x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 14 December 2017

Frank Kane’s working lunch: ‘Dubai is for business with rest of the world’

Hamed Ali tells Frank Kane about what led him to become the chief executive of Nasdaq Dubai.

Illustration by Mathew Kurian / The National
Illustration by Mathew Kurian / The National

With some lunch guests, you know what to expect. You’ve met them many times before, maybe know them socially, and you’ve mapped out in your mind the areas for discussion.

I realised as I sat down at a table in the Rib Room, the American-style steak restaurant in Dubai’s Emirates Towers Hotel, that I knew comparatively little about Hamed Ali, beyond the fact that he was chief executive of Nasdaq Dubai, and had been involved in Dubai financial matters for a considerable time.

I also knew he had a thing about olive trees, because he’d told me that a few years back – more of which later.

But was there really enough conversation material in that and Nasdaq Dubai to sustain a full working lunch?

I needn’t have worried. Over the next couple of hours, we discussed the workings of the Dubai financial scene in depth, but also ranged over metaphysics, culture and religion, as well as olive trees.

Soon after he sat down, he delivered some pretty perceptive and trenchant view on the social and economic changes going on in Saudi Arabia, when he seemed to catch himself: “But this isn’t part of the interview, right?”

I explained that he could talk about whatever he wanted, but if he wanted to go “off the record” on a subject, just to let me know. He preferred his thoughts on Saudi Arabia to remain as background, he said, which I reluctantly accepted. Pity really.

The Rib Room always strikes me as a New York version of the Grill Room at the Savoy Hotel in London, one of my favourite eateries of all time. The Grill – set in the best business hotel in London (much like Emirates Towers is to Dubai) – was the neutral ground where the media and finance met to chew over the big issues of the day.

I became such a frequent visitor in the 1990s and early 2000s I ended up with the ultimate accolade – a regular spot at one of the “banquette” power tables reserved for the very important – though it was my guest who was the true VIP, of course.

The New York theme was enhanced by the sounds of Billy Joel playing Piano Man in the background and we plumped for two Rib Room burgers. How American can you get?

Over a shared starter of pretzel bread and cheese dip, Mr Ali told me about his family background: his mother was from Sharjah and his father was from Abu Dhabi, “so we kind of compromised as a family and I grew up in Dubai”. He was the first son of eight children and fell easily into the role of family strategist.

“Even as a kid, I liked to see the different strands of a situation and I liked things with lots of moving parts, and jigsaws. I wanted to be an inventor. At school, I remember being very upset when we were taught about Thomas Edison because it seemed as though he had already invented everything and there was nothing left for me.”

His first work experience came in one of the shops his uncle owned, selling hunting and outdoor equipment. It was only a summer job in his early teens, but he learnt about finance and book-keeping and for a while considered going into partnership with his mother’s brother. “It was very challenging and a great experience. He was strict but creative and open minded,” he says, introducing a theme that a was to recur during our lunch.

Information technology grabbed him as a career path and he was among the first batch of students on the IT course at what was then called Dubai Polytechnic. He toyed with the idea of joining the police force as an investigator but finally stayed in IT.

Brown Sugar by the Rolling Stones comes crashing through the Rib Room air. I’m liking this place more and more.

“So I went to Dubai Internet City as a webmaster. It was a great place. Where else in Dubai could you say you got to meet Microsoft in your first week on the job? We were so committed, we virtually slept in the offices. We felt we were part of his highness’s team and that connected us and motivated us. We discussed everything,” he says.

One of the things he discussed keenly with his colleagues was the role of expatriates in the UAE. This was the early 2000s, as the Dubai boom was beginning to take off, and there was a sharp influx in the immigrant workforce, from labourer to senior financial executives.

“We agreed Dubai would never close its doors to foreigners. Dubai is here for business with the rest of the world, and that must never change,” he says emphatically.

But does he, as an Emirati, feel his country and his culture are under threat from the influx of foreign workers, from different backgrounds, religions and ethnicities? It’s a tricky subject, I know, for many Emiratis.

“I grew up in a very Islamic cultural place and it’s still there as far as I’m concerned. We have Emirati restaurants, abayas and kandoorahs and I don’t see how that will ever change. National dress is part of it and we will never give it up. But in the UAE toleration, liberality and hospitality are part of the culture too, especially in Dubai. It is not giving away your culture to welcome people. It’s a model for the Middle East and the Arab world,” he says.

He had a break from the world of IT to widen his horizons, doing some work at Knowledge Village, the academic cluster in Dubai, which inspired an abiding interest in education.

By now, the Dubai International Financial Centre was on the verge of opening and Mr Ali was drawn to it from the beginning. “I was fascinated by the concept of bridging east and west,” he says. For a while he was head of project management at DIFC in the centre’s era of exuberant celebration, organising events such as the glittering concert that marked its first anniversary with a performance from the opera star Andrea Bocelli.

There was a stint with Dubai International Financial Exchange (the forerunner of Nasdaq Dubai) before he became chief operating officer of the DIFC Authority, but then came the financial crisis and a rethink in his life plan.

“I decided on a career break. I spent nearly a year just reading – everything – metaphysics, science, psychology, comparative religion, I got involved in education again. I couldn’t find a nursery place for my son because none of the facilities were better than my kitchen, so I spent a lot of time with my children, educating them at home,” he says.

That break was refreshing, he says, but after a while he needed a new challenge. The top job at the now-rebranded Nasdaq Dubai came up and he was keen to get back into the financial mainstream.

“I’m grateful for the legacy of my predecessors at Nasdaq Dubai but I feel I’ve built on the work they did,” he says, before going on to outline the achievements of the past four years of the market under his leadership as chief executive.

“We’ve done 60 listings in equities and sukuk, daily volumes have risen from US$4 million a day to over $100m, there is an active futures market we launched recently and the murabaha market [a Sharia-complaint capital-raising platform] has done $56 billion worth of transactions.”

The gentle strains of Moondance by Van Morrison waft over the Rib Room, and we have finished our burgers. Very good indeed, they could easily have come from an eatery on Manhattan’s Wall Street.

Will Dubai ever be able to develop a market hub like that, or like the City of London, I ask. At his time at the helm of Nasdaq Dubai there has been an impressive expansion of the market’s activities but the DIFC still lacks what many regard as the beating heart of a financial centre: a vibrant equities market and all the trader culture that goes with it.

“We have some things to do before we get there. Equity stories will sometimes come to market, as they did last week when we had an initial public offering with Emirates NBD Reit (real estate investment trust). We have a futures market, which will get bigger. We are planning an index futures market and new futures contracts soon. Straight equities are not the only things traded now,” he insists.

Recently it emerged that Emirates Global Aluminium was considering an IPO on local markets. This would be the first government share sale since DP World in 2007, which chose Nasdaq Dubai, and I wonder whether he would like to get the IPO on his exchange and if it signals a renewed impetus towards state sell-off in the country.

His response is guarded, even in the relaxed environment of the Rib Room, where The Beatles’ Please Please Me is now sounding out. “We don’t know where it will be listed yet but we’re interested in it. I think the government has become more innovative and open to different ways of thinking.” I take that as a qualified “yes” on both counts.

“I think we’re still at the beginning of a process of reverting back to the original vision of serving the region by connecting markets and attracting international investors. We’re getting there,” he says, adding that the new financial centre in the capital, the Abu Dhabi Global Market, will help raise standards all round in UAE financial services and give global investors more options in the region.

We’ve drained our coffees and I’ve just asked for the bill when we get around to olive trees.

“I was building a new house in Nad Al Sheba. It’s a traditional design and I wanted something traditional at the heart of it, so I and my wife went shopping for a tree. I saw one and asked how much: Dh16,000! I drove off, but that tree seemed to be calling to me, so we went back and bought it. It’s more than 200 years old, at least,” he says affectionately, showing me an iPhone picture of the tree as viewed from his home study.

Family plays a big part in his life, with Saif, 13, Maitha, 11, Omar, nine, and “small tornado” three-year-old Ahmed taking up most of his leisure time.

As we say goodbye, I hear Blinded by the Light by Bruce Springsteen over the Rib Room sound system and have a mind-flash of the Ali family playing around the olive tree.

business@thenational.ae

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