Ahmed Bin Sulayem, executive chairman, Dubai Multi Commodities Centre Authority (DMCC), comes out as leader with a vision for growth and development, not just for the self, but for the entire UAE. He’s a pragmatic, well-informed and a youth icon, running the largest freezone in the Dubai. In a no-holds-barred chat with the ISME, Ahmed Bin Sulayem spoke about his dramatic accomplishments, ambitions, avenues and opportunities for today’s generation.
TQ: Going back to your early years, what were the learnings/experiences that shaped you?
ABS: The name, Ahmed Sultan Bin Sulayem, came with a lot of responsibilities in itself. And it’s not just a reference to the pressure my father’s name brings on my shoulder, but on the whole. Despite being brought up in an Arabic household, I could hardly communicate in my mother tongue or follow the culture. In the simplest of examples, it’s customary in our culture to touch the nose while greeting elders, however, I would offer a high five (smiles). My grandfather once jokingly told my mother, “What have you made of this child. He’s not Ahmed Bin Sulayem, but Jimmy Carter.”
Speaking about what influenced me in the early years, it was the internal competition across Dubai that challenged me to prove a point in life. There were too many free zones in the region, which ignited the contest of attracting good companies and served as a distraction too. Nobody really wanted to join DMCC, and instead they openly criticized that it’s a concept set to fail. A perfect analogy to describe those days would be: a day after planting the seed, people expected a tree to shoot up. It was unfair competition that was subjected to me, but I accepted it. To tread on the rough patch, I had to invite people over, explain the challenges and make them see my belief. As things started turning in favour, they were left with no option but to
I like to read the success stories, but my learning comes from the failures of others. For eg., why Samsung is doing better than iPhone. As the UAE Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum puts it: don’t expect but always inspect.
Also, I have learnt a lot from the Indian, Lebanese and African communities. One of the facets where we’ve fallen short is attracting the businesses from South America in the commodities space. So, we want to bring them on board by hook or crook.
TQ: One of the attributes of Latin companies is that they’re strong on coffee, while you’re strong with tea trading. Why don’t you build a coffee exchange with them?
ABS: Coffee is listed on several exchanges, but tea isn’t listed elsewhere. Moreover, the coffee industry doesn’t feel the need to have one. It has advanced a lot. Nobody ever mentions, “Let’s go to this tea joint.” We are always bombarded with cafes, coffee shops and the idea of ‘catching-up over a cup of coffee’. You will hardly see a superstar saying, “I need a cup of tea.” It will always be portrayed with the former because tea moves around with a baggage of being slightly feminine.
The coffee industry is happy in mass trading and price discovery on exchanges; whereas tea like diamonds refuses to be a part of this game. Besides, tea has hardly been commercialized too. Even though it’s produced in the same environment as the coffee, there are a lot of complications with tea while dealing with producers, distributors and the end users
TQ: You’ve worked on many coveted titles- from DMCC’s director in 2002, graduating to become Executive Chairman, simultaneously holding
the position of Human Resources Director of Dubai Shariah Asset Management (DSAM) and Dubai Commodity Asset Management (DCAM)-what attributes helped you in climbing the success ladder?
ABS: I have always been a keen learner. Joining the company at 23 years of age with hardly a decent background, it was immense pressure and nobody took me seriously either. When the recession kicked-in, I told my father, “It’s the best thing to happen. No consultant can ever distinguish between real friends and fair-weather friends. The calamity will unveil the truth about everyone around us.”
TQ: You’ve an amazing capability to visualize and expect the unknown. What would you characterise as the secret ingredient/ inspiration that helps in achieving success?
ABS: It’s men like Mohamed Alabbar (Emaar Chairman). He’s a phenomenal story of rising from the challenges to conquer new territories. Every meeting he attends, Alabbar knows exactly what people will expect from him and how one should tackle them. Besides, my critics have also been a big source of inspiration to help me in becoming aggressive towards my goals. I have to keep moving faster because if His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum notices that I am slowing down, he’ll keep me aside just like his old horses (smiles).
TQ: What sets you apart from your competitors?
ABS: Retaining the right skills and holding on to the right people. One can get people with the most affluent degrees but if their hearts are not attached with Dubai, they will never deliver the right results. We also make sure none of the ideas or concepts are copied from the competitors.
TQ: Driving cars is one of your passions, right? How many cars do you have, and which is your favorite?
ABS: As the staff from Al Tayer Motors puts it, I am a serial Range Rover buyer. But, honestly, I was disappointed with their latest model. Hence, I went in for the Mercedes SLS Gullwing, and unfortunately my hectic schedule hasn’t provided me the opportunity to enjoy the car at the Autodrome or Yas Island. Also Mini Cooper is one of my favourites.
TQ: Only 8% Emiratis constitute UAE’s entire population, and there’s good chance of the number dwindling to 1 %, what is your take on this issue?
ABS: In our culture, precisely, we can have multiple marriages and have lots of kids too. However, you make an interesting point by bringing forth this issue for the Emiratis. Some people have four wives with four exact houses and cars. These husbands claim that they treat everyone equally, which I doubt. Marriage and bearing children is something that just takes place, and it’s not in our hands. Personally, I am happy to try something or take a risk in a particular venture even if it results in failure, but not when it comes at the cost of letting down a mother and a child. I’d rather die 10 deaths before that happens. So, this is my take on the matter. I do not have a problem of confidence with marriage, it’s just the matter of a right fit.
I can’t speak for the rest of the Emiratis. It’s hard to explain the high divorce rate too that exists in this society. In today’s time, almost 55%, of Emirati marriages are ending in a divorce. But as far as population, I don’t know what could be done to increase the population of Emiratis. I’m in the business of commodities, not breeding.
TQ: When is the perfect time for you to retire?
ABS: The perfect time for me to retire is when I am 6 feet under. The concept of retiring and live off your pension is foreign in my head. I remember a scene in the film Gatica, which is about two brothers, set in an age where people cannot conceive if the DNA is not a perfect match. One brother (played by Ethan Hawk), though, is not born of this method and is an act of deceit. The climax of the movie pits the two brothers in a swimming duel, something Ethan Hawk could never win against his genetically superior brother. The latter is rescued and brought to shore by Ethan when he starts drowning. Shocked by his energy and stamina, the sibling questions him on how he managed to do it, and Ethan replies, “I left nothing for swimming back”. When you go to work or exercising, you ensure that nothing is left in the tank. And, the concept applies to work, life and the gym. The Queen of England is 86 and still working. She does more work than any other lady of her age.
TQ: Ahmed, consider that you are 86 years of age today and sitting at this very stage- What have you achieved, and how would you like to be remembered?
ABS: I’d take the microphone and say, “Leave me alone, I’m 86 already. Let me work! I want to work.” (laughs)
TQ: A few years back, there were talks of having a common currency for the region. For some reason those talks fell through. But, do you see a revival of that move?
ABS: You have to put yourself in the place of our neighbouring countries: Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait. Probably, the latter is the shrewdest of all. Their economies were not affected even after the war because they have diversified investments all over the world. Looking at what is happening to the European community, what would you do if you were to make a decision? The Euro is suffering from tarnished image given the way it is now. Having said that, I think they are re-looking to work on the common currency issue. Key important aspects also need to be factored in while introducing this concept: who would be printing, how the distribution would be carried out, etc. The Arab world is keeping a close eye on what China is doing and transversely what Europe is doing too.
Audience Question: I find it absurd that despite having a registered LLC company in Dubai, I need to register my company once again by paying an additional fee to earn the rights for operating in Fujairah, Abu Dhabi or JLT. Would this change?
ABS: It’s the same in the USA or any other country. If you have a license in New York, you cannot operate in California with the same license, and similarly in Saudi Arabia or Oman. There is no such market, that I know of, where you can operate in another state without obtaining license and permissions. It’s not all about the money and charging fee, it’s because proper documentation and registration needs to be followed.