Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor at the 181st Annual Commencement Ceremony at Illinois College, Jacksonville, Illinois, May 2010
Through his foresight and unparalleled business acumen, billionaire businessman Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor has emerged as a deeply influential figure in the Middle East and beyond. Chairman of the Al Habtoor Group, his diverse business empire encompasses construction, real estate, education, publishing, insurance, automobile dealerships and luxury hotels in the UAE, Lebanon and Hungary. In May 1970, he established his contracting company, Al Habtoor Engineering Enterprises, with just a modest sum of capital. Today, the Al Habtoor Group’s worth is in excess of $4 billion. Through his integrity, dynamism, philanthropy and championing of traditional Arab values, Al Habtoor has won worldwide recognition, presenting a powerfully articulate voice for the United Arab Emirates.
Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor with H.H Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, 1979
A keen political commentator, Al Habtoor is a prolific writer. His articles and books on international affairs are regularly published and widely read. In his bestselling autobiography (Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor; The Autobiography) he writes with forensic clarity and an unrivalled grasp of detail on political history and current affairs. His magazine Al Shindagah provides detailed analysis on the UAE and the Middle East.
In spite of his immense success, Al Habtoor has not strayed far from his desert roots. He still embodies the values fostered in the desert: endurance, intelligence, compassion, energy, ambition, steadfastness, and equally, the sheer joy of life – are traits that are fully possessed by him. His story is the story of the UAE, and like his hometown of Dubai, his meteoric rise to success runs parallel with Dubai’s embrace of dazzling modernity and progress. His political prowess matches his business acumen and for this reason his views resonate in the corridors of authority with rare power and clarity.
A child of the desert, Khalaf was taught to ride, swim and hunt at a very young age by his father. His parents played an instrumental role in instilling him with the confidence that he could achieve anything, “My father Ahmad trained me, he brought me up to be honest and to feel that nobody is better than me. My mother always told me that I would raise Al Habtoor’s name.”
Al Habtoor spent his early life living in poverty with his family in a barasti along the Dubai coastline. His palm frond home provided little insulation against the elements which meant that surviving fiercely hot temperatures, sandstorms and poor access to clean drinking water were features of everyday life.
Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor and the late Benazir Bhutto at the World Forum held in April 2007 at the Habtoor Grand Resort & Spa, Dubai.
It was at this time that he learnt the virtues of hard work and discipline. his unwavering sense of discipline has remained a constant in his life. “Discipline is the most important thing to me in my life, and I always advise people that they have to practice discipline in life: what time they have breakfast, lunch, exercise, what time they sleep. God created day and night for certain purposes. The daytime is for work not for sleeping, and the evening is not for work but for rest. We have to implement this. Time is very important. If we work according to this, we will be successful.”
H.H. Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Makhtoum inaugurating the Metropolitan Hotel Dubai in Februaury 1979
He was the first Arab and Muslim to be awarded with an honorary doctorate from Illinois College and in 2010 he was inducted as a member of its Phi Alpha Literary Society – a rare honour he shares with Pulitzer Prize winner David Herbert, renowned Arab writer Rami Khouri and American President Abraham Lincoln. He established the Khalaf Al Habtoor Leadership Center at Illinois College which continues to draw leading academics, diplomats and entrepreneurs. Al Habtoor was invited to speak to the graduating students of Illinois College where he stated, “I am living proof that you can be whatever you want to be.”
Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor with H.H. Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahayan in the late 80s
Though he received little formal education, Al Habtoor remains passionate about educational development in the UAE. “Education in the UAE is good. Universities in the UAE are doing very well; they are excellent like the Higher Colleges of Technology, Zayed University, the American University of Sharjah, Sharjah University. We need to improve intermediate and high schools not only in terms of academic staff but also parents must look after their children with respect to all subjects, especially Arabic as most of our children do not speak Arabic and this is very bad.”
However he emphasises the importance of gaining practical knowledge and work experience, “Education is very important; not only academic education but also the education you receive at work. Academic education is just the base. You have to learn from other people. Do not claim that you know everything just because you have graduated from a school or university – you don’t know anything at all – you have to learn from practicality and from the people who are more experienced than you.”
HRH The Duke of Edinburgh Prince Philip with Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor at a charity cricket match.
With regard to the UAE and its growing political and economic clout, Al Habtoor underlines the importance of moving forward while still preserving traditional Arab culture and identity, “I do not suggest going back to the past. You cannot do that. But you have to stick to certain traditions. We are Arabs and we are proud of our heritage, we have to stick to our religion and practice it wherever we are. We must respect all people. We must respect all religions of the world. I am proud of being an Arab. I am proud of my history both Islamic and pre-Islamic.”
He provides a soberly realistic assessment on recent events in the Middle East and the ‘Arab Spring’. “This was planned a long time ago by the West to damage the Arab world. They have already damaged Iraq, Tunisia, Syria, and Egypt – but thankfully the Egyptian military have rescued Egypt from destruction. Now we have to be very careful and alert in the GCC countries, we have to be awake and focused on the protection of our coastline.”
The UAE has emerged as an oasis of calm against the backdrop of a deeply turbulent Middle East, Al Habtoor comments on the UAE’s exceptional position in the region, “Dubai and the UAE is the safe haven of the world. Look to Europe for example, the eurozone has financial problems; they hold meetings and conferences with no results. The UAE is a small country. We can help other countries with our experience. The UAE is the economic, political and security safe haven of the world. We are trying our best to take care and protect any person in our land provided that they are honest to us and honest to our land.”
Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor with the late Yasser Arafat.
At a time when the Middle East finds itself at the epicentre of the world debate, Al Habtoor clearly recognises the need to unite a fractious and divided Arab world. As a prominent fundraiser for the Palestinian cause, Al Habtoor has worked hard to contribute towards realising peace in the Middle East.
In spite of his success, he continues to work with undiminished zest and draws inspiration from the founding fathers of the UAE, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahayan and Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, “My model is the late Sheikh Rashid of Dubai. He was a leader to me, he was a brave man, he loved his country, and I learnt a lot from him. Sheikh Zayed was very straightforward, very honest. He was loyal and protective of his country and his people. He supported every person and encouraged them to work hard for the country. He didn’t differentiate between nationalities or religions; he would help everyone in need. This man was one of the greatest men and a man of vision.”
Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor with H.H. Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Makhtoum at the official opening of the Metropolitan Hotel Sheikh Zayed Road, 1979
Al Habtoor is motivated to do more for his country the UAE by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Makhtoum, UAE Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai. ” The encouragement of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed, his hard work and leadership inspire me and give me the fuel to invest and announce new projects in Dubai.”
Khalaf Ahmed Al Habtoor speaking at the 40th anniversary of the Al Habtoor Group gala dinner, April 2010.
The Al Habtoor Group has grown with the UAE, and while best known for construction, it is globally recognised through its involvement in the hotel, automotive, real estate, education, insurance and publishing sectors.
One of the UAE’s most respected and successful businesses, the Al Habtoor Group today operates in the UAE and international markets. The highly qualified, experienced and professional multi-national team, consisting of thousands of employees, is expected to continue to grow in line with planned expansion.
The Group’s construction division the Habtoor Leighton Group has an extensive track record in the successful delivery of large-scale projects across the region. For more than 40 years it has built a strong and loyal client base across both the public and private sectors. The Group focuses on five core market sectors namely infrastructure, building, rail, oil and gas and mining.
Habtoor Hotels owns and operates six top class hotels, including two new five star properties, the Habtoor Grand Resort & Spa in Dubai and the Habtoor Grand Convention Centre & Spa, Beirut.
Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor wit Osamu Masuko, President of Mtsubishi, at the motor show in November 2007
Al Habtoor Motors’ brand portfolio includes Mitsubishi, with a wide choice of sedans, 4×4′s and commercial vehicles, Temsa buses and premium marques such as Bentley and Bugatti – and it recently added two Chinese brands to its portfolio: Chery and JAC MotorsAl Habtoor Motors imports more than 60,000 vehicles from Japan every year. It has a well-established network of seven showrooms, eight service centres and twelve parts centres that effectively cover the entire UAE.
Just as the name of the UAE has become synonymous with trade and enterprise all over the world, the name of the Al Habtoor Group has become synonymous with dynamic growth, evidenced by its commitment to develop and grow businesses in multiple sectors.