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1959 – A seminal year for Dubai

1959 – A seminal year for Dubai

Without risk, the city would not be where it is today, writes founder of the Emerging Markets Leadership Center.

Picture this in your mind – you are living in a home that doesn’t have running water or electricity. Of course this means no wi-fi access, television, or even an iPhone. You are pretty much cut off from the outside world. You just have your neighbours and the small community around you for information. Most likely, you learn the little bit you know about the world from the few travellers and traders who pass through.

That was Dubai in 1959, when Sheikh Rashid announced the dredging of the creek because boats could no longer travel through, meaning goods had to be transferred to a dhow before reaching the dock. The port was losing its competitive advantage and something had to be done.

It was not all he announced that year, he promised that every home would have access to running water and electricity within a few years, therefore creating what would become DEWA. He also commissioned the building of Al Maktoum Bridge, the airport and Dubai’s first official hotel.

It’s rumoured that the community was unsure of the young ruler’s ambitious plans. After all, this was his first full year officially leading Dubai. They were shocked, stunned and surprised.

This preview from my upcoming book Leadership Dubai Style highlights Dubai’s hunger of need, which eventually became a hunger of habit.

A hunger of need can make you do what others consider unreasonable and even think to be impossible. Starting so many mega-projects at the same time only comes from a true hunger, real ambition. A hunger of need brings a very healthy, but not unreasonable, risk tolerance.

What is perceived as risky outside of Dubai and holds others back is not so here. This risk tolerance is essential to the environment of success and evident in decisions taken by nearly every leader but makes absolutely no sense to the ill informed. Yet, they have proven to be the right decisions.

In 1959, Dubai was at another of its make or break points. With its single source of revenue literally silting up, there was no choice but to take action.

Having your back up against the wall creates a need – a hunger to take risks that you might not otherwise. When you are hungry, you are willing to do what a satisfied person deems unreasonable. Sheikh Rashid had the foresight to see that Dubai needed to build its infrastructure, if it was going to be the regional trade hub. He and his team identified what Dubai needed: the creek, airport and a bridge plus schools, hospitals and banks.

Yet, there was one problem. Dubai did not have the money to fund these projects. Any financial analyst would recommend that Dubai was not eligible to borrow the funds and advise a lender not to lend to the city. Any one of these projects, let alone all of them, was an impossible investment considering Dubai’s limited and stretched resources.

Still the ruler turned to the emir of Kuwait for assistance in financing the dredging of the creek, borrowing an unheard of amount of £600,000 along with a popular issue of bonds, the ‘creek bonds’, and revenue derived from land reclamation made possible by the dredging. The creek was the lifeline of Dubai. Without it, there would no longer be an environment that welcomes others to succeed.

At the same time, he borrowed £190,000 for the two-lane Al Maktoum Bridge from Sheikh Ahmed bin Ali Al Thani. The ruler of Qatar happened to be a close friend and coincidentally his son later married Sheikh Rashid’s eldest daughter Mariam. Of course, this is all in addition to the hundreds of thousands of pounds being paid for the development of the airport, hospitals and schools.

Because it was hungry, Dubai took risks that other cities would not have. And it has achieved results that others would not have as well.

There is a valuable lesson for us here. If you want great results, you need huge ambition. Ambitious leaders take risks. They are obsessed with their strategy and willing to do anything, within the boundaries of the law and their ethics, to make it happen.

When a leader is hungry, he has a big risk appetite. In this case, borrowing what others thought imprudent. Ambition makes you risk more than others think wise.

I have tried to imagine what it would have been like to be a young boy in a small town lacking basic necessities – running water, electricity, a hospital, no local banks – and only 20,000 people. To only decades later become a leading metropolitan city of over two million residents. But, I cannot.

It is practically unfathomable to comprehend the urban metamorphosis that happened right in front of their eyes, at the toil of their hands. This simply could not happen without ambition.

The desire to achieve is addictive; it turns a hunger of need into a hunger of habit.


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