Last week, on December 17, the UAE, and indeed the Arab world, lost a pioneering businessman. Majid Al Futtaim was a businessman who, in his own way, pioneered numerous economic activities in the whole region. It is no exaggeration to call him a UAE national treasure.
Within hours of the news, the Middle East community reacted with sadness at his passing but also with respect and praise for his legacy. The reactions spread from the UAE to the wider Middle East, and in less than 24 hours, condolences started pouring in from around the world. The words people chose to mourn Majid Al Futtaim paint a vibrant picture of his legacy, and how the businesses he started impacted our lives.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai described him as “the UAE’s most creative businessman” and noted that his last corporate decision was to employ 3000 UAE nationals.
Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces said he was “a groundbreaking UAE entrepreneur and a pioneer in charitable and humanitarian work”.
The leaders of the UAE business community called him a key contributor towards the UAE’s growth, one of Dubai’s “most important merchants”, while MSN Arabia described him as the man who saw tomorrow.
This, in a nutshell, summarises his legacy. A visionary, shrewd, pioneering businessman and forward-thinking investor. The businesses he created generated 100,000s of direct and indirect jobs across the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, and rejuvenated whole communities with his unique model of shopping malls, communities, retail and leisure offerings.
While a complex and major operation, he coined a simple and captivating vision for his group: “great moments for everyone, everyday”. Across the company, this vision continues to bring people together, around a common goal and provides a focal point for developing strategies to achieve a better future. Majid Al Futtaim demonstrated fundamental skills required of great leaders – for one, the ability to create for an organisation a simple, memorable and unifying vision.
Starting from humble beginnings, working as a bank clerk, he established the Majid Al Futtaim group in 1992 and built his empire to become the third wealthiest Arab businessman, with over $4.2 billion personal net wealth. His group today runs over 300 Carrefour stores across 3 continents and manages 29 malls, 13 hotels, and it announced $8.9 bn in group revenue in 2020.
Anyone who lived in Dubai from 1995 onwards knows the famous Deira City Center Mall. Back in those days, it was one of the only mega malls in the Middle East and a key destination in Dubai and the region. In 2021, several weeks before he passed away, Majid Al Futtaim announced Mall of Saudi, with an overall investment of over $4 bn, a mall that promises to be one the largest in the world, re-shaping the future of retail.
His legacy will be not only as a retail giant, but as a corporate entrepreneur who never shied away from taking risks and investing in new ventures. My favourite example is how he brought skiing to Dubai. In the land of sun and sand, my children learnt freestyle skiing over a 1.5 km slope and met penguins in a cool -2 degree snow park.
While a major success now, it was a big bet when it started. Now the group is taking his indoor skiing model to many countries, from Saudi Arabia to China.
He also led the region’s first and most ambitious green corporate agenda. Almost a decade before it became fashionable, he normalised sustainability and climate action and made them part of his corporate agenda. He invested heavily in green facilities and operations. In 2016, his was the first company in the region to commit to the goal of Net Zero, and the first in the world to launch the Green Sukuk benchmark.
Most importantly, he offered a masterclass in establishing an institution. He managed to migrate his work and business from an entrepreneurial and merchant model – which he personally led, to a mega-family business – which is the dominant model in the GCC, to a corporate model – that is now sustainable and has an investable future. The results of the company and the corporate governance choices he made has set the company up for a long run in the future.
This model is not only critical for Majid A Futtaim as a group but it will be seen as a benchmark for a number of family businesses, who are now witnessing a generational transition. In fact, by 2030, over $15.4 trillion will be passed onto the next generation or inheritors among the world’s richest families. Building institutions that are well governed like Majid Al Futtaim group will be a benchmark. It is a notable legacy for its founder and one that, in my view, many future generations will learn from.