How Dubai created an environment where everyone has the chance to succeed

The book Leadership Dubai Style, which was recently honoured as the First Finalist – 2016 International Book Awards, tells the story of how Dubai went from a fishing village to international city, charting the habits behind the emirate’s success. For every copy sold during Ramadan, the author, Tommy Weir, a CEO coach and the founder […]

The book Leadership Dubai Style, which was recently honoured as the First Finalist – 2016 International Book Awards, tells the story of how Dubai went from a fishing village to international city, charting the habits behind the emirate’s success. For every copy sold during Ramadan, the author, Tommy Weir, a CEO coach and the founder of the Emerging Markets Leadership Centre, will donate a copy to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid’s Reading Nation campaign, which will provide 5 million books for refugee students and students in need around the world.

In this second of three excerpts being published exclusively in The National this week, Mr Weir describes how Dubai created an environment that allowed everyone a chance to succeed, going back even to the turn of the 20th century and Sheikh Maktoum bin Hasher’s efforts to create what we would understand today to be its first free zone.

The excerpt

Even after living in Dubai for so many years, I still get chills when I drive down Sheikh Zayed Road, the main artery through the city. Not because of the unpredictable driving patterns, which are very interesting in and of themselves, as more than 200 nation­alities get behind their steering wheels and try to “dance” to their own “radio station”. Confusion. No, I get chills because nearly everyone who’s living in Dubai is here because they can do better than they can in their home country and maybe even any place else. Whether it’s a busful of construction workers coming back from building the next skyscraper, a taxi driver carrying tourists across the city, or the chief executive of a major business riding in his Bentley, all are living in Dubai because the city is contributing to their success – and they to its.

I admit I’ve become numb to the dizzying speed of development. And I take for granted the spectacular skyline, half of which was built before my own eyes. I accept the excitement and energy of the place as being normal. Yet, I get still get chills because deep down I know Dubai is a special place where any and everyone can succeed.

When I think back to Dubai’s formative years, I can only imagine what it must have been like to be one of the earliest expat businesses to set up “shop” on the shores of the city in 1901. Yes, you read that correctly – 1901, not 2001, nor for that matter 1991. Dubai’s strategy of welcoming others was put in place long before even the most tenured of today’s expatriates immigrated here.

In 1901, Dubai was still a sparse coastal community and relatively unknown port outside of the local trading community. To the north were the ideally located twin ports of Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah, home to the Qawas­sim tribe. The Qawassims were reputed as a “sea” tribe, enjoying much success on the open waters along the coast, and as far away as the Indian subcontinent, controlling the regional waterways for much of the 19th century.

They also controlled some of the shores and islands of Persia, including Lingah, the ideally located harbour city on the southern border of modern-day Iran. This made Lingah a major player in local trade.

At the end of the 19th century the nationalist Persian government punished the Qawassim Arabs, who were resented for their success and control of the Lingah port. Seemingly overnight the government hiked up import and export taxes, and slapped merchants who used the city souq with a fee. The merchants were outraged. Clearly the government wanted to displace them. Displace them they did.

Create the right environment

When this news travelled across the Arabian Sea, it set into motion the strategy that’s still embraced today – welcome strangers, and do everything you can to foster their success. Taking advantage of Lingah’s punitive actions, Sheikh Maktoum bin Hasher, Dubai’s Ruler from 1894 to 1906, abolished most tariffs and reduced the few that remained, effectively establishing the idea of a “free zone” long before its time. This would set the stage for the city’s future as a global commercial hub.

Sheikh Maktoum bin Hasher fully understood that if the largest merchant operators could be lured to Dubai, then those who traded closely with them would follow. Better than any other leader along the coast of Oman, he acted on the opportunity trickling down from the historical shift in Lingah, dispatching an official envoy to sail the 173 nautical miles across the Gulf. Once there, the envoy was to persuade the most important merchants to relocate their businesses to Dubai. When those merchants eventually came, the Sheikh opened his arms, welcoming them to Dubai with a hearty “Ahlan was Sahlan” (“Welcome”).

Yet Dubai had to do something about its port, which was basically a casual fishing outpost masquerading as a commercial hub. The port wasn’t nearly as appealing as the conveniently located ports of Umm Al Quwain or Ajman, or the large Qawassim-run ports of Ras Al Khaimah and Sharjah. So what did the Sheikh do? He committed to the strategy of “creating an environment where everyone can succeed”. He offered free land on which to build, guaranteed tax breaks and a fav­ourable eye from the government.

It was a clever move that has served ­Dubai well for ages. It was clear that Dubai was only interested in one thing: commerce. And the way to achieve it was through others’ success.

Every vision – from an economic form of government to people’s prosperity – needs a strategy. Your purpose needs a way to come to life. For Dubai the strategy became “create an environment for others to succeed”, which practically meant Dubai would leverage its location and be a hub.

Shortly after setting this strategy in place, Dubai became a regular stopping point for ships as the principal commercial port in the Trucial States. Within a few years, Dubai’s stature rose to the point where British commercial steamers began calling on the city every other week.

The Port of Dubai significantly increased its trade with the Gulf countries and India. Low tax rates (and in some cases no tax at all) attracted traders from all over the Gulf, as well as a subclass of Indian merchants keen on financing the country’s growing pearl industry. To drive this growth, Sheikh Maktoum bin Hasher turned Dubai into a near free trade zone, which in turn boosted commercial activity and increased the city’s revenues. This merchant activity eventually helped Dubai become the wealthiest emirate on the Trucial coast.

Sheikh Maktoum bin Hasher knew that the only way to attract businesses and to keep them was to foster the correct environment. That attitude, which filtered down from the majlis, on through the government, ulti­mately became the mantra for Dubai. The port played a central role in the success of Dubai as the backbone of its strategy, and continued to grow progressively over the decades. Today, between Port Jebel Ali and Port Mina Rashid, Dubai has a combined capacity of 3.7 million TEU (twenty-foot equivalent unit, the standard unit describing a ship’s carrying capacity). Dubai is now home to one of the top 10 ports in the world. It is, in the truest sense, a hub in global trade.

Sheikh Maktoum bin Hasher and every Ruler since did what every leader should do: create an environment for others to succeed. Of course this made sense for Dubai economically, given its ability to use its geography as a hub. For you it makes sense because it’s the surest way to ensure your own future success.

Help others succeed

What did Dubai really have in 1901? Nothing more than a tiny port, which was inferior compared with other nearby ports. Though just a few kilometres away, the other ports were much better positioned in terms of proximity to Persia and making the turn through the Strait of Hormuz.

So Dubai’s leaders had to do something, something more than their competitors were already doing. They welcomed unhappy people from nearby tribes. They invited them to Dubai to increase their trade, to give them a shot at the good life.

Yet the only way these merchants would relocate to Dubai was if Dubai did something to help them. Earlier I pointed out that the government offered the merchants tax breaks and free land. What better way to entice them? Why wouldn’t you choose a location where you could maximise your return, especially if you have to relocate anyhow? The cherry on top, for Dubai, was that it gained exactly what it wanted: a bump in commercial stature.

After arriving in Dubai, the merchant families took advantage of an autonomy that brought them economic and political power second only to the Ruling family. Over the years, the hundreds of Indians with British nationality who worked for Indian-British companies formed a new cadre of merchants. Many became wealthy to the point where they constituted a significant economic class in Dubai. The Ruler and other leaders cheered for their success, as well as that of all the other citizens and residents. That is the role of leaders: to help others succeed.

I don’t believe there’s a more foundational thought about leadership than this – it is the leader’s responsibility to support others to become more than ever before, more than they dared to dream of.

No matter what the situation, a great leader’s first response is always to think about the individual concerned – whether an employee, customer, citizen, boss, or investor – and how to help that individual experience success. What do leaders do? They help others succeed.

We learnt more than a century ago that if times are tough where you live, come to Dubai, where you can succeed. Simply stated, this is the message of hope that Dubai radiates throughout the world: it is a place where you can come and succeed. Dubai is one place where it is understood that if all succeed, the vision will be realised; after all, the vision is putting people’s prosperity in their hands.

This is true for all nationalities, economic levels and walks of life. Helping someone else look good doesn’t need to hurt you or make you look worse. In fact, when others’ success is your priority, yours will be guaranteed to come. It’s narcissistic leaders who struggle to understand how helping others succeed is beneficial to them.

Contrary to self-centred thinking, leadership achievement can only become reality through others. You should earn your success based upon your service to others, not at their expense. Leadership isn’t an individual sport. Are you motivated to help others succeed? Even through difficult moments?

But as a leader – whether of a city, company, or team – you need to make the transition from “I” to “they” – “They grew our revenue” or “They created a new product”, something that “they” (your team or company) did great. “They succeeded”. What’s in it for you when you create an environment for your team to succeed? Your success, just as it was for Dubai.

* From the book Leadership Dubai Style by Dr Tommy Weir, copyright © 2015. Published by arrangement with EMLC Press

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