Khalaf Al Habtoor: doing business by doing good

The founder and chairman of one of the Middle East’s leading family conglomerates, Khalaf Al Habtoor is used to making an impact. He tells Philanthropy Age why the Arab world must do more to aid the victims of regional unrest

In his airy office overlooking one of Dubai’s oldest districts, Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor is wrestling with the idea of eradicating extreme poverty worldwide. If the concept of zakat, the charity tax Muslims are obliged to pay, was adopted globally, he muses, the money raised would be sufficient to expunge preventable diseases, starvation and more.

“It’s only 2.5 per cent [of income], which is nothing,” he says, gesturing broadly. “If just the US and Europe took on the principle of zakat, there would be no poverty. But the problem is simple; not enough people care.”

Al Habtoor is a man who trades in big ideas. As chairman of Dubai’s Al Habtoor Group, his bold forays into hospitality, real estate, construction and more helped turn an engineering business into one of the UAE’s largest and wealthiest conglomerates. In the last 18 months alone, the firm has snapped up a hotel in Budapest, launched Dubai’s first Waldorf Astoria and unveiled its most ambitious real estate project to date: the $3bn Al Habtoor City. The development, which is set to include three luxury hotels, penthouse apartments and a theatre, will be bankrolled entirely by the group.

A formidable networker, Al Habtoor has gained the ear of royalty, politicians, industry titans and businessmen the world over. The 65-year-old Emirati counts former US President Jimmy Carter and the Queen of England among his circle, with the former penning a foreword to his 2012 autobiography that applauded his outspoken style. “To read of his life is to take inspiration from his actions,” President Carter noted. Former US congressman Paul Findley describes him as a gentleman. “He puts a good face on the words Arab, Islam and Muslim.”

For a man whose greatest boyhood wish was to one day own his own shop, the journey has been little short of extraordinary. “I am living proof that you can be whatever you want to be,” Al Habtoor said in a speech to the graduating class of Illinois College in 2010, shortly after receiving an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the institute.

“Sometimes you can’t be a diplomat, you have to be tough, straightforward and strong”Al Habtoor’s philanthropic work is a barometer of his ambition. With the same dexterity that earned him a reputation as one of the Gulf’s savviest businessmen, he has staked out a position as a leading humanitarian, doling out millions of dollars of his own money to causes close to his heart. In 2012, he launched the Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor Foundation (KAHF), and took the significant step of awarding it a 20 per cent stake in his business, hitching its fortunes to that of his company. The foundation also receives the group’s zakat, thus netting a further 2.5 per cent of its income.  This is far from philanthropic window-dressing: the shareholding alone is worth millions of dollars.

“If we make a profit, the foundation takes a share of that profit,” Al Habtoor says. “Charity isn’t for show. When God gives to you, you have to give to the people. Wherever there are people in need, it is our duty to assist them as much as we can. We are all human beings.”

Faith underpins much of his philosophy. “I am a strong believer in God, and in the constitution of God. It is a discipline: to rise early, to work hard.”

His charitable priorities include education, fostering interfaith and inter-cultural bonds, and easing the plight of those caught in the Middle East’s myriad conflict zones. Universities in the UAE, Egypt and the US have all received generous sums – both the American University of Sharjah and Zayed University have endowed chairs in his name – while a $5.1m gift in 2007 helped to fund a cutting-edge medical simulation centre in Dubai. At the US-based Illinois College, the Khalaf Al Habtoor Leadership Centre is busily attempting to shape the next generation of trailblazers. It is, he laughs, quite a turnaround for a man who dispensed with formal education at the age of 12.

“I barely went to school at all,” he admits. “I hated it. Perhaps I’m trying to compensate now for the mistake I made. I learned from life, which perhaps is good, but I know the value of a good education too.”

Al Habtoor has also put his financial muscle to work closer to home. The Palestine question is a bitter one for the Dubai-based entrepreneur, who has described the grim life of its residents as “one we wouldn’t wish on our worst enemies”. He has paired with both the United Nations and the non-profit Carter Center – founded by the former US President and his wife – to channel aid and drive job creation in the troubled region, which was left reeling again this summer following the outbreak of renewed hostilities with Israel. In 2011, he was awarded the Shield of Merit by the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), in recognition of his humanitarian work.

Syria is equally a growing concern. The Arab state’s brutal conflict has created more than three million refugees, who are largely corralled into camps in Lebanon, Jordan and elsewhere. Almost half of Syria’s pre-war population is now homeless, with many still trapped miserably in the crossfire, a toll that surpasses that created by any other recent conflict. With fresh turmoil roiling Iraq, the ranks of the regional displaced are only likely to swell further.

“The Arabs are responsible to the people of Syria; we haven’t done enough”Al Habtoor has donated more than $3m to the UAE Red Crescent and the UNRWA to aid Syrian and Palestinian refugees, and is characteristically blunt in his view that both the West and the Arab states must do more to stem the blot spreading across the regional landscape. “The Arabs are responsible to the people of Syria; we haven’t done enough,” he says. “This [the fighting] is a disease, a cancer in the region, and one we have to stop. Sometimes you can’t be a diplomat, you have to be tough, straightforward and strong. As the Americans say, talk is cheap and we don’t need words, we need action.”

Al Habtoor knows what it is to be poor. Born in Dubai in 1949, when the emirate was little more than a dusty trading post, he has had a ringside seat to its transformation into a bustling metropolis. Rather like his home city, Al Habtoor has achieved a staggering amount from modest roots, but remembers well the one-room barasti of his youth. In person, he is a force, with a punishing work ethic and an outspoken political style. He is charming company and a gifted storyteller, peppering his many colourful anecdotes with a booming laugh. At the Emirates Literary Festival earlier this year, he held his audience spellbound for an hour with tales of old Dubai and his rags-to-riches career. It hasn’t been an entirely smooth ride, he confided: attempts to run a soap factory and sell imported Scandinavian tents both fell flat.

A proud Emirati first, Al Habtoor retains great affection for his country. He has given large sums of money, quietly and without fanfare, to low-income local families or other causes in need of help. In the weeks before our meeting, KAHF paid for a mass wedding for 30 Emirati couples, funding both the ceremony and a lump sum for each pair beginning their married life. The foundation, at Al Habtoor’s behest, also operates a payroll that doles out a monthly stipend to people or families in need.

“My wife is the one who will remind me; she is the first to notice someone who needs help and she will ask me to get involved,” he says. “We have a huge payroll for people, both here in the UAE and outside. My family feels strongly about philanthropy; they deserve a lot of credit.”

Still, he needs little encouragement to act. In 2009 Al Habtoor watched as the mayor of Hrar, a neglected town in northern Lebanon, bemoaned the area’s lack of medical facilities on television. In quick succession, that short clip prompted a $6.8m donation and the start of the construction process for the 50-bed Hrar Hospital.

While retirement is not in the pipeline – “the word ‘retirement’ is not in my vocabulary and neither is ‘holiday’”, he says – Al Habtoor does intend to scale up his philanthropy through his foundation, bringing his particular brand of impact-led largesse to a wider audience. These may be early-stage ambitions but, if Al Habtoor’s career to date is any indicator, they are likely to be bold.

“I have big plans for the future, over the next three years,” he says. “We’ll be studying what projects we can launch, and where we can help. It will have nothing to do with culture, religion or colour. We’ll just go wherever we are needed in the world.”