Chairman of Emaar and Noon.com addressed subjects including digital growth and Cambridge Analytica in his closing speech at the IIA International Conference in Dubai
Mohamed Alabbar, chairman of Emaar Properties and founder of Noon.com, gave the closing presentation at the Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA) International Conference on Wednesday, discussing a variety of subjects from digital growth to Cambridge Analytica and his working relationship with HH Sheikh Mohammed.
Held under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Vice President and Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, the four-day IIA event was attended by some of the region’s leading business names.
Alabbar’s one-hour session, ‘Reaching new heights with innovation’, made several references to his companies Emaar and Noon.com, discussing the technological shifts both businesses have gone through.
“Basic business principles are the same from 20 years ago to today. The innovation was there 20 years ago. Business plans, processes, risk, care of the customer; these basic principles do not change.
“The change now is that the world is run by the young. Look at Canada’s prime minister, the president of France, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mark Zuckerberg. The world is run by very energetic, intelligent, young people with high IQs. They think differently, but at the same time they operate with technology.
“Your phone software updates every month, and that’s how often you should update a business, to look at the real change that takes place. The scary thing is not the digital part, the scary thing is the average age group of these leaders and organisatons.”
Alabbar’s speech focussed heavily on digital growth and the importance to keep up with its speed of change if companies want to stay relevant.
“Digital companies grow 30 per cent a month, my businesses grows 20 per cent a year. Digital customers are on 24/7, there is no time to close the shop.
“Time is so valuable for all of us. In the UAE, we are only 46 years old, we are young, we need to catch up. So how efficient are you? How fast can you think and learn and assess risk? That’s a big challenge for all of us. This 24/7 style is going to be the way we do business. There’s no nine-to-five now. If you do that you will become irrelevant, you won’t belong.”
Addressing a packed auditorium for the final session of the conference, Alabbar talked about his own experience working in audit and how it gave him the foundations to run his businesses.
“I finished my studying and I worked for five years as an auditor at a bank. It was an amazing learning experience for me, it gave me the basis of being very aggressive and realistic in my businesses. Now I am grounded; I watch my balance sheet, my revenue, my collection, and with all my love to them I stay as far as possible from the bankers!”
Appropriately for the world’s leading conference on internal audit, Alabbar gave some insight into how his own companies manage risk and governance. “At Emaar, we’re obsessed with large sites — four million sq ft or more,” he said. “We don’t pay the money upfront. We pay over 10 years or we make a joint-venture with the land owners, so we manage our cash well.
“Dubai is a good city for us. Its growth, its leadership and its infrastructure has helped us to do well. With all of its nationalities, Dubai is a creation of the world and an amazing example of how the world can live together and progress while managing the risk of our neighbours.”
Discussing how internal auditors need to adjust to an increasingly digital world, Alabbar used the recent Cambridge Analytica and Facebook scandal as an example. “What Facebook did with Cambridge Analytica, how will audit deal with that? Cambridge Analytica were instrumental in the work of Brexit. How do you deal with something that is controlling human life? We need to re-learn everything. Who would have thought that Facebook would have so much data it could alter human thinking?”
Alabbar also touched on his inspirations, namely the UAE military and HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. “I get inspired by brave people. By the army, by their discipline and what they do, and risking their lives. And they do that for us to live comfortably — that’s so amazing, for someone to do that for me to live comfortably and safe.
“My teacher was Sheikh Mohammed, I worked for him for 30 years. From him I learned to take risks, to be responsible and I learned the art of delegation. You make him a promise and you deliver on it.
“I went to Sheikh Mohammed and said ‘I’m going to build you the tallest structure known to man’ and I showed him a paper with the structure and technical details and costs. And in 2010 I told him the tower will open, and he said to me ‘Mohammed, this is good but do you have experience in this?’ But by then it was too late!”
Alabbar was joined at the conference by two of his children, who we thanked and paid special mention to. He also talked about his parents who he described as not being able to read or write, and that his career has been driven by poverty and fear.
“There are many of us who live humble lives, but some of us resent that. You can sit there and mourn as much as you want, or you get up and have the belief that you can do something. The fear of failure is something my team and I live in, and if you live in fear then you are on your toes all the time. It’s a combination of fear and not wanting to live poor.”
More than 3,000 delegates from over 100 countries, including business executives, politicians and experts, took part in the annual international IIA conference, at Dubai International Convention and Exhibition Centre from May 6 to 9.