How Dubai went from a fishing village to international metropolis

In this first excerpt of three being exclusively published in The National this week, Tommy Weir, the author of Leadership Dubai Style, describes how Dubai tapped into a ‘hunger of need’ that underpins success.

Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum with the chief of police, Jack Briggs, behind him at Dubai Airport, in 1960. Keystone Features / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The book Leadership Dubai Style, which was recently honoured as the First Finalist – 2016 International Book Awards, tells the story of how Dubai went from a fishing village to international city charting the habits behind the emirate's success. The author, Tommy Weir, a chief executive coach and founder of the Emerging Markets Leadership Centre, for every copy sold during Ramadan, will donate a copy to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid's "Reading Nation" campaign, which will provide 5 million books for refugee students and students in need around the world.

This is the first excerpt of three.

The book excerpt

After watching the idling car sitting for hours near Dubai International Airport, the police officer finally tapped on the driver’s side window.

“Is everything OK in there?” he asked. The car’s engine was running and the windows were fogged up, raising all sorts of suspicion. The air conditioning was on full blast to combat the hot, humid summer night.

“Um, sure officer,” the young man inside, Hadi, answered as the tap on the window woke him from a deep sleep. Thinking quickly on his feet he added, “My friend’s flight is delayed and I live too far from here to drive home and back.”

Fortunately for Hadi, the officer accepted his explanation.

But there was no friend whose flight was delayed. And Hadi didn’t live a long way from the airport. Actually, he didn’t live anywhere. Hadi had turned his rental car into a makeshift hotel.

A few days earlier, with just US$200 in his pocket – his whole life savings – Hadi moved to Dubai for a new job. But he had no place to stay and didn’t have enough money to rent an apartment or stay in a hotel room, even the cheapest of them. So he rented a car and made it his “hotel” for his first week in Dubai, bathing at a petrol station in between driving to and from work.

What would make someone like Hadi risk everything? Do the unheard of – sleep in a car for five nights?

The answer is Hadi had too much to lose, not to lose. He had a hunger of need. Back home there were no jobs, no opportunities, no hope. His back was up against the wall. Today he’s a partner in a growing business in Dubai and is succeeding beyond his wildest dreams.

Dubai welcomes people like Hadi to succeed. But Dubai itself is a lot like the “Hadis” who have come here in pursuit of a better future, ambitious to achieve something. Dubai started with its own “hunger of need” when Sheikh Maktoum bin Butti led his tribe on its strenuous journey through the desert in 1833. The people who became Dubai’s leaders craved something more; they wanted to help people to have personal incomes, to have the best life possible. It was a “burning bridge” moment. There would be no returning to the way life was before. There was no choice in the early days but to succeed in order to survive.

Dubai’s history is marked by a hunger of need, not of want. A hunger of need is when you have to do something; you can’t live without it. This need to survive drove Dubai’s early ambitions. A want, on the other hand, is something that is nice to have. You don’t really have to have it, but you “crave” it. For Dubai the “want” is actually a habit that was built from the hunger of need.

Hungry to survive

Sitting in his office reminiscing about the history of Dubai, Emirati businessman Dr Ahmed Hassan Al Shaikh shared. “The early period was a tough time. It created the ‘it must be done’ mentality. There was no choice. Later this choice became a challenge to do more. Survival turned into a habit to do more.”

He grew up in the era of transition and went “from a hunger of need to a hunger of habit”.

Prior to the discovery of oil, Dubai built its infrastructure merely for survival, not for its admiration, doing so with borrowed funds. The discovery of oil was tempered by Sheikh Rashid’s far-sighted – and in all likelihood accurate – realisation that the oil would run out. “I have good news and bad news,” he said at the time, in 1966. “We found oil, but not much.” So again there was a hunger of need: Dubai had to use its oil funds to build an economy that wasn’t oil dependent. Notably, Dubai’s oil wealth was used to fund the existing strategy instead of making oil itself the strategy.

When you’re hungry, you naturally become obsessed with satisfying that hunger. This type of hunger is what fuels Dubai-style ambition.

Sheikh Mohammed opens his book, My Vision, with the following well-known poem highlighting the hunger of need in Dubai-style leadership:

“With each new day in Africa, a gazelle wakes up knowing he must outrun the fastest lion or perish. At the same time, a lion stirs and stretches, knowing he must outrun the fastest gazelle or starve. It is no different for the human race. Whether you consider yourself a gazelle or a lion, you simply have to run faster than others to survive.”

Let’s get right to the point: in order to achieve something big you have to have big ambition, whether it’s driven by survival or want. You have to desire something so much that you strive for it with focused urgency. When you’re faced with the need to survive, it’s easy to strive to stay alive. As we’ll see in this leadership habit, ambition is the fuel for leading Dubai-style.

Seeing what others don't

As Dubai began to accumulate wealth, Sheikh Rashid famously said “… [W]hat is the point of keeping it in the bank? I’m looking ahead perhaps 50 years. We’ve got money, so what is the point of keeping it in the bank? Eventually we will need more capacity, and then it could cost us double or triple the price to build it.” He wisely stretched Dubai’s present revenues as much as he could, “today”, to avoid getting gouged, tomorrow.

Keeping with the hub strategy, in 1976, Sheikh Rashid chose to invest Dubai’s new wealth in building another – a third – port. His advisers, mainly merchants based around the traditional trading areas of Deira and Bur Dubai, wished he would reconsider, or at least delay. At the time, Mina Rashid, Dubai’s second port, was being expanded.

So why a new port? And why in Jebel Ali, an undeveloped stretch of coastline far from the central business district? It was literally in the middle of nowhere.

A number of businessmen went to Sheikh Mohammed, Sheikh Rashid’s son, trying to get him to talk his father out of proceeding. “You know that you have special standing with your father and that he listens to you,” a community representative said. “Your father wants to build a new port at Jebel Ali. We beg you to tell him that we already have a big port at Port Rashid – it is adequate. The country is suffering from stagnation, and the new port will lead to overcapacity and losses.”

When a suitable opportunity came up, Sheikh Mohammed told his father what the businessmen said. Puffing on his pipe, Sheikh Rashid said: “Oh Mohammed, I am building this port now because there will come a time when you won’t be able to afford it”.

The argument was settled, and what is arguably the UAE’s most valuable commercial asset was born. The Jebel Ali Port and surrounding Free Zone (today one of the biggest free zones in the world) contributes significantly more to Dubai’s GDP than oil does. Sheikh Mohammed shares: “My father was the first to think of this project. If the project had been suggested to consultants or subjected to an economic feasibility study, it would never have been implemented.” This stroke of genius highlights what leaders are to do – take risks.

Building a hunger of habit

For the sons of Sheikh Rashid – Maktoum, Hamdan, Mohammed, Ahmed – even his youngest brother, Ahmed bin Saeed, whom he raised as a son, Dubai’s hunger of need became a hunger of habit. By the time they took over the leadership of Dubai in 1990, the “era of need” was history. It was clear Dubai was going to survive. But the sons wanted more for Dubai; they were still hungry. This move from doing something because you have to in order to survive, to doing it because it is now part of your DNA is what I call “the hunger of habit”. A habit is what you do because it is now natural.

It’s quite difficult to create hunger in someone – I mean without withholding food. So how did the sons of Rashid learn to be hungry as leaders?

They become hungry – you could even say starving with ambition – by having an up close and personal seat to the Father of Dubai. They witnessed their father pursue the future with the intensity of a famished man chasing after his next meal. Not just a meal for him, but food to feed his family for generations to come. They watched as their father rose before dawn to participate in Fajr prayers (the first of five daily prayers in Islam), and then jumped into his truck to make his daily inspection tour of Dubai – seeing for himself the projects that were under way. (“The Monitor” will examine this specific tactic.) Following breakfast they would see him head to his morning majlis to manage the affairs of his rapidly growing city. His hectic days would end only many hours later, after the conclusion of the evening majlis, many nights after midnight.

Sheikh Rashid took very seriously his sons’ preparation as leaders. He was actively involved in the boys’ training and development, knowing the responsibilities that were going be thrust upon their shoulders at a young age. He recognised the need to ensure that his sons would later lead in a way that was harmonious with his own vision for Dubai. In addition to their formal studies, the boys often participated in the majlis, both their grandfather’s and their father’s, listening to stories and anecdotes about Dubai’s heritage, and interacting with local businessmen and meeting visiting heads of state. I can almost hear the conversation around the family table: “Boys, we are going to get running water to every house in Dubai. Boys, we are going to build an airport. Boys, …” This was the traditional way of passing forward the city’s history from one generation to the next.

No wonder Sheikh Mohammed, the present Ruler, doesn’t shy away from ambitious plans and is comfortable launching multiple projects at a time. He grew up in a home where shooting for the moon was, quite simply, par for the course.

* From the book Leadership Dubai Style by Dr Tommy Weir, copyright © 2015. Published by arrangement with EMLC Press

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