Lifetime of Achievement: Emaar Chair Mohamed Ali Alabbar

There's more to Mohamed Ali Alabbar than the world's tallest building / Credit: LConstantino, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
From shaping Dubai’s physical landscape to powering the region’s digital landscape, we pay tribute to Emaar Chairman and entrepreneur Mohamed Ali Alabbar

Few business leaders have made as much impression on their home nation as Mohamed Ali Alabbar has on the United Arab Emirates – and especially the city of Dubai.

The 67-year-old, multi-faceted entrepreneur made his name working for the Dubai government, as the founding director general of the Department of Economic Development (DED) in the early nineties.

But it was the next stage in his stellar career that really changed the Dubai landscape – literally.

As the founder (1997) and Chairman of world-leading developer Emaar Properties, Alabbar was behind landmark developments that have shaped the city and turned it from a trading hub into a global tourism and real estate hotspot.  

First came waterfront mixed development Dubai Marina, announced in 2000, and then the iconic Downtown Dubai – launched in 2003 and featuring Dubai Mall (the world’s biggest) and of course Burj Khalifa – the world’s tallest building. 

Opened with great fanfare in 2010 while the rest of the world was still reeling from the financial crisis, the 828-m Burj Khalifa and development around it – which Alabbar once described as the “most prestigious square-kilometre on earth” – remains a statement of Dubai’s vision and ambition, and is testament to Alabbar’s own bold and visionary leadership skills.

“You have to be brave and learn how to make big decisions,” he once said. 

For Alabbar, Burj Khalifa stretches beyond its imposing physical specifications. “In Burj Khalifa, we see the triumph of Dubai's vision of attaining the seemingly impossible and setting new benchmarks. The project is a declaration of the Emirate's capabilities and of the resolve of its leaders and people to work hand-in-hand on truly awe-inspiring projects.”

Mohamed Ali Alabbar founded world-leading developer Emaar Properties in 1997 / Credit: LConstantino, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Reaching greater heights

Alabbar himself comes from relatively humble beginnings. One of 12 children, his father was a dhow (traditional trading boat) captain. Having excelled at school, he received a government scholarship to study at Seattle University, graduating in 1981 with a degree in Business Administration.

There is no doubt Alabbar has more than repaid the faith shown in him. “I am not a man driven by money, I am driven by the wellbeing of my society,” says Alabbar. Burj Khalifa was never about money or business, it was about “that child standing in front of Burj Khalifa, looking at it, smiling and saying, ‘I belong to a civilised country, and I am proud’.”

The Emaar success expanded beyond the borders of the UAE, with developments spanning 12 countries, to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Turkey, India, and as far afield as the US. And so too did Alabbar’s reputation for delivering results. 

In a historic first, as a non-Saudi, Alabbar was tapped by King Abdullah to oversee and develop one of the Kingdom’s most ambitious projects – the US$26 billion King Abdullah Economic City.

Not content with just expanding geographically, Alabbar extended the Emaar reach beyond his real estate empire to hospitality, healthcare, education, retail, residential and leisure.

Alabbar partnered with the Giorgio Armani brand to open Armani Hotels in Dubai and Milan and has also rolled out three homegrown brands, including Address Hotels + Resorts – think nine properties in some of the most sought-after locations.

An avid golfer and passionate polo player (he served as Chairman of the UAE Golf Association) Alabbar is behind Dubai’s most sought-after golfing destinations, like the 18-hole championship desert link course at Arabian Ranches. The prestigious Dubai Polo and Equestrian Club, home to 300 stables and two polo fields, and an enviable portfolio of world-class yacht clubs also feature among his many projects. 

With a market cap of US$16.77 billion, and revenue in the first half of 2023 growing to US$3.3 billion, there is little doubt of Emaar’s success, not just as Dubai’s largest listed real estate firm but one of the world’s most valuable and admired developers – one that has set the architectural and design bar high and landed many awards for excellence, efficiency and eco-friendliness. 

Among projects in the works, a resort in the hills of India, mega-mall project in Kashmir, US$20 billion luxury waterfront property development (The Oasis) in Dubai and a second super-tall skyscraper, which may eclipse Burj Khalifa as the world’s tallest.

For Alabbar, the Burj Khalifa is a "declaration of the Emirate's capabilities"

From real estate to tech investment

After more than 20 years leading Emaar, Alabbar stepped down as Chairman in December 2020 – but continues as Managing Director.

For most business leaders, that success would have been more than enough to retire on, but not Alabbar – he already had ambitions elsewhere, with an eye on championing innovative technologies. 

In 2016, he co-founded ecommerce platform Noon in the UAE and Saudi Arabia (with the Kingdom’s Public Investment Fund taking a 50% stake), which has since become the region’s leading ecommerce platform and digital ecosystem. 

That same year, Alabbar led the consortium that bought fast-food company Americana Group through his private vehicle Adeptio AD Investments SPC. With 1,200 outlets in 13 countries in the Middle East and Africa – including KFC, Pizza Hut, and Costa Coffee – Americana’s IPO in 2022 is estimated to have netted Alabbar close to a billion dollars.

There is no chance of a serial entrepreneur Alabbar settling for an easy life of luxury, thanks to his incredibly diverse portfolio of business ventures and investments.

There’s Alabbar Enterprises, for instance – an investment vehicle operating in the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia with a focus on fashion and retail, and through which he founded Namshi, the GCC’s leading ecommerce fashion and lifestyle platform and also took a stake in global online fashion retailer Yoox Net-a-Porter Group.  

He also founded Singapore-based fashion firm RSH, and Africa Middle East Resources (AMER). Somehow, he also finds time to act as chairman of Malaysian leisure and hospitality operator Tradewinds, and is on the board of Noor Investment Group.

A champion of new technology, Alabbar is an investor with Middle East Venture Partners (MEVP), founded the leading content and influencer management agency in the region (Diwan) – and in 2021, launched Zand,  the world’s first fully digital bank to offer both retail and corporate banking services.

“We owe it to 400 million Arabs that they go to the digital economy. I think it’s our duty, otherwise the Middle East will get left behind,” he said.

There is just no stopping Alabbar. His personal drive and ambition is probably best summed up by his reaction to completing and delivering his greatest achievement – Burj Khalifa.

“The Burj was over. I was thinking where to go, what to do next. Are you going to crawl and go back in a little hole? I can tell you this, that’s not me.”

The Mohamed Alabbar story is far from over.


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