x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

The man in demand at Dubai Inc

Insight Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum has become an increasingly important voice in the debate surrounding Dubai's financial crisis and its eventual solution.

Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum has become an increasingly important voice in the debate surrounding Dubai's financial crisis and its eventual solution.
Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum has become an increasingly important voice in the debate surrounding Dubai's financial crisis and its eventual solution.

A western businessman who has been working in the UAE for many years says this: "What we need are more like Sheikh Ahmed. "He's spent his business career listening to the advice of top-class international experts and advisers and taking that advice, so long it did not conflict with his own core instincts. Maybe if Dubai did that more - "

He does not finish the sentence, but the implication is clear, especially in the current climate of economic uncertainty that hangs over the emirate. If Dubai was more in touch with international business and financial opinion, as Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum undoubtedly is, perhaps it would be better placed to weather the financial storm that has blown up over the debt delay request by Dubai World.

The 50-year-old chairman of Emirates Airline certainly has plenty of international experience derived from the 24 years he has led the carrier to its position as the fourth-largest in the world by passenger kilometres flown. But Sheikh Ahmed now finds himself increasingly involved in the internal business affairs of the emirate through his role as the chairman of the Supreme Fiscal Committee, as well as many other jobs at the top of Dubai's key transport and trading infrastructure.

So far, by common agreement and on the evidence of public pronouncements, Sheikh Ahmed has had a good crisis. His power base, the Emirates Group, remains a rock of stability in the shifting Dubai business scene, though it faces challenges as a result of the global downturn in aviation. While leading executives of Dubai Inc, who might have been regarded as rivals before the crisis, have seen their influence wane, his has grown.

It is a testament to his business acumen and his stature in the circle of advisers to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, that his services are being called on with increasing regularity. The relationship with the ruler is vital. Although Sheikh Ahmed is a few years younger than Sheikh Mohammed, he is actually his uncle. Despite that status, he was willing to learn from and offer support to his older nephew since the beginning of his career.

While his schooling was undertaken mainly in Dubai, with trips to Europe for English language experience, his first real exposure to life outside the UAE was as an undergraduate at the University of Denver, in Colorado, where he studied political science. A close friend recalls how the young Sheikh Ahmed had an early lesson in financial reality when his application for an American Express credit card was declined on the grounds that his comparatively meagre student allowance did not qualify him for membership.

On graduation, it was natural for him to serve an apprenticeship in statecraft, administration and business as a shadow for the young Sheikh Mohammed when the future Ruler was himself learning the ropes. In 1985 he was appointed to the job that has defined his career and helped define modern Dubai. Before then, the UAE had no airline of its own. Gulf Air, jointly owned by Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman, was supposed to service Dubai and the other emirates.

A dispute with Pakistan over landing rights offered Sheikh Mohammed, by then Dubai's crown prince, his opportunity and one of the most enduring and mutually beneficial partnerships in world aviation began. Maurice Flanagan, a former British Airways executive seconded to handle services at Dubai's fledgling airport, was asked to be the chief executive to Sheikh Ahmed's chairmanship of the new airline.

They were very different in background and temperament. Mr Flanagan, from Lancashire in the UK, was a former Royal Air Force officer, a serious footballer and a part-time playwright. Sheikh Ahmed respected the experience he had built up in the aviation industry and was determined to learn from the older man. The two were joined by another Briton, Tim Clark, a former executive at the carrier British Caledonian, and Emirates was born on US$10 million (Dh36.7m) of seed capital. The name reflected the ambition to be the UAE flag carrier, an aim ultimately dashed in 2003 when Abu Dhabi launched Etihad.

It is almost impossible to downplay the role Emirates played in the explosive development of Dubai. "Dubai's economic strategy is about three things: people, goods and money," says a management consultant working for the Dubai Government. "Emirates is the main agency for moving the first two and helps to make the third." From two leased aeroplanes, the Emirates fleet has grown to 141 aircraft serving 101 destinations. Under Sheikh Ahmed's leadership, it has won numerous airline industry awards and has instituted a series of innovative passenger facilities.

It has ordered the largest number of the Airbus A380 superjumbo aircraft and is committed to expansion despite the global financial crisis. Indeed, it views the downturn as an opportunity to acquire new routes as others pare back their services. The spin-offs from Emirates's growth have shaped modern Dubai. Passengers need lodgings, shopping, transport, restaurants and leisure amenities. Emirates has been a key lobbying group to have such facilities built to international standards.

Sheikh Ahmed has played a personal role in one aspect of the leisure industry explosion in Dubai by opening two of the emirate's leading hotels, the Grosvenor House and the Royal Meridien. "He is very hands on and involved," says a former western diplomat who claims him as a friend. "He does not just sit in an office - he goes to work and knows the business and knows his people." The chief executive of a rival airline says Sheikh Ahmed "is by far the most approachable and switched-on aviation executive I've dealt with in the Middle East, especially during the crisis".

Last year was a big year for him and for Emirates. The airline moved into its new dedicated home in Dubai's Terminal 3, took delivery of its first A380, and Sheikh Ahmed ceased to be known as "the most eligible bachelor in the UAE" when he married the daughter of Sheikh Obaid bin Thani Al Maktoum. Next year promises to be even more challenging. The world aviation industry is recovering, albeit slowly, from the damage sustained last year when oil prices briefly touched record a record $147 a barrel, sending fuel prices, the industry's main operating cost, soaring.

Sheikh Ahmed's response to previous crises has been almost Napoleonic - audacity, always audacity. During the first Gulf War, Emirates remained in the air when competitors cancelled services. It gave the whole industry a shot in the arm by confirming its commitment to A380 orders just weeks after the 9/11 attacks. Sheikh Ahmed's in-box at Emirates next year will have two main files: one marked "Al Maktoum airport", and the other "A380s".

While doubts have arisen about the new Dubai airport since the Dubai World announcement, the word is that work is progressing and its first runway and facilities will open in 2011. On the A380s, of which 53 are under firm order, the airline has made no changes to its plans. How both those projects proceed will depend at least in part on Sheikh Ahmed's job on the Supreme Fiscal Committee. After the Dubai World controversy, he has already made it clear that Emirates does not have state backing. It either flies or falls as a commercial business with a steady profits record and cash-generating operations.

On the other hand, it is counted in the group of Dubai businesses under the umbrella of the Investment Corporation of Dubai, the corporate entities of which hold a large amount of the emirate's declared debts. The possibility that Emirates might be sold, or seek a public stock listing, has been raised and dismissed several times in the past year. Sheikh Ahmed will argue his case from within the Supreme Fiscal Committee with his Emirates business heritage very much in mind.

A long-term friend tells how one of Sheikh Ahmed's favourite pastimes is fishing and how he has great skill in unravelling lines that may get tangled when many fish bite at once. The future of Emirates, and to a large degree of Dubai, will depend on his ability to help unravel the financial entanglements of the emirate. @Email:fkane@thenational.ae