Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 30 May 2020

Seven highlights from 'The Sheikh CEO' - the Ruler who takes his staff for noodles

The book gives insights into Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid's leadership style

Related: Former staffer to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid shares secrets of Dubai's success in new book

1. Sheikh Mohammed personally intervened to speed up luggage reclaim at airport

During his time in the Executive Office, Yasar Jarrar saw Dubai’s ruler take a keen interest in relatively minor issues, the book reveals.

In 2004, complaints that it was taking too long for passengers at the rapidly-growing Dubai International Airport to be reunited with their luggage reached Sheikh Mohammed. The author recalled an 11pm phone call on a Wednesday night, asking him to accompany his boss on a surprise visit to the airport to investigate.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - AUGUST 14, 2018. Today, a total of 101 Filipino nationals will fly out of Dubai via Philippine Airlines. The Philippine Consulate has booked a one-way tickets (DXB-MNL) for the returning Filipinos. "Out of the 152 amnesty-seekers, 101 were given free tickets. The rest were not aware that we are providing them with free tickets. Some of them had their tickets booked a month before. Unfortunately, we cannot refund the fare due to restrictions in the Philippine government auditing rules," Cortes said. (Photo by Reem Mohammed/The National) Reporter: Patrick Ryan Section: NA
Staff with stopwatches were sent to ensure baggage handling times improved at Dubai International in 2004. Reem Mohammed / The National

Sheikh Mohammed toured the airport, spoke to passengers waiting for their bags at carousels, and deemed the situation unacceptable.

He set strict targets for an improvement within two months.

Exactly eight weeks later, he made a return late-night visit to the airport and found little improvement. So Sheikh Mohammed sent members of his executive team to the airport, armed with stopwatches, three times a day for the next eight weeks to monitor improvements. This time, waiting times dropped from 45 minutes to 25 minutes.

2. He is willing to 'go with his gut', even if it means going against expert advice

Although he regularly consults experts, the books sets out several times Sheikh Mohammed ignored expert advice to drive ahead with major projects.

The Dubai Metro was one such occasion. Several officials warned him the project could become an expensive “white elephant” on the basis that the public in the UAE would not embrace public transport. The Salik road toll system was also not recommended by a major consulting firm.

But concerned that congestion on the roads were making Dubai less attractive, he pushed ahead with both projects.

Labourers work in the underground tunnel of Union Square Station, one of two underground stations where both lines meet at Metro Dubai, currently under construction, May 28, 2008. The driverless and fully automated metro network is scheduled for completion in 2009, and will be the longest fully automated rail system in the world, consisting of 47 stations in total, ten of which will be underground. REUTERS/Jumana El Heloueh (UNITED ARAB EMIRATES)
Workers put the finishing touches to the tunnel near Union metro station in May 28, 2008. Jumana El Heloueh / Reuters

The low-cost metro in particular - used by about 650,000 people per day - is credited with easing the once crippling congestion in the late 2000s.

Dubai Media City was another project that Sheikh Mohammed was warned against pursuing.

“On paper, a media city in Dubai would not succeed,” Dr Jarrar writes of the project, launched in 2000. “But Sheikh Mohammed did not see it that way.”

Media City later became a regional home to global broadcasters and media agencies.

Efforts to introduce the Dubai Government Customer Satisfaction Survey, designed to enhance accountability and included naming and shaming weak government departments, was also met with hostility from officials, but were pushed through regardless.

3. Meetings are ‘relaxed and personal’ with Sheikh Mohammed open to different views

Dr Yassar recalled one of his first meetings in the Executive Office attended by Sheikh Mohammed.

Feeling nervous, he wanted to add something to a colleague's presentation, but did not feel confident enough to jump in through fear that his remarks would “rock the boat”.

The Ruler hosts a brainstorming session at his office in Emirates Towers in July, 2019. Courtesy: Wam
The Ruler hosts a brainstorming session at his office in Emirates Towers in July, 2019. Courtesy: Wam

“I guess my body language betrayed me and it seemed that I shifted in my seat and had something on my mind,” he wrote.

“Out of nowhere the Sheikh made eye contact with me and asked, “what’s on your mind?” I shared my thought. He agreed and asked for us to integrate that idea in the work, and then our chairman continued the presentation. For me, that set the tone for how ideation runs in Dubai.”

4. One of UAE’s most powerful men was discovered by ‘mystery shopper’

Mohammed Al Gergawi is Chairman of Dubai’s Executive Office and Minister of Cabinet Affairs and The Future in the federal Cabinet. But he did not always have such status.

During the 1990s, one of Sheikh Mohammed’s ‘mystery shoppers’ - used to test the quality of services - was helped by Mr Al Gergawi, then an official in the Department of Economic Development.

A glowing report about how he went out of his way to assist was supported by other accounts of a promising civil servant, and Sheikh Mohammed quietly kept an eye on his progress.

Mohammed Al Gergawi is now a senior minister and key spokesman for the government. Pawan Singh / The National
Mohammed Al Gergawi is now a senior minister and key spokesman for the government. Pawan Singh / The National

When a private sector firm approached Mr Al Gergawi a few years later and offered to treble his salary, he submitted his resignation to the government.

But Sheikh Mohammed heard about it, stepped in, and personally offered him a big promotion to stay.

“The rest, as they say, is history,” Dr Jarrar wrote, saying the anecdote illustrated Sheikh Mohammed’s passion for spotting and cultivating Emirati talent.

“It is one of the Sheikh’s best skills and the area he seems to enjoy the most in his work,” he said.

5. How the Sheikh cares for his staff – and takes them for noodles

There are several examples of Sheikh Mohammed taking the time to encourage junior members of his staff, particularly those being groomed for leadership positions.

The Ruler “always made sure to drop by whenever we had a group of young Emiratis being prepared for future leadership” at a scheme being run by the Executive Office, Dr Yassar recalled. On one occasion, he spent half an hour with nine female workers during their lunch break, chatting to them about their lives and families.

The author also recalled another occasion in which his team had been frantically preparing for days to give a presentation to the Sheikh, about a big project they planned for Dubai.

Yasar Jarrar says the Ruler on occasion takes staff for lunch at Emirates Towers, pictured. Courtesy: Wam
Yasar Jarrar says the Ruler on occasion takes staff for lunch at Emirates Towers, pictured. Courtesy: Wam

When he walked in to the conference room, he said: “You all look like you have been working hard and deserve some downtime. Let’s go for lunch!”

He took the team to the Noodle House in Emirates Towers.

“They arranged a table for 12 people and we had a lovely lunch with the Sheikh,” Dr Jarrar said.

“Well fed, with a major morale boost and anxiety lowered, we walked back with him to the meeting room and had a great conversation about the project.

"It was clear from that day that to the Sheikh, the team’s wellbeing and morale came first.”

6. Business figures used to 'roll their eyes' at Dubai’s ambitious plans

Dr Jarrar reveals that many were doubtful when the Emirate would set out ambitious projects.

“I used to think Dubai [and Sheikh Mohammed] were crazy when I heard of their announcements of building a palm-shaped man-made island, the tallest tower in the world and an airport that would beat Heathrow,” the author recalled a leading Saudi businessman telling him.

Sheikh Mohammed and Sheikh Hamdan look at plans for the nearly kilometre tall The Tower in 2016. Courtesy: Wam
Sheikh Mohammed and Sheikh Hamdan look at plans for the nearly kilometre tall The Tower in 2016. Courtesy: Wam

“They would announce these things and we, in the region, would roll our eyes with scepticism.

"Today, after we have seen them actually delivering these and more, I am ready to believe anything they say, and I am a big fan.”

7. Initial plans for Burj Khalifa were rejected

The Burj Khalifa – the world’s tallest building – is now seen as one of the jewels in Dubai’s crown.

But it would not have been nearly as impressive were it not for Sheikh Mohammed, the book states.

Initial plans for the building were brought to him by Mohamed Alabbar, chairman of Emaar Properties, but at 90-storeys high it did not impress the Ruler.

“How would this very tall, yet average building, add to the Dubai’s allure, attractiveness and economic plans?” Dr Jarrar writes.

“Alabbar was clearly told that the design was not approved and he needed to do much better.

"The Sheikh CEO’s direction to him was clear: ‘Review the tallest buildings in the world and then come back and see me'.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – May 8: H.H.Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum formally opens the Dubai Mall and The Dubai Fountain in Dubai. (Pawan Singh / The National) *** Local Caption *** PS01-DUBAI MALL.jpg
Sheikh Mohammed formally opens the Dubai Mall and The Dubai Fountain in Dubai in August 2009. Pawan Singh / The National

“The final version had 163 floors – 73 more than originally planned. For Sheikh Mohammed, the only option is to aim for the moon.”

Meanwhile, the Palm Jumeirah had a smoother path.

The Sheikh simply said “okay” after being presented with the proposals for the man-made island. He followed up by asking: “Do you know what I mean?”

No, came the reply.

“I mean – let’s go ahead and start construction”.

The books tells how major projects would often be approved by Sheikh Mohammed with a single word - “okay” or “done”.

Updated: February 23, 2020 06:53 PM

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