x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

The Ali Story: A tragedy shifts business goals

In this serialised feature, Ali Al Saloom shares his insight and experiences from growing up in the UAE.

In this serialised feature, Ali Al Saloom shares his insight and experiences from growing up in the UAE.

The events of 9/11 led me to redefine my name. That's right, my name. All my life I have been called Ali, but the crisis helped me to see my name from a new perspective. When the terrorist attacks took place, the general mood in the US was antagonistic to the Middle East. I began re-examining my perspective on what had happened and how it would affect my restaurant customers' perception of Muslims.

This led me to modify my business goals to suit the change in the atmosphere.

Obviously, it would have been foolhardy to persist with a restaurant in Florida named The Middle East Buffet. So the "A" in Ali stood for reexamining "attitudes".

The "L" stood for "learning". I needed to learn what would succeed. In my case, it turned out to be a change in operational strategy. Instead of sticking with Middle Eastern cuisine, we decided to hold themed dining weeks.

The "I" in my name stood for "intention". I realised the restaurant was now teaching me more valuable life lessons. Ali became not only my name but my formula for success in business and life.

Since I was on a government scholarship, I was obliged to return home after my graduation. I was raring to come back and serve my country in some way. My first choice was to work for a private company where I would be exposed to the hospitality industry from grassroots level. I did not want to be treated differently because I was an Emirati. And guess what? I was hired by the Beach Rotana Hotel in Abu Dhabi as a management trainee at a salary of AED5,700.

I began as a concierge and worked my way through guest relations, public relations, the back office and so on and so forth. I dressed in my traditional kandura, which drew mixed reactions. While some people thought I must be really hard up to take such a job, others told me they were proud to see an Emirati serving as a cultural ambassador.

I did not strictly adhere to my job description. I took every opportunity to introduce tourists to the Arab way of life. I used "Salaam alai kum", "mashallah" and "shukran" in my conversations, to help guests feel closer to our country and its people. I was always happy to explain my culture and our traditions.

Working 12-hour shifts in the private sector gave me an opportunity to apply some of the things I learnt at university. One of my hobbies is people-watching, and at the Beach Rotana I was mixing with royalty, celebrities and ordinary people alike in my humble capacity. I could observe people sizing each other up, trying to make an impression, making deals, negotiating contracts and making a dignified exit.

If you add up all these lessons, it sounds more like I was getting paid to learn. I would say I leveraged the modest salary I received for an experience money can't buy.

The public speaker Roger J Hamilton says: "Wealth is what you are worth when all your money is taken away." To me, wealth is what I can give people: a smile, a handshake, some friendly advice or just some timely help. I like to share ideas and the lessons I have learnt in life. That's the legacy I wish to leave behind. If I had grabbed the first job that offered Dh30,000, I would not have had a story to tell you today.

Even as a management trainee, I saw myself one day writing this book and standing in front of an audience inspiring people, bridging cultural divides and spreading the warm glow of hospitality that my country is famous for. My short-term goal was to become the assistant front office manager, which I achieved in six months. Then I wanted to rise to general manager.

However, a family emergency led me to change course. I accompanied Dad to Munich, where he underwent an angioplasty. He was in and out of the hospital for surgery and recuperation so we stayed at the Sheraton Munich Arabellapark Hotel, which was close to the hospital. For the two months we were there, I would often sit in the lobby, where I saw many Arab tourists. They often looked lost, and had trouble communicating with the staff. I taught myself conversational German. Then, when something needed translating, I would volunteer. This way I made myself useful to the Arab tourists.

Even while I was working at the Beach Rotana, I was plotting my path to financial independence.

What would be the qualities I would look for in my employees and how would I spot those qualities? What kind of experiences do tourists look for when they visit my country? What would I need to do to attract more tourists? How can I give my customers value for money? I constantly mulled over these issues. Without a doubt, the Beach Rotana was the ideal place to learn these things quickly but seemed like an unconventional route to achieve my goal: to create a commercially viable enterprise that would build cultural bridges and would provide employment opportunities for my people.