Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 October 2020

Shehab Gargash, a jet-setter with feet on the ground

Profile: Some people collect postcards as momentos of their travels, but Shehab Gargash, a member of one of the world's wealthiest Arab families, has a fondness for boarding passes.  
Illustration by Chris Burke for The National
Illustration by Chris Burke for The National

Collecting boarding passes may be an unusual hobby but when you regularly criss-cross the world on business, as the down-to-earth Dubai captain of industry Shehab Gargash does, it makes more sense. And he has plenty of opportunity to add to his hoard, writes Farah Halime

Most people collect postcards as mementos of their travels, but Shehab Gargash has a fondness for boarding passes.

Although Mr Gargash, a member of one of the world's wealthiest Arab families, insists these are not all first-class tickets, it is safe to assume he could travel in luxury every time.

He is part of the well-oiled engine behind Gargash Enterprises, the car dealership and sole distributor of Mercedes-Benz across Dubai, Sharjah and the Northern Emirates, which last year accounted for a quarter of the German luxury brand's sales in the Middle East and GCC region.

The Gargash family, believed to have a net worth of almost US$5 billion (Dh18.36bn), has topped many a rich list. The latest one puts the clan in the top 15 of Business Insidermagazine's list of the "world's rich Arab businessmen".

But Mr Gargash has a second love in Daman Investments, a financial services firm he set up 13 years ago as Daman Securities, which has quietly but quickly grown to handle more than Dh5bn in assets under management.

The money does not stop him being sentimental about his regular trips throughout the world.

"I've never admitted this to anyone, but I sometimes sit with my boarding passes and remember particular journeys or particular occasions," says Mr Gargash.

He stretches out his arms to show the size of a box he owns that contains his boarding passes and associated memories.

These flights have also become a source of refuge for Mr Gargash from his hectic day-to-day life.

"I am always working and I actually cherish the little windows of nothing time that I have," he says. "I literally close my mind; I enjoy the six hours on an aeroplane doing nothing. Somebody would enjoy reading a book, or watching a movie, I actually just enjoy staring at the seat in front of me, it's a little simplistic," he says laughing, adding a flight is like "free spa treatment".

While his hoard of old boarding passes holds a special place in his heart, Mr Gargash has another collection with a broader appeal evidenced by the contemporary Middle Eastern art he has hanging in the offices of Daman Investments.

As a supporter of the arts, he launched a Middle East art fund in 2008 and although Mr Gargash says this was triggered by his interest in art, he admits the art fund "is not going to make or break the company".

He points to a painting by the Egyptian artist Mohamed Abla, of three Egyptians - a coptic Christian, a Muslim and a civilian wearing a Fez - as eerily representative of Egypt's revolution and sectarian divides.

But just when Mr Gargash begins to appear sentimental, he quickly adds he is not "altruistic or emotional".

"I take life as it's served to me," he adds, gruffly. "You take what's served, you never question it and you make the most of it."

But "taking what is served" is not necessarily true of Mr Gargash who, spotting a gap in the market, founded Daman Securities in 1998.

As chief executive of Daman, which has no connection to the UAE national health insurance company of the same name, he relies on his three "lieutenants" to run the brokerage, asset management and venture capital arms. It was a move that often painted him in the media as a black sheep who had walked away from the family car business.

But Mr Gargash dismisses these claims.

Speaking in a soft, American-tinged accent that harks back to his US schooling at George Washington University in Washington, Mr Gargash says the two main aspects of his business life are "two sides to the same coin".

"My involvement on the family front [with Gargash Enterprises] is very much there and besides, it's not unusual for business people in Dubai to wear several hats."

This is an accurate portrayal of Mr Gargash. He is a director at the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and on the board of several regional funds and companies focused on financial services, property and aviation.

"Dubai is so much based on the work ethic and the business ethic, that in a sense it would be poisonous not to have work in an environment like Dubai," he says.

Mr Gargash has also tried his hand in the political circle. He ran for a position at the Federal National Council at the last election but was not successful.

"I guess I'm more suited to the private sector," he says.

It is not surprising Mr Gargash is somewhat of a workaholic, given his family of high achievers.

His brother Dr Anwar Gargash is the UAE's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, while his sister, Maha Gargash, is the author of Sandfish, the story of a young, fiery woman struggling to accept the life and husband she has been assigned in 1950s traditional Dubai.

It is not a typical story coming from an Emirati woman, but the Gargash family are anything but average.

Mr Gargash's wife, Dr Lamees Hamdan, was the subject of controversy when she appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show via Skype, the internet-calling system that is also banned in the UAE, speaking about her life of luxury.

The episode, which aired in October 2009, featured women from cities including Copenhagen, Rio de Janeiro, Istanbul, Tokyo and Dubai. But the show was allegedly flooded with angry comments and e-mails after Dr Hamdan said people in Dubai do not pay utility bills and the traditional black dress and scarf, known as the sheyla and abaya, was "cultural" and not religious.

"It is not relevant what people say or think, it's just not relevant," said Mr Gargash, on his wife's appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show.

It is a reflection of the Gargash family's left-of-centre approach to life in the Middle East, which although conservative, can be liberal.

Mr Gargash is aware of his "unusual approach".

"The family unit is still very important and I tend to be a bit of a conservative while at the same time being a bit of a liberal," he says.

"It's a bit unusual perhaps."

His desire for the future of his four children, aged between two and 11, expresses this.

"I want my four children to form their own opinions, I want them to be convinced of their own opinions, and to have the moral and societal strength of being a Muslim and being an Arab and living in the 21st century - it's a mix of all of those," he says.

He has just flown to Venice where his wife is better known for her work as the commissioner of the UAE pavilion at the Venice Biennale, the major contemporary art exhibition in Italy.

"I can't wait," he says, although it is unclear whether he's talking about the latest boarding pass he'll collect or the art he is about to view.

fhalime@thenational.ae

Updated: June 17, 2011 04:00 AM

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