x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Stars of The National’s business analysis slot in 2013

The men, and woman, who starred in Frank Kane's weekly interview slot as he picks his favourite of the year.

Hussain Sajwani, the Damac Properties chairman, was Frank Kane’s favourite interviewee of 2013. Lee Hoagland / The National
Hussain Sajwani, the Damac Properties chairman, was Frank Kane’s favourite interviewee of 2013. Lee Hoagland / The National

The business interview is a craft unto itself. In the course of 2013, more than 50 people have appeared in this weekly slot, and the golden rule is this: no two interviews are ever the same.

It’s horses for courses. Some newspapers go for the penetrating investigative approach, aiming to pummel the subject into revealing “the truth” about himself (or herself).

Others go for the “person behind the business” angle, designed to illuminate the personality involved in the sometimes dry world of deals and bottom lines.

Others employ the “snapshot in time” technique: enticing the interviewee to relax and reveal in the one-off context, say, of a lunch or other informal occasion.

There is something to be said for each of these approaches, and it’s possible to mix and match the techniques. A casual discussion over a coffee meeting, for example, can be followed up with an on-the-record email exchange, or a formal across a desk interview.

The only hard-and-fast rule in this analysis slot, which has been running in The National for three years, is this: the subject is allowed to talk freely about business issues of the day. If a personal trait reflects on the individual’s business, it can be employed. Otherwise, it’s strictly business.

Thus, for example, when Fouad Makhzoumi of Future Pipe appeared in February, the occasion was the publication of a memoir of his late son Rami, whose tragic passing upset well-laid plans for corporate succession. Personal and business motifs became intertwined in the interview.

“I have always looked to the future with my beloved Rami taking the lead, not only in business but for the family too. But fate was stronger than hopes and dreams,” said Mr Makhzoumi.

Incidentally, the business fortunes of the Makhzoumis reappeared in this slot later in the year, in the only example of an interview with two members of the same family, when Fouad’s brother Ziad, one of the UAE’s best-known businessmen, talked about his plans as the new chief executive of the in vitro fertilisation company Fakih IVF.

The interview with Ziad was an example of the “informal” technique, as it was conducted over the course of a pleasant lunch at Zuma restaurant in Dubai where he spoke freely of his long career in business in the Middle East.

Sometimes, the interview arises almost by chance. At a banking conference in September, the opportunity for a chat with Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair was too good to pass up. The chief executive of Mashreq bank opened up on the UAE economy and financial policy, and showed why he is regarded as “the bankers’ banker” in UAE policymaking circles.

Perhaps the most intriguing interview of last year was with Khalaf Al Habtoor, the patriarch of one of the UAE’s leading business family groups, in January.

There had been speculation about a possible initial public offering of his company, a leader in hotels, property and motor distribution in Dubai. He explained that he was not going to proceed with the idea of a stock-market listing because of “moral issues”, which perplexed many observers of the Dubai financial scene.

In the course of our interview, he elucidated on this statement, revealing that the prospect of an IPO had caused him troubled nights. “I couldn’t sleep with the thought of having so much of other peoples’ money as my responsibility,” he said, in a revealingly candid example of business ethics.

At other times, the best interviews arise out of the most unlikely scenarios. While on vacation in France in August, I took the chance to grab a word with Amina Al Rostamani, the new chief executive of Tecom who had thus far not spoken publicly about her new job.

Despite the attractions of the south of France, it was too good an opportunity to turn up, and 30 minutes on the mobile from a cafe terrace produced an insight into the business brain of one of the UAE’s leading businesswomen. “I’ve been lucky,” she said modestly.

Incidentally, Dr Al Rostamani was one of only three women who appeared in the slot last year. Obviously this does not reflect the growing female influence at the top of UAE business, and this is something that I will look to rectify in 2014.

Who was the most impressive interviewee of last year? The competition was strong.

In April, Habib Al Mulla, one of the leading lawyers in the Middle East, “spoke in paragraphs” (as the interviewer’s saying goes) about a range of controversial issues, ranging from the criminalisation of debtors to the new financial free zone in Abu Dhabi, as well as his recent merger with the biggest law firm in the world, Baker & McKenzie.

In what came across almost as a threat to the competition, he said: “I will be more aggressively involved than before.”

I buttonholed Nouriel Roubini, the American professor who predicted the global financial crisis, just after a public tour de force at the Global Islamic Economy Summit in November.

He had spoken fluently and with great command of detail, without notes, on a range of global economic and financial issues, but I wanted to pin him down on the specific issues of the Islamic economy.

Behind the stage at the Madinat conference centre, he showed he was on top of that subject as well, and a good deal more positive on Sharia-compliant economies than many others. “There is a lot Islamic finance can teach us,” he concluded.

But the award for my personal favourite interviewee must go to Hussain Sajwani, the founder and chairman of Damac.

Back in May, the spotlight was well and truly on Mr Sajwani, as he considered plans for a public listing for one of the UAE’s most successful, but sometimes controversial companies.

He spoke openly and candidly about his family’s business origins, his early success in supplying catering services to the American military in the region, and his plans for Damac.

I left the meeting feeling I had gained a unique insight into the person, and the business. Judging by the email reaction, The National’s readers overwhelmingly agreed.