Dubai business leaders mark the fifth anniversary of Sheikh Mohammed's rule.
Five years of 'respect and humility'
DUBAI // When the financial crisis hit, the Dubai businessman Hussein al Shafar recalls, there were many voices criticising Dubai.
Some even said it was ruined. It was not. "Trade fell ill but it did not die," the chairman of Al Shafar Holding Group says. Throughout the toughest times, he was among a group of businessmen who had a meeting every Tuesday with Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, who became Ruler of Dubai five years ago today.
They took great succour, he says, from the Ruler's pledge to support the emirate's business community, even if they made mistakes.
"Sheikh Mohammed's way was very much like Sheikh Rashid, his father," Mr al Shafar said. "He listened to everyone and he either convinced you or you convinced him. He listened to every point of view."
Mr al Shafar described a man who offered "full psychological and material support", yet was "humble and respected everybody".
His work in Dubai made the emirate nothing short of a "hallmark of the world", he said.
Mr al Shafar, who is also an FNC member, spoke of Sheikh Mohammed's advice to the members on questioning ministers at the FNC, a process that could often become heated.
"If you debate with the minister, you need to debate in a scientific, civilised way," he recalled Sheikh Mohammed saying. "If you cannot reach a solution, I am there, but the minister is also there and he also cares about the wellbeing of the country."
"We are all in the same boat," he remembers Sheikh Mohammed saying. "Respect and understanding should reign."
Mr al Shafar recalled a meeting he attended between Sheikh Mohammed and a group of young businessmen.
“He asked them all to grab any opportunity they get because opportunities are rare in life,” he said. “Struggle, work hard, and if you need something, come to me, I am here,” he said was the Ruler’s advice.
Ultimately, he says, Sheikh Mohammed chose the right path out of the crisis, continuing to support infrastructure projects such as the Dubai Metro, as well as promoting tourism and security. “We were in safe hands,” Mr al Shafar says.
Nabil al Yousuf, former director-general of the emirate’s Executive Office, which helps to draft its development plans, had frequent contact with the Ruler through his work. He describes Sheikh Mohammed’s handling of the crisis as “graceful”, and praises his ability to see “beyond the current picture”.
“Dubai continued to invest in infrastructure, the Metro, roads, more capacity to the airport,” he says. “We worked on what made Dubai in the past and what continues to make Dubai the most attractive place to do business.”
When he inaugurated Dubai Internet City in 2000, he said he had realised only 10 per cent of his vision for Dubai. “We had ports, hotels, Burj al Arab – what else could there be?” said Mr al Yousuf. The answer came in the breakneck development of the next few years.
“The biggest thing for us was the delegation of authority to us, so he always insisted that we should think ‘what is good for Dubai?’ and go ahead and do it.
“We used to get approval on major projects and support on them in a record time. Things that take months in other places, we used to get them done in days.”
Nevertheless, the financial crisis was tough, said Sultan al Suwaidi, the chairman of the FNC’s culture and education committee and a schoolmate of Sheikh Mohammed in his early years. “But you can measure the ability of men during difficult times.”
Mr al Suwaidi said Sheikh Mohammed often struck an optimistic tone when the two met at cultural gatherings in the Ruler’s majlis. He was, says Mr al Suwaidi, unusually open to questioning.
“The hit that doesn’t break your back makes you stronger,” he said. “In these meetings, he would tell us to let the people and our children make mistakes, so they can learn from these mistakes.”
This advice was important during the crisis, when Dubai had to learn from its mistakes.
“The people of Dubai are close to him,” said Sultan al Suwaidi, “He has qualities that are rare in a lot of leaders, such as courage, honour, generosity, poetry, writing and culture.”
Abdulaziz al Ghurair, the speaker of the FNC, likened Sheikh Mohammed to a father or brother in his desire to remain close to his people.
“He insisted on visiting academic institutions and local and government departments, to see how the work was going and to direct them on how to improve and develop it,” said Mr al Ghurair.
He has helped women, too. Dubai has appointed more women than any other emirate – three of its eight allocated seats – to the FNC.
According to Mr al Ghurair, Emirati women have Sheikh Mohammed to thank for their positions in top roles as ministers, diplomats and FNC members.
At one event, for the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Young Leadership Programme, he made his views plain.
“I told him that 30 per cent of the participants this year are women, so he said that next year he wanted it to be 60 per cent,” recalled Mr al Yousuf. “He is passionate about giving women the leadership role they deserve.”
One western diplomat credited the Ruler with opening up the press, by removing the threat of jail for journalists, as well as his efforts to diversify the emirate’s economy.
It signalled, he said, the UAE’s “openness to the world”.
That he said, had led to Sheikh Mohammed “transforming his emirate and the UAE” into an actor of globalisation.