A Conversation with Hussain Sajwani, Founder of DAMAC

Hussain Sajwani

Hussain Sajwani has an extraordinary story.  From modest beginnings, he has become a self-made billionaire, recognised as one of the most powerful Arabs in the world.  Sajwani is Founder & Chairman of the DAMAC Properties, a global business with revenues of over $1.6bn and 2000+ employees which has delivered over 25,000 homes and has a development portfolio of over 40,000 units.

DAMAC is now one of the largest businesses in the United Arab Emirates, a region which has taken its wealth of oil & gas reserves, to create a dynamic, diverse and fast-growing economy.  Through our own group of businesses I have been a regular visitor to the MENA (Middle East & North Africa) region and Asia for over 20 years, and in that time have seen a transformation take place as the global economic centre of gravity has shifted eastwards, making the UAE a new hub for trade, innovation, culture and investment.

I had the pleasure of catching-up with Hussain Sajwani to learn more about the DAMAC story, and his views on entrepreneurship and investment in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

[bios]Hussain Sajwani, a UAE national, is the founder and Chairman of global property development Company, DAMAC Properties.

A self-made billionaire, Sajwani has been recognised as one of the most powerful Arabs, among other accolades.

A graduate from the University of Washington, he started his career as a Contracts Manager in GASCO, a subsidiary of ADNOC (Abu Dhabi National Oil Company). After a short period, he established his own business and in 1982 founded his own catering venture.

From modest beginnings, the catering division has grown from strength to strength and today is a market leader managing more than 200 projects and serving over 150,000 meals daily in a number of markets, including the Middle East, Africa and the Commonwealth of Independent States. In addition to servicing various industries, the division specialises in providing ancillary services such as camp management, maintenance and manpower supply.

Sajwani is also a pioneer of the property market expansion in Dubai. In the mid-90s, he built several hotels to accommodate the growing influx of people coming to the emirate to do business and trade. In 2002, he identified a growing market opportunity and established DAMAC Properties, which has grown to become the one of the largest property development companies in the Middle East. Today, DAMAC Properties has several prestigious projects in key global cities like Dubai, Jeddah and London, employs nearly 2,000 professionals, is a publicly- listed Company with shares traded on the Dubai Financial Market and was ranked as the #1 fastest growing company on the Forbes Global 2000 List for 2017. To date, DAMAC Properties has delivered over 24,000 homes, and has a development portfolio of more than 40,000 units at various stages of planning and progress.

As a market leader, DAMAC Properties has joined forces with some of the most recognisable lifestyle brands, to bring distinguished living concepts to the market. Projects include a Tiger Woods designed golf course, luxury apartments and villas with interiors by Italian fashion- houses Versace Home, Fendi Casa and Just Cavalli, and uniquely conceptualised Paramount Hotels & Resorts to deliver serviced living at its most opulent.

In October 2011, DAMAC Properties launched its hospitality division, ‘DAMAC Hotels & Resorts’, which now compromises more than 10,000 hotel rooms, serviced apartments and hotel villas within DAMAC Properties’ development portfolio.

As an astute businessman and investor, Sajwani also has a proven track record of successful forays into the global equity and capital markets. Under his strategic investment arm, DICO International, he currently holds investment portfolios of securities in a number of regional and global markets. DICO focuses on investments in new concepts, private equities, mergers, and acquisitions and holds majority and minority holdings in publicly traded companies.

Other areas of business interest for Sajwani are in the world of trading, such as Al Amana Building Materials, based in Oman, that represents world-famous names like Villeroy & Boch, Grohe and Dornbracht, to name a few. A further business interest in this field in his portfolio is Al Anwar Ceramic Tiles Co, the first and one of only two tile manufacturers in the nation.

Another key regional investment initiative for Sajwani is Al Jazeira Services, listed on the Muscat Securities Market with a capitalisation of over USD $110 million. The Company was listed in 1997 and since then has produced impressive results in changing market conditions.

Sajwani resides in Dubai with his wife and four children. Alongside his family, Sajwani advocates for access to quality education under the Hussain Sajwani – DAMAC Foundation, including the popular One Million Arab Coders an initiative that aims to empower one million Arabs with the language of the future, coding.[/bios]

Q; Has entrepreneurship always been in the DNA of the UAE?

[Hussain Sajwani] The UAE has a rich history of trade and has, for centuries, offered fertile grounds for dreamers to pursue their entrepreneurial aspirations. The UAE also has a history of opening its home to people from all over the world, and this diversity brings with it a unique opportunity of creating new markets and businesses. With the recent industrial revolution, UAE’s visionary leaders and their commitment to diversifying economic growth, have placed a top focus on education, and technology.

However, entrepreneurship is an integral aspect of the human condition. Our inner desire to start something new and make it big has been one of the most catalysing factors behind our collective evolution as a species. Our quest to explore and develop markets has persisted since the time humans have been trading goods. However, for the entrepreneurial spirit to manifest as successful business and social endeavours, we need a nurturing environment and an infrastructure that celebrates the human will to solve problems and progress. This, coupled by access to capital, and the overall attitude towards business, are all key factors that have placed us as a hub for entrepreneurs from all over the world.

Q: How did entrepreneurship come into your life?

[Hussain Sajwani] After graduating from the University of Washington, I worked as a Contracts Manager for a highly reputed organisation in the UAE. While it was a great opportunity, it never felt like my true calling. Having forefathers as merchants that forged their own paths pushed me to pursue a similar journey.  At this point I got a lead that there was a lot of potential in catering, and so in 1982 I set out to make my mark competing with major international companies for local contracts, and I established a catering company with the support of a small and dynamic team who are still with us today.

Q: How did Dubai become such an international hub for business & enterprise?

[Hussain Sajwani] Free trade, openness, security, and a stable government framework have been the key factors behind the emergence of Dubai as an international business hub. Even before the UAE’s independence in 1971, Dubai, lacking in oil, had decided to establish itself as a trading port. The creation of the Jebel Ali Port in 1979, now among the busiest ports in the world, was the turning point in Dubai’s modern journey. At the same time, the visionary leader of Dubai and Vice-President of the UAE His Highness Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum began his quest to building a diversified economy by promoting private enterprise and propelling the growth of other sectors such as aviation. Take the story of Emirates Airline, which H.H. tasked Sir Maurice Flanagan, the then head of DNATA, with launching and ensuring it becomes a globally celebrated brand.

Q: How has the growth of Dubai been driven by the movement of the centre of gravity of the global economy?

[Hussain Sajwani] Dubai has always benefitted from its central location and access to beautiful beaches. So yes, with today’s geopolitical shifts and new technologies empowering emerging markets in Africa, Asia, and Latin America to account for more than half of global GDP, the Middle East has once again been placed at the centre of an opportunity. Moreover, the region is also ideally located in the emerging Silk Road between China, Central Asia, and Europe. Already being an international trade hub in the region, Dubai leveraged this position to attract more global companies and the best talent, and transform itself as the default headquarters for organisations looking to capitalise on today’s paradigm shift.

Q: How does the government play a role in entrepreneurship and scale?

[Hussain Sajwani] Without a doubt, the government is the firm foundation of Dubai’s entrepreneurial prowess. While Dubai’s position as a diverse and emerging market makes it ripe for entrepreneurs, key government initiatives and policies accelerate the growth of SMEs and new businesses. The government offers exceptional incentives to start-ups such as long-term visas, incubator and accelerator programs for individuals and SMEs with new ideas, and most importantly, an extremely tax-favourable environment for most industries.

Moreover, the government’s sharp focus on education, infrastructure, and technology ensures that Dubai’s appeal as a global hub for innovation is here to stay. The government’s Dubai Plan 2021 has set out a clear vision for the city. One of the key themes under this plan is about creating a city that enjoys sustainable economic growth. For this goal to be realised, entrepreneurs and SMEs have to play a vital role in the economy.

Q: What are the common misconceptions you hear about business and investment in Dubai & UAE?

[Hussain Sajwani] One of the common myths about setting up business in the UAE is that funding is challenging to obtain in the country. This couldn’t be further from the truth. With UAE’s pro-investment laws and a robust financing sector, new businesses find it very easy to secure funds through various channels.

Many also fear that starting a business is a complex process. On the contrary, the UAE currently stands at the 11th position globally in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business. Another common misconception is that businesses looking to enter the UAE market need to tie up with local partners or investors. While this was the case years back, the UAE has since introduced a law which allows for 100% foreign ownership in most sectors.

Q: What has been the role of diversity and multiculturalism in the success of Dubai?

[Hussain Sajwani] The UAE is home to people from all over the world. The city’s diversity is perhaps one of the most critical sources of strength for entrepreneurs. Dubai’s multiculturalism has allowed for the creation of multiple markets within the city, while also bringing in positive competition. With that you see diverse teams that enhance creativity and relevance. In my own experience, I have realised that diverse groups perform better and tackle challenges far more effectively than homogeneous teams. Contrary to what is happening in many parts of the world, the UAE firmly believes in and celebrates the principles of tolerance and diversity.

Q: How have attitudes towards success and failure shaped Dubai’s entrepreneurship ecosystem?

[Hussain Sajwani] For a civilisation to succeed, it must learn from failures. Dubai is a land of innovation and failure here is perceived as an opportunity to learn and not the end of an endeavour. In his book, Flashes of Thought, H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the UAE Vice President and Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, says, “To take risk and fail is not a failure. Real failure is to fear taking any risk”. This quote best describes the spirit of Dubai’s resilience and entrepreneurship that translates across all business and social endeavours.

Q: What is the continued investment case for Dubai?

[Hussain Sajwani] Dubai’s economy is now maturing, and key government initiatives such as long-term visas for skilled professionals and entrepreneurs are a sign that Dubai is about to enter a new era of the knowledge economy. The UAE offers a unique mix of the right ingredients that businesses and investors will not find in many places around the world. The Emirate’s strategic location, advanced infrastructure, political and social stability, and progressive policies are just some of the aspects that make an indispensable case for Dubai as a top destination for investors.

In its latest World Economic Outlook, the IMF has predicted that the UAE’s real GDP is poised to grow by 2.8% in 2019 and 3.3% in 2020, hence any misconception about a slowdown are merely speculations based on fear. While the last few years have been challenging, especially for the global real estate sector, softening economies have been a normal reaction to a rise of polarisation and speculations around trade wars. With regards to real estate in the UAE, we also experienced a slow down as the market corrected itself from earlier years of growth and as inventory began to stablise to demand.

Q: How do businesses in Dubai engage with society and culture?

[Hussain Sajwani] Culturally, the UAE believes in doing business for the greater good of the collective; after all, real progress only takes place when everyone is aligned and works together. This strong belief in inclusive growth is what drives strategy for businesses across the UAE. We must ensure that our legacy inspires future generations. For instance, in 2017, through the Hussain Sajwani – DAMAC Foundation, we partnered with the Dubai Future Foundation to launch the One Million Arab Coders initiative.  The idea was simple, to provide free programming training for one million young Arabs. Behind the idea is our belief in education and the importance of opening opportunities for other aspiring souls. Coding is now an important language, and is a skill which will allow our youth to grasp the jobs of the future.

Q: What have been the greatest learnings of your own entrepreneurship journey?

[Hussain Sajwani] Young entrepreneurs today are full of ideas and enthusiasm for achievement. However, what deters many of them to pursue their dreams is the fear of failure. Through my entrepreneurial journey, I have learnt that we cannot be afraid of making mistakes. We must assess the risks associated with any situation, and if the opportunity aligns with our ambition and values, we should go ahead with it. I would also like to stress the importance of diversification. I have never been afraid to diversify professionally. I started with catering, invested in IT, and eventually moved into real estate. Never hesitate to exploit investment opportunities that make sense to you, be willing to learn and never go to sleep haunted by the thoughts of indecision.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.