Mohamed Ali Alabbar: The Mover And Shaper Of Dubai, Potentially The Most Important City On Earth
By Sonia Tita Puopolo
Chiefly responsible for the construction mania of the ever-changing landscape of Dubai, strategically located between the Far East and Europe and arguably the fastest-growing city on the planet, is the mastermind and world’s leading property developer, Mohamed Ali Alabbar, Chairman of Emaar Properties. Steering the development of Dubai, which is the size of the state of Rhode Island and the most famous of the seven emirates that make up the UAE, Alabbar’s meteoric rise as one of the global movers and shakers of real estate – but more importantly, as a bridge between East and West – continues to dazzle even those who have long admired his visionary leadership skills. His company, Emaar, a Public Joint Stock Company, has long dominated the financial market in the UAE and Middle East region. He is a major force in what many would describe as the modern-day development Dubai, which has been transformed from a trading hub of the Middle East to a world center of tourism, entrepreneurship, banking and knowledge-based industries, with a trade surplus of almost $26 billion and plans for more than $100 billion in construction projects.
Alabbar is the architectural and design artist of Arabian World, whose painstaking precision and zest for the best inspire audiences from his native Dubai to Delhi, from Nice to New York.
With its artificial islands stretching into the azure gulf waters, comprising some of the most expensive land on earth – The Palm, The World – and its ever-expanding port serving over two billion people now with forecasts to triple in the next three years, Dubailand is a Middle East megaversion of Disney and larger than all presently built Disney properties in America combined. There’s Dubai Media City, Dubai Internet City, Dubai Knowledge Village, Dubai Outsource Zone, Ski Dubai, and the world’s only seven-star hotel, the Burj Al Arab. Unmatched luxury abodes in the Falcon City of Wonders (where you can live in mega replicas of the great wonders of the world, such as the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal.) Once you have visited, how could you ever say goodbye to Dubai? It’s a city that has everything for everybody. And, if you can’t find want you want, give it a minute – eventually it will be there, as this emirate experiences a growth cycle the likes of which has never been witnessed before. Dubai is the marvel of the new millennium.
And one of the most influential minds in this massive transformation, the economic shock waves of which are being felt globally, is the city’s native son, Mohamed Alabbar. Proudly reared in a country of 1.67 million residents, a figure that will double by 2010 and that is 96 percent Muslim, Alabbar’s business acumen and multicultural perspective have built a company that now spans 12 countries around the globe, with a philosophy that accentuates our commonalities and respects our differences.
In a historic first in which an outside developer, not a Saudi, was selected to oversee and develop the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s most ambitious project, the King Abdullah Economic City, it was Alabbar who was tapped by the new monarch to construct the $26 billion project just north of Jeddah on the Red Sea, to be completed in stages during a period of two to three years. It was Alabbar’s solid record of results and international branding as a man of his word in meeting deadlines that persuaded King Abdullah, in his quest to thrust the kingdom forward in meeting the stiff economic challenges of a no longer diminutive neighbor, to choose the UAE native for this namesake project.
Alabbar is the architectural and design artist of Arabian World, whose painstaking precision and zest for the best inspire audiences from his native Dubai to Delhi, from Nice to New York. This Arabian mufti of design’s message and his stunning means of communicating it have mesmerized audiences worldwide.
Alabbar’s charismatic reach now extends beyond his real estate empire – his Burj Dubai will touch the heavens as the world’s tallest residential and commercial building and will offer Giorgio Armani-designed luxury apartments and hotel rooms – to ambitious plans designed to revolutionize and deliver much-needed health and education products worldwide. Not bad for a 1981 graduate of the University of Seattle.
Under Alabbar’s leadership, Emaar has set the design standards and the architectural bar, with signature projects known worldwide for excellence, efficiency, luxury and, strikingly in the building business, an abiding concern for the environment. Alabbar’s flagship Burj Dubai tower, slated for completion in his home city in 2008, is poised to become a global icon and engineering marvel as the tallest tower in the world. It will be the jewel in the ever-expanding crown of architectural achievements that Alabbar has delivered to Bedouin heir Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of this Persian Gulf Kingdom, whose non-stop construction projects command over 20 percent of the world’s construction cranes now at work in Dubai. This massive scale of audacious activity – non-stop, seven days a week, 24 hours a day – exhibits an unparalleled construction work ethic in the marvelous making of a metropolitan mosaic so vast and comprehensive that it is visible to the naked eye by NASA in outer space.
Asked about his philosophy and rationale behind the $20 billion architectural and engineering achievement, the Burj Dubai Downtown project, and the $1 billion tower, Alabbar, always impeccably dressed – in either the traditional dishdasha and gutra, or in a perfectly tailored Western suit- pauses for a moment before responding, “A super-tall tower has always been a symbol of any city’s power and status.” He proudly adds that the ambition, knowledge and resources required for the execution of this mammoth project proves “Dubai’s emergence as a world-class city.” With a well-earned sense of satisfaction and abiding love for his beloved home, Alabbar identifies a global civic objective in the completion of the tower and the 500-acre Burj Dubai Downtown project, which will include the world’s largest shopping and entertainment complex. “It puts Dubai on the world stage and in the company of the world’s leading cities.”
And it is Alabbar’s erudite insights in design and development, along with uncanny communication skills that transcend politics, religion and regionalism, that mark him as one of the marvels of the new millennium. His Burj Dubai Downtown project mirrors the love of his native homeland. The sleek design of the tenacious tower, from its base firmly planted in the sands of the Persian Gulf to the elegance of its spiral tip kissing the heavens, is based on the geometries of the hymenocalis, an exquisitely beautiful desert flower of the region whose harmonious structure and appreciation of the omnipresent desert light will ensure that the finished tower reflects the traditions of the culture, as well as Dubai’s emergence as a global city.
It is obvious when Alabbar describes Burj Dubai that it is his pride and joy, as well as a special gift to a city and region he loves deeply. As Dubai continues to attract business and commerce – its goal is 15 million visitors yearly, more than three times the number of visitors who pass through New York City each year – all eyes will be on the Burj Dubai. And for those who might doubt his conviction in reaching this goal – and of establishing Dubai as one of the most important cities on Earth – consider that Boeing just received its largest jet order ever from the Emirate’s Sheikh, who also placed an identical order with Boeing’s chief competitor, Airbus. It seems neither of these super aviation giants could alone satisfy Dubai’s ever-growing needs. This adds up to arguably the largest airplane order ever, and one that, in order to be filled on time, will strain the capacity of both companies. Yet those in the know are never dubious about Dubai. The country’s development plans continue to break all records daily, in all areas related to development, investment and consumption.
With a market capitalization of $20 billion since it opened its doors nine years ago, Emaar’s mission has been to provide quality housing to all sectors – and Alabbar’s Burj Dubai project does just that. With Alabbar’s signature and abiding attention to environmentally green zones, this project is replete with verdant gardens, cascading pools, and trees of all world varieties to provide the needed balance for individuals and families to fully appreciate and enjoy urban living. It is a vital part of this man, on a global mission, to meet the needs of his growing public. This mindset also permeates Emaar’s planning for projects in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, Syria, Morocco, Lebanon, Turkey, India, and the United States.
Alabbar’s attention to such “green zones” has won him honors worldwide. Blending architecture with the local topography is a key part of the Emaar master plan. When was the last time you read of a developer establishing a contest and prize for the Best Garden? Amidst the hustle and bustle of activities worldwide, Emaar invited residents in their Dubai communities, in the height of summer heat, to “nominate their garden, terrace or balcony” as part of the competition. For those who know him, such attention at the micro level as well as the macro level is typical of Mohamed Alabbar. His interest in his projects and homes sales – including over 13,000 to residents of Dubai over the past nine years – does not end when one signs the purchase of sale agreement. His mission is to offer unique lifestyle options not only in his design, but also to continue grassroots efforts, figuratively and literally. In asking for residents to submit five photos of their gardens, the Emaar brochure explains the activity as “part of our ongoing efforts to encourage community activities . . . to participate in a fun activity where they can show off their green-thumb capabilities to other residents.”
In addition to the soaring signature tower, the Burj Dubai includes upscale high-rise apartment towers coupled with a wide range of properties on the site, including low-rise traditional residences that reflect and mirror the Arabian culture and architecture. The ambitious development will redefine the center of Dubai and provide residents and visitors with unparalleled living and working options in what Alabbar describes as “the most prestigious square kilometer on earth.” Swimming pools, gymnasiums, outdoor dining, and children’s playgrounds will be readily available and near to dining areas, retail shops and transportation hubs. Alabbar’s value of the work ethic, known and cherished throughout his company, is evident when he says, “It boosts civic pride by creating an unparalleled landmark and proves that the people of Dubai can implement any project regardless of challenges involved.”
An avid golfer and former chairman of the UAE Golf Association, Alabbar’s Arabian Ranches project includes an 18-hole championship course designed by Ian Baker-Finch and Nicklaus Design, as well as a polo ground and equestrian center. The latter, according to Alabbar, reflects “Dubai’s affinity with all things equine and recognition that the Arabian horse is thought to be one of the oldest purebreds deeply steeped in Bedouin myth and legend.” The architectural styles of his projects range from Mediterranean, Tuscan and Mughal to Arabic and Spanish, among others.
Alabbar’s well-honed negotiation skills and penchant for partnerships with the world’s most respected entrepreneurs are part of his lore. Giorgio Armani inked a deal with Alabbar to develop an international chain of luxury Armani hotels and resorts globally, the first being in the super-posh 160 guest residences of the Burj Dubai tower, with other locations to include Milan, London, New York and Tokyo. Alabbar, glancing at the comprehensive graphics of the project, reasons, “Who is a better partner for this type of project than the consummate designer – Giorgio Armani? Our aim is to develop and operate unique hotel branded products at the five-star level that are internationally recognized as the finest ‘lifestyle’-oriented hotels or resorts.”
The Double A Partnership – The House of Armani teaming up with the House of Alabbar – equals the perfect deal for those who want the very best in life. According to Alabbar, “The most important factor behind Emaar joining forces with Giorgio Armani was our shared vision of what design should be and how it enhances all facets of life, whether that is architecture, interior design or haute couture.” The two maestros of design share a commitment for a “complete lifestyle brand”; Alabbar sees the two “creating the world’s most luxurious hotels and resorts and offering our clientele a total lifestyle experience.” Recognizing that the Armani brand is one of the strongest in the world, Alabbar explains, “Only a brand with the international standing of Armani could add to the world-class services and facilities on offer at Burj Dubai.” The result is that Armani adds great value to the Burj Dubai project and, given its branding, is not overshadowed by the grandeur and scale of the monumental project. It is clear from the respectful yet warm camaraderie between the two that both Alabbar and Armani share this sentiment and excitement for their newly announced global endeavors. And an appreciation of the importance of nature is as important to the project as an appreciation for luxury: “Twenty percent of the project area will be green space, offering a haven of peace, serenity and beauty within the bustling community.” Emaar’s brochures highlight Earth, air, and water as major themes in the design and company perspective.
For those interested in when Alabbar’s Emaar will make its way west, it just did. Alabbar’s gateway in the U.S. was finalized in June 2006, when Emaar made a $1.05 billion cash purchase of John Laing Homes, the second-largest privately held U.S. home builder, with 150 years of homebuilding experience. Once again, it was the quality brand name that attracted Alabbar to Laing, named “America’s Best Builder in 2006” by Builder Magazine. According to Alabbar, the consummate dealmaker, Emaar will leverage Laing’s management and industry expertise worldwide, providing it with the additional resources to grow beyond the U.S.
Prior to this deal, Laing focused primarily in the western U.S, with California and Colorado as its major markets. It is this type of insight in market growth that has made Alabbar an icon, not only to colleagues in the Middle East but to developers and strategic planners worldwide. “We at Emaar have always seen ours as a journey that would take us across continents and communities,” Alabbar remarks. “Our goal is to improve people’s lives through innovative and community-oriented real estate.” He views Dubai as the perfect hub to develop this philosophy. “It is home to hundreds of different nationalities and cultures,” he adds, “and this allows us to cater to the needs of a diverse and cosmopolitan population.”
Noting that his customers speak different languages, hail from different countries, and have different beliefs and religions, the consummate communicator still sees the common ground. “They all have one thing in common,” he points out, “the desire to live in high-quality homes and to have amenity-rich communities for their families to enjoy.” This is the one currency, he believes, that transcends geography and cultures.” It is meeting this need, providing this service, or, as Alabbar puts it, “adding value to our customers’ lives,” that drives him toward a quality often strived for but not quite matched by his competitors.
When asked how he considers the people, culture, geography in his work, Alabbar replies, “We carefully incorporate design elements from the host country and take the best of traditional architecture and reflect that in our communities.” The result of this approach is what the Emaar chief labels “the best of both words – world-class developments with added local charm that combine the best of Dubai with the rest of the world.”
A decade ago Alabbar was selected by Advertising Age as one of the International Marketing Superstars of the Year, after compiling a string of successes in the UAE ranging from banking, economic development and global marketing to communications and health. Alabbar also was selected as one of the top five prominent Arabs and among the world’s top 50 economic personalities. He has captivated audiences at the Jeddah Economic Forum, at lectures and speeches in New York, London and around the world. Last year, Euromoney awarded him the “Outstanding Contribution” award for his cutting-edge leadership in the real estate sector. In June, wearing another of his many hats (or guitar) as head of the Dubai Department of Economic Development, Alabbar received the coveted Distinguished Government Award, an honor he told his employees was really a result of their loyalty, professional work ethic and service. Mohamed Alabbar is, without a doubt, a major factor in Dubai’s phenomenal growth and promise.
When asked about what inspires him as a visionary developer, Alabbar, while gazing out over the full 360 degrees of cranes, construction, workers, and developers constantly at work in Dubai, proudly yet convincingly states in his distinct style, “From the start, Emaar set out to shape the future today.” The major objective of this Middle East visionary – through inward investment and as a dynamic catalyst for change – remains now, as it always has, “to transform Dubai into a leading lifestyle destination.”
It is abundantly clear to those who have followed his accomplishments through Dubai and beyond that Mohamed Alabbar will leave not only an indelible mark on the skyline of his beloved native city, but also that he will continue to be the consummate mover and shaker in designing the ever-changing global village.