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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 14 November 2018

Exclusive: Khalaf Al Habtoor on work, family and speaking truth to power

Multi-billionaire businessman says he enjoys speaking up on key issues

Khalaf Al Habtoor, chairman of Al Habtoor Group, says work only stops for tennis, which he plays every day at 2pm. Victor Besa / The National 
Khalaf Al Habtoor, chairman of Al Habtoor Group, says work only stops for tennis, which he plays every day at 2pm. Victor Besa / The National 

With Khalaf Al Habtoor, what you see is what you get.

The tough-talking, sometimes vociferous and often controversial raconteur doesn’t believe in smoke and mirrors – he likes to speak his mind.

Born to humble beginnings, the multi-billionaire businessman is today understandably proud of his remarkable achievements.

The son of a camel trader and landowner, he and his family now have an estimated wealth of $3.4 billion (Dh12.4bn). Al Habtoor Group – the family conglomerate of which he is founder and chairman – is employer to around 10,000 people.

“I started from zero with no capital, office or car,” Mr Al Habtoor mused from his surprisingly modest, one-storey office in Downtown Dubai.

“I didn't have anything. I had no money and when I was growing up electricity was stuff of the dreams.”

Back in 1970 and in his early 20s, Mr Al Habtoor took the decision to go it alone in business and establish his own engineering firm.

Slowly but surely the company was able to expand – initially only taking on small projects before bidding on larger projects and later a car dealership.

Now, Mr Al Habtoor’s business empire stretches far beyond mere construction. The company has interests in real estate, hospitality, publishing and automotive sectors.

Al Habtoor Motors, for instance, is the exclusive dealer to Bentley, McLaren and Bugatti in the UAE. The group’s hotel division, meanwhile, owns The Ritz-Carlton in Budapest, the Hilton in Wembley, London, and the Hotel Imperial in Vienna, Austria.

"To have the energy and appetite to work you also need to have fuel," Mr Al Habtoor has said previously.

"My fuel is my grandchildren in the house, who are my oxygen. That is the main fuel to me. It's not just all business.”

It is clear as he discusses his day-to-day routine that the businessman in his 70s – he does not know his exact age – is as energetic outside of office hours as he is while at work.

At times his no-nonsense attitude slips to give way to a more mischievous demeanour, especially as he jokingly explains his apparently unrivalled prowess on the tennis court.

“If I play tennis against you, you will see I will win,” he grins broadly. “You’ll be breathing heavily and asking for water while I beat you. I beat everyone.

“You may be younger than I am, but I feel younger. Retirement is out of the question. If you ask me how old I am, I’m 37. I’m young!”

Khalaf Al Habtoor built a vast business empire from humble beginnings. Victor Besa / The National 
Khalaf Al Habtoor built a vast business empire from humble beginnings. Victor Besa / The National 

Understanding Mr Al Habtoor's insatiable work ethic makes it easier to fathom how he has succeeded in building such an enviable empire so rapidly.

The all-too astute father-of-six, who has 26 grandchildren, gets up at dawn each morning to prepare for his first meeting of the day, which usually starts around 7.30am.

It's then a case of working straight through until 2pm, when he picks up a racket without fail and heads to the tennis court. After that, it's back to work.

By his own admission, however, the near non-stop hard graft has paid off in spades. His firm has been behind some of Dubai's biggest projects, including the Burj Al Arab, a luxury, landmark hotel shaped like a sail built in 1999.

“I don’t believe in holidays,” the septuagenarian continues. “Work is my life. Work is a holiday. My employees are just an extension of my family.”

Arguably, Mr Al Habtoor’s continued success has allowed him more room for manoeuvre when it comes to publicly expressing his often forthright views on UAE government policy.

As a much-respected figure across the Emirates, there is perhaps a greater degree of tolerance for some of his less well-articulated comments or controversial opinions.

In recent months, the billionaire has been particularly vocal in his criticism of the UAE banning WhatsApp voice calls. This week, he has also urged ministers to reverse their decision in January to introduce VAT, insisting its implementation was damaging the economy by hindering foreign investment.

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Read more:

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“I’m not upsetting them (officials) because they know that I’m only arguing for changes that benefit the country and benefit the people,” insists the businessman, who can be sometimes cantankerous.

“I’m not raising these issues solely for personal advantage. I’m doing it for their benefit as well so I don’t think they’re upset at all.

“When I spoke of the need to build more housing it wasn’t to help me. I’m just reminding them (the government) of what the people need.

“We’re all human and we can’t remember everything. I believe that if you’re loyal to your country and your people then you have to speak the truth. They know that I’m only speaking up in the interest of the people.”

Turning his attention away from government policy, Mr Al Habtoor addresses his latest bugbear: the Arab press.

With the exception of more experienced outlets, he is criticial of the media operating in the wider Gulf region, arguing that their lack of expertise and professionalism is often all too apparent.

“When I look at the Arab media in general and compare it with the US and other western media, there are a lot of things I don’t like," he says.

“In the west, the way they talk, the way they dress – we don’t have that. They do their homework and know how to present. We don’t have qualified people.

“I want them (the press) to be mature and to represent us as Arabs. Sometimes you even see them wearing a tie with jeans. This is unacceptable.”

Views on dress sense to one side, however, there's very little about Mr Al Habtoor that can be deemed old fashioned.

He may have started out with next to nothing nearly half a century ago, but today the entrepreneur and philanthropist doesn’t appear to concern himself with the past. He keeps his eyes fixed firmly on the road ahead.

He urges the UAE's younger generations to take advantage of all that he and others had worked so hard to build. And he stresses the importance of considered debate, and reasoned thinking.

“God gave us the greatest gift – the brain," he said. "Everyone should use it well”.