madinat Jumeirah and his own hotel, the Habtoor Grand in Dubai Marina. He also has the exclusive agency rights to Bentley and Mitsubishi.

He started from scratch. Born in 1949, he came from humble means. His father was a small-time pearl dealer and his brother traded gold.

"We were a small family and living in a small space. My brother and his wife were in one room and my father, mother and me in the other," Mr Al Habtoor says.

"We lived, thank God, a good life. Not eating honey but eating to survive."

In 1967, Mr Al Habtoor started at an engineering contracting company called Al Mulla, based in Dubai. He was just 17 with no formal education and worked as a representative for one of the company's projects in Abu Dhabi.

Three years later, he decided to start his own firm, bringing two of his close friends who worked with him at Al Mulla.

"I promised them, 'If we get some work, you will get salaries, and if we don't, you won't get paid.'

"I started from zero. No capital, no office, or car or engineer or employee because I didn't have anything, I had no money."

Mr Al Habtoor slowly but surely managed to take on some small projects. He was asked to build some extensions for schools in Dubai, funded by the Kuwaiti government. He also built a small house for a local man for about $20,000.

But what got the ball really rolling was a request to build a cinema plaza from a prominent Dubai businessman called Abdul Wahab Galadari.

"I told him I didn't have any money to build it, and I don't have a bank guarantee," Mr Al Habtoor says. "He told me, 'I'll give you the money and the bank guarantee to build it.' That was the boost I got to be on the road. That was the start."

Mr Al Habtoor began to visit Sheikh Rashid regularly.

"I carried the flag with the Al Habtoor name. I worked very hard," Mr Al Habtoor says.

"He saw how energetic I am and how I am always meeting my commitments. He gave me projects - but not as a gift. It was provided you met him with a good price, good quality and good timing. And I did that for him, all the hospitals in Dubai, the airports, Burj Al Arab, I did everything."

Asked how he feels about Dubai's development, Mr Al Habtoor says,"I am very proud," sipping tea with milk out of a porcelain cup.

"A lot of people said Dubai used to be better. But no, now it is better. People are surviving, we are comfortable. It's not easy to leave the old thing but we have no choice. Either to stay as it is, or grow with the growth."

It is a marked change in tone from last year when he complained some of the largest companies in the region had delayed payments of more than Dh4bn to his joint venture Habtoor-Leighton.

"We are not dealing with any of these companies. We are minor shareholders in the company. They are getting their instalments and happy about it."

Habtoor's occupancy rates from local hotels have dramatically improved with the onset of the Arab Spring as visitors who traditionally flocked to places such as Cairo, Damascus or Beirut opted for Dubai, fuelling a boom in the emirate's tourism industry.

"I can say confidently that the UAE economy and Dubai is back," he says.

"We can see retail, hotel occupancy, visitors are increasing. In my company, we are improving tremendously, which is excellent.

"Hotel occupancy in June after the crisis usually averaged at 30 per cent, now they average at 80 per cent. The rates are low, but not as before. The retail sector, there is no chair to sit and have a coffee in the afternoon," he says.

As Dubai's property sector shows signs of recovery after the crisis in 2009, Mr Al Habtoor is spending $1.33bn on the Habtoor Palace project, which will include three five-star hotels with a total of 1,612 rooms, restaurants, tennis courts, a theatre and a garden.

It will replace the Metropolitan Hotel, which is being torn down. After completion, Habtoor Group's portfolio will include five hotels managed by Hilton - three in Dubai and two in Lebanon - and seven residential and commercial properties in the emirate.

Mr Al Habtoor spends his downtime with his family.

"To have the energy and appetite to work, you also need to have fuel," he says.

"My fuel is my grandchildren in the house, who are my oxygen, and that is the main fuel to me. It's not just all business. I spend a lot of time with them. That is very important to me."

He also devotes much of his free time to philanthropy and politics.

He has been an outspoken critic of Bashar Al Assad's regime in Syria.

"I need help from our leaders in the GCC to be more transparent and to announce that we are with the people and the future of the country," Mr Al Habtoor says.

"What he is doing is killing the people of Syria."

Mr Al Habtoor has been working with the Red Crescent in the UAE to help provide medical aid and food to the troubled, war-torn country.

"I am helping refugees, sending money food, medicine. It is Ramadan, they have nothing. They are human beings. We cannot leave them," he says.

With such a packed and varied schedule one thing is certain. Mr Al Habtoor will not be going back to sleeping late any time soon.

halsayegh@thenational.ae

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