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  • Writer's pictureDenis Kalyshkin

"The Sheikh CEO". Summary of the book.

Every time I travel to Dubai, I’m amazed with the futuristic projects and exceptional services. At some point I got curious how the country could achieve that. This time I was advised to read the book The Sheikh CEO. It’s actually not about the history of Dubai and the best practices of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum. This is a book about management, leadership, and vision. I believe any entrepreneur will get insights and ideas regardless of the size of the team under management. Here is a short summary below, but I encourage you to read the whole book. By the way if you dream about space exploration and Mars colonization you will find inspiring ideas in the book as well. I hope you’ll find it useful!


Statistics of Dubai


Between 1995 and 2015 Dubai increased its GDP from $11B to $101B and its GDP per capita from $16,000 to $42,000. At the same time it reduced the contribution of oil revenue to its GDP from 50% in 1985 to 1% in 2018. The population increased from 700,000 in 1995 to 2.75M in 2017. 70% of Fortune 500 companies had regional headquarters here in 2016. It had 28 free zones as of 2017. It also has one of the most competitive tax ecosystems and apolitical outlook. It’s a business oriented and tolerant city. Dubai is a role model for the whole region.


The major industries for Dubai are transport, trade, and tourism. Its international airport had 89 mln passengers in 2018 compared to Heathrow’s 80.1 mln. The container terminal handles more containers than any port in Europe. 15.7 mln tourists visited Dubai in 2017, more than New York, Istanbul, or Singapore.


Sheikh Mohammed set up the Mohammed bin Rashid School of Government in 2004 to support constant innovation in government modernization. It both serves as an institution to help Dubai stay ahead and share the experience with other countries. To develop the school Dubai partnered with Harvard Kennedy School. They also had classes in Cambridge and Massachusetts.


History of Dubai and the Royal Family


Dubai had a developed pearl industry more than 100 years ago, but in 1920th due to World War I, invention of cultivation of pearls in farms, and the Great Depression it was destroyed. The town severely suffered from economic shock and poverty. This is why the Rulers of Dubai heavily bet on diversification of the economy.


Dubai has experienced serious financial problems since the 1910s. While Saudi Arabia found oil in 1938 and Kuwait in 1946, Dubai had to find a way to diversify its economy. Sheikh Saeed transformed it to a trading hub. This is why diversification and re-inventing their economy is in the DNA of Dubai leadership. Sheikh Saeed knew that he couldn’t do the changes alone so he formed a majlis where senior figures from the emirate regularly met, presented the ideas, shared concerns, and filed complaints. The ruler used it as an advisory council.


In 1958, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum took over as Ruler of Dubai. He started holding majlis almost daily. Sheikh Rashid made twice-daily visits to the town to speak with residents. One of his ambitious projects was widening and deepening of the creek to allow more types of ships to enter Dubai. He also encouraged commerce and trade.


Sheikh Mohammed first took his position as the Head of Dubai Police and Public Security in 1968 at the age of 19. When the oil was discovered in Dubai he became the Director of the Department of Oil. At that time all emirates were separate kingdoms that formed the federation on 2 Dec 1971. Sheikh Mohammed became the youngest Minister of Defence at the age of 21. In 1991, Sheikh Mohammed’s elder brother Sheikh Maktoum became the Ruler of Dubai. Sheikh Mohammed served as Crowne Prince between 1995 and 2006.


Sheikh Mohammed has learned from his father that one needs to learn constantly, build a team of strong leaders, and stay out of politics. The true leaders of the world are the silent giants who run and own their economy. Sheikh Mohammed also believes that one shouldn’t be afraid of competition because it makes countries and companies stronger.


8 principles of Sheikh Mohammed (as of 2019):


1.Dubai is an integral part of The UAE. It implements and shares best practices for the flourishing of the whole federation.


2.No one is above the law starting from the ruling family. The law doesn’t discriminate between citizens and residents, rich and poor, male and female, Muslims and non-Muslims.


3.Dubai is a business center with a diversified economy. It should create at least 1 new economic center every 3 years.


4.Dubai isn't involved in politics.


5.Dubai has a credible, resilient, and excellent government. It supports an active, fair and open private sector. Public and government-owned flagship companies compete globally and generate income for government, jobs for citizens and assets for future generations.


6.Dubai society is built on tolerance, openness, and diversity.


7.Dubai bets on talents both local and international.


8.Dubai cares about future generations creating valuable assets. Sheikh Mohammed set up a rule that the government should own economic assets worth 20x more than its annual budget.


Vision of Sheikh Mohammed


Sheikh Mohammed has long term vision and consistency. He learns from mistakes, adjusts the tools, but he keeps goals the same. When setting goals and KPIs as the Prime Minister of the UAE he aims at #1. He doesn’t compromise on top 15-20. He wants Dubai and the UAE be #1 in everything they do. In March 2014 he told his team: “The only limits to what we can achieve are the limits of our imagination… Everyone starts small. We all begin life as a single cell. Every business starts as one person with an idea. How fast you go, and how far you get, is in your hands. The bigger your vision, the bigger your achievement will be.” To illustrate it let’s look at the Burj Khalifa project. Initially the architect planned a 90 store building which would be the highest in Dubai. Sheikh Mohammed demanded to build the highest building in the world with 163 floors in futuristic design. He believes that if you’re doing something, do it spectacularly. One shouldn’t not be distracted by naysayers. Many can only see the world as it is today. Being able to imagine tomorrow’s world is a crucial leadership capability. Michelangelo once said that the greater danger is not in setting goals too high. It’s in setting aim low and hitting it.


If you have a clear view of what you want to do and why you want to do it, do not be confused by failures on the way. The only risk you should avoid is not knowing what you are doing. I like the attitude that Sheikh Mohammed took about the Dubai Expo 2020 selection process: “If we win, great. If we lose, we will create our own.”


Leadership lessons from Sheikh Mohammed


Sheikh Mohammed was born in a house with no running water or electricity. The trip to New York inspired him to dream big.


You shouldn’t solve the problem with the same minds and resources that created it. Embrace ideas from diverse people. Invest in the ideas that will make your work obsolete. Learn something new everyday.


Dubai created 28 free zones instead of changing the mainland regulation. Jebel Ali Free Zone (Jafza, re-export zone for the region) was opened in 1985 with 19 companies and expanded to 8600 companies and 28.8% of Dubai’s GDP in 2019. If something worked once, repeat it! Then Dubai opened the other zones (the next was Dubai Internet City in 2001). Free zones have permission to grant visas and built the telecom operator to serve it (Du became the second largest player in the UAE).


Twitter was the last company opening the office in Dubai. Jack Dorsey traveled to Dubai in 2019. When he was given a stamp by immigration officer there was a Twitter logo on it.


Sheikh Mohammed learned from his father that you need to act fast. When he proposed an idea to grow Dubai’s aviation industry, the father asked him to come up with a plan in 2 days. This is the attitude he uses in his decisions. When they were building Internet city in 1999 they had only 365 days to open it. At that time there were debates in the UAE about whether they should ban the internet at all. The project was financed by private money and a bank loan. Sheikh Mohammed said: “In life you’ve got to take risks. If you don’t build it now, nobody will believe in you or the project.”


Sheikh Mohammed makes decisions fast and never looks back. In the late 1990s Dubai was growing so fast that they were running out of prime coastline. They decided to build the biggest man made island on the planet (The Palm Jumeirah). The first version of the project was approved without technical details. The construction started in 2001 and completed in 2004 (during the DotCom crisis).


Sheikh Mohammed also learned from his father that the best returns could come by taking the right kind of risks. You just assess them properly and take some of the risks. For example, during the launching of Dubai International Airport British Overseas Airways Corporation refused to start flying between Dubai and Mumbai because they were afraid of low demand. Sheikh Mohammed suggested to cover the costs of all empty seats. The route was very successful, with almost no empty seats. He also takes risks betting on talents. For example, he granted a position to 22 year-old Minister of State of Youth Affairs and 27 year-old Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence.


When Sheikh Mohammed proposed an idea to make Dubai a tourist center, all were skeptical because the city didn’t have historical places or good nature. They decided to bet on mega projects that captured imagination, ultra-luxurious beach hotels and retail. In 2017 Dubai attracted 15.5M tourists. This number is expected to reach 25M people in 2023.


Sheikh Mohammed makes bold promises and delivers on them. A good example is building the Palm Jumeirah and Dubai’s international airport. In 2018, the UAE government was ranked as 2nd most-trusted in the world in the Edelman Trust Barometer. Tweet by Sheikh Mohammed in 2015: “Life reacts positively towards those who know what they want. When a leader has a clear, inspiring and compelling vision, coupled with resilience and determination, life’s circumstances come together to pave the way, and (s)he will have the backing of many followers.”


Another lesson Sheikh Mohammed learnt from his father is that if you want progress with a project you should track progress personally, not blindly rely on the reports (because they could lie). Leaders should have their feet on the ground, understanding the issues people go through, what makes them happy and sad. It will help leaders make the right decisions, especially the toughest ones. Sheikh Mohammed keeps his doors open for people to share their ideas because they know the problems and insights firsthand. He also believes that regardless how well the research is done and how professional people are, there is a 1% chance of mistakes. This is why he is open to listen to alternative opinions so that the opponent could persuade him. In 2015 he launched Smart Majlis mobile app where anyone can submit comments or ideas. 60,000 ideas were submitted in 2017.


Sheikh Mohammed also believes that you always find someone who will fight your ideas. This is an indication that you are on the right track. He also believes that everyone can make a mistake. You just need to learn from it.


Sheikh Mohammed believes that his role is to create the environment where the team can brainstorm interesting ideas, and lead that creative team. Good leaders inspire people to trust and believe in themselves.


GDP growth is not always a good measure for economic health. For example, it can grow after a hurricane just because we need to rebuild destroyed houses, or if people live an unhealthy life and they spend more on insurance and medicine. He prefers to focus on the things that really matter for citizens and residents.


Sheikh Mohammed embraces customer centric approach even for government services. For example, Dubai government services (even police) measure customer satisfaction and work on the ways to improve it. He also personally employs a customer centric approach. For example, when a Chinese company Nu Skin announced that it was flying in 16,000 of its employees to Dubai for a corporate trip and more than 200 flights were booked in Sep 2014, Sheikh Mohammed joined them welcoming and taking selfies.


Dubai bets on Talents


Journalist Walter Lippmann said that good leaders build teams that will carry on the mission after they leave. Sheikh Mohammed heavily bets on talents, because he sees it as a competitive advantage for Dubai. He has a system to identify and track the talented people based on their merits. He also gives prominent leaders the ownership of projects and grants them personal accountability for the results. His motto: “Enable your team members and they will deliver, respect them and they will respect you, show them love and they will in return, strengthen them and they will be your strength, appreciate them and they will appreciate you; lead them under these conditions and they will follow you to the ends of the Earth.” Dubai bets both on local and international talents. The government hires non-citizens to lead huge projects in the UAE. To identify and grow leaders Sheikh Mohammed launched the Leadership Development program in 2003. It was based on the lessons learnt from Singapore and Harward. He doesn’t make a difference when nurturing public or private talents and he is not hung up on academic degrees and Ivy League credentials. He believes that people can always acquire technical skills. This is why Dubai chooses talents based on merits, empowers them with resources and makes them accountable for the results. They also focus on gender equality and diversity. When working on an important project Sheikh Mohammed typically has 3 teams competing with each other. That helps them work at maximum.


Leaders should win hearts and minds of people


Sheikh Mohammed doesn’t give long speeches often, but when he talks he captures hearts and minds. When discussing business with him one feels his energy and confidence.


Great Leaders communicate well to deliver messages to their team and followers, share their vision, motivate and give feedback. Being a good orator and good communicator are two different things. Communication is the ability to deliver messages and inspire people. One of the greatest tools for that is to listen and get feedback. Sheikh Mohammed often takes one-on-one meetings with his department leaders, as well as talks to a wide audience during majlis and meetings with citizens. He also actively communicates with his followers in main social networks. He is one of the influential world leaders and he had 17 mln followers in 2017. In 2015 he also launched Smart Majlis, a mobile app to receive suggestions and ideas from citizens and residents.


Sheikh Mohammed believes that good leaders should simplify their messages. If you can’t express something simple, you probably don't fully understand the topic. You should also be able to paint vivid and inspiring pictures to your followers. Great Leaders should also be good storytellers, because people can better understand and remember the topics through stories. Sheikh Mohammed often tells them to encourage the team or show his vision.


Mars exploration ambitions of Dubai


In 2016 Sheikh Mohammed setted an ambitious goal of Mars mission. He said: “This probe represents hope for millions of young Arabs looking for a better future. There is no future, no achievement, no life without hope”.


Emirates Mars mission will send 3 important messages:


1.Message to the world is that Arab civilization once played a great role in contributing to human knowledge and will play that role again.


2.Message to Arab brethren is that everything is possible and that they can compete with the greatest of nations in the race for such an ambitious goal.


3.Message for all who dream to achieve the highest of peaks is that they shouldn’t limit their ambitions and they can reach even to space.


Building a probe is an inspiration to the whole region since it was built by engineers from 11 Arab countries. Sheikh Mohammed believes that this mission is more about investing in people and inspiring the whole generation.


I hope this summary was useful for you. I strongly encourage you to read the book. If you also are crazy about space exploration and Mars colonization, please, check out our blog Space Ambition. We talk about niche SpaceTech topics in plain English, so that business oriented people can understand it. Keep dreaming, set up ambitious goals, and don’t be distracted by failures!



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