x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Key role for Dubai's chief chairman

Profile:The responsibilities of Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, an uncle of the Ruler of Dubai, are expanding, but The Emirates Group remains his greatest business love, Frank Kane reports.

It has been a hyperactive couple of years for Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Dubai's multitasker par excellence.

The 52-year-old member of the emirate's ruling family, uncle to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, has expanded his portfolio of jobs to the point where he now has a presence at or near the top of virtually all of the entities that make up Dubai Inc.

If the post-crisis economic strategy of the emirate is to go "back to basics", focusing on the three Ts of transport, trade and tourism, Sheikh Ahmed sits firmly at the pinnacle of that triangle.

As chairman of The Emirates Group and its eponymous airline, he transports the tourists and businessmen whose spending is a vital part of Dubai's GDP.

Just last year, he was made chairman of Dubai World, the indebted conglomerate that holds a large part of the emirate's troublesome property interests. It also puts him at the top of DP World, the port operator that generates most of Dubai's global commerce.

At the same time, he is chairman of the Supreme Fiscal Committee, the ultimate holder of the emirate's purse strings, and chairman of the Supreme Council of Energy, the body deciding the direction of Dubai's crucial oil, gas, electricity and water needs.

This is in addition to a string of other jobs in the emirate's corporate infrastructure, as well as private business interests and charitable pursuits.

"He has a helicopter view of Dubai's economic strategy, and is perhaps the single most important individual in the emirate's future, after the Ruler, of course," says a Western banker who knows Sheikh Ahmed well. To add to that already crowded schedule, last week Sheikh Ahmed assumed responsibility for the UAE's biggest banking group, Emirates NBD, taking over as chairman from Ahmed Humaid Al Tayer. The appointment widens the horizon of the "helicopter view" and has prompted much speculation among Dubai's financial professionals as to the future direction of the emirate's banking industry.

It also got the "majlisologists" chattering, wondering what Sheikh Ahmed's new job means for the inner circle of advisers to the Ruler.

But first things first. How will he cope with the added workload involved in chairing the emirate's banking "champion" in the fragile global financial climate?

"I don't know how he manages to read all the daily reports," says an old friend and colleague, "but he gets through them sure enough.

"And it fits in nicely with his management style. He believes in teamwork and he is not afraid to delegate responsibility. He is great at motivating people, who are then determined to deliver for him," says the friend.

The new board of directors at Emirates NBD will be the newest group to sample the Sheikh Ahmed managerial style.

"He will assess them to make sure the right people are in place, but then he will give them their freedom. But he'll always be there to oversee strategy and give guidance," says the friend.

In the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC), there was much speculation that Sheikh Ahmed's appointment could provide increased stimulus to the round of consolidation that has been long forecast in the financial sector.

Certainly, the Ruler seems to be taking a closer interest in the emirate's banking sector. On the day that Sheikh Ahmed took over the top job at Emirates NBD, another member of the family, Sheikh Ahmed bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, was made chairman of Noor Islamic Bank.

A few weeks ago, another rising family star, Sheikh Maktoum Hasher Al Maktoum, became chairman of Shuaa Capital, the country's oldest indigenous investment bank.

"They are bringing it all back home," says one adviser.

Whatever path Emirates NBD takes under its new chairman, it is unlikely to replace the Emirates aviation and transport conglomerate as his first love. The airline, in particular, is "his baby" according to the friend, and Sheikh Ahmed is justifiably proud of his achievement of building it from scratch in 1985 to become one of the biggest carriers in the world today.

Just recently, Emirates Airline declared a profit of US$1.6 billion (Dh5.87bn) for the financial year ending on March 31, making it one of the most profitable airlines in the world. The International Air Transport Association projects that total profit in the global aviation industry will be only $4bn this year.

"The airline, the duty-free business and the airport, these really are his main interests, and he gets very involved on day-to-day issues. If he were to reduce his commitment to the group, it would be a big gap, but I really don't see that happening," says the friend.

The airline's international exposure and success have been another source of strength for Sheikh Ahmed over the years.

His involvement with Emirates rounded off his education in business and statecraft, after a degree course in political science at the University of Denver in the US, by introducing him to international business methods and standards.

It also increased his standing in the global business community and widened his circle of influential friends there.

Dubai has used his international standing to good effect: when global markets took fright after the restructuring of Dubai World was announced in 2009, Sheikh Ahmed was at the head of the delegation sent by the Ruler to brief global bankers and businessmen on the state of the emirate.

He was the human face of Dubai business, and his missions to London, New York and other financial capitals were designed to show that there was a new team, and new spirit, in place to tackle the emirate's problems.

Along with Mr Al Tayer, who remains governor of the DIFC after stepping down as chairman of Emirates NBD, and Mohammed Al Shaibani, the director general of the Ruler's Court, Sheikh Ahmed has convinced global financial markets that the Dubai recovery strategy is sound.

There is one other essential factor in his power base: the enduring and close familial relationship with his elder nephew, the Ruler.

"They have grown up together as family and friends, but each has a genuine mutual respect for the other, though of course Sheikh Mohammed is the boss, and Sheikh Ahmed calls him that," says the friend.

There appear to be only a couple of small regrets concerning the responsibilities that have been placed on him in the past couple of years.

"He doesn't travel as much as he used to, he's just too busy in Dubai, and the hobbies have suffered," says the friend. "He loves deep-sea fishing, and there isn't much time for that any more."