At 31, Dr Sulaiman Abul Kareem Mohammad Al Fahim's achievements rival those of seasoned professionals twice his age. Today, his seemingly boundless energy is directed at building new ventures.
What drives this former child prodigy, chess champion, entrepreneur, philanthropist and academic to generate ideas, pursue opportunities and turn them into successful enterprises?
I meet Dr Al Fahim at the production headquarters of The Hydra Executives Show in the Al Raha Beach Villas in Abu Dhabi.
Al Raha is the production site for the innovative real estate reality show, where business-savvy executives, representing their native countries, compete for a chance to become partners in Hydra Development projects.
The winner of each series will have the financing and support to become a real estate tycoon in the UAE and internationally.
For Al Fahim, the "boss" of the show, it is simply the latest in a series of innovative investments that he has initiated in the past 20 years. If you do the maths it means he started investing and running businesses at 11.
Since childhood, he has balanced school, entrepreneurial endeavours, personal investments, a foundation that supports education and sports development, social activities and now the full-scale production of this international reality show.
The list of awards and accolades is long. Al Fahim was named Visionary CEO of the Year in 2007, and is on the list of the 100 most influential Arabs. He is the CEO of Hydra Properties, one of the top 50 most influential real estate companies in the Middle East.
"I work between Dubai and Abu Dhabi. I spend a lot of time travelling on the highway – three days in Abu Dhabi and three in Dubai. For about three weeks out of the month I am on a plane. I always seem to be in transit.
I may not even be counted as a resident of the UAE these days," he jests. Dr Al Fahim thrives on being a major player in real estate development in the UAE. He says, "Living here offers a much higher standard than other places in the world. Everything is available here.
A three-star hotel in the UAE is like a five-star hotel anywhere else. Do you think this is an accident? Now we are building museums, amusement parks, airports, exhibition halls, resort and residential islands and much more."
I thrive on the dynamism of the business environment. When I sniff an opportunity, I am driven to check it out. I recently studied business opportunities in Panama, Costa Rica and several countries in Western and Eastern Europe. Sometimes I go to remote areas that no one wants to touch.
I learnt about the business world as I was growing up. I started working when I was barely 11.
I believe it is important for the young to learn business systems like managing cash flow and human resource management. It is also equally important they realise they have a responsibility to the community.
I was always studying and working. You learn a lot about life when you keep a schedule like that. I value that experience and believe all teenagers should keep busy with school, work and other productive activities. My friends spent their time playing games.
Sometimes I would feel bad; they were out having fun while I was working. But even as a kid, I knew it was best for me to do this. I knew that I was gaining something that would be very valuable for my future.
Me and my childhood
I was born and raised in Dubai, but the rest of my family is based in Abu Dhabi. My father left Abu Dhabi for Dubai in the mid '60s to pursue business opportunities.
He started the first pharmacy in Dubai, and envisioned huge growth potential for the pharmaceutical industry.
As far back as I can remember, I recall my father taking my younger brother and me to our pharmacies – Orient Pharmacy in Al Shark and Deira. We worked as stock boys, cleaners and cashiers. Later on we started bookkeeping and learning how to manage employees.
My life revolved around school and work. I used to go to school in the morning and work at the pharmacy between 8 and 11pm. We continued to manage our pharmacies till our teen years. Those years taught me a lot about dealing with customers, people skills and reinvesting money.
Some patients needed painkillers, but couldn't afford them. This made me realise how important the supporter of the household is to the health of the entire family. As a result, I was determined to become financially successful. My father kept a charity fund for poor people who couldn't afford medication.
Over the years, we have built a loyal customer base; some have been with us for more than 30 years.
I have a pharmacist friend who still visits our pharmacy for his personal medication. When I asked him why he doesn't get it from his store, he said, "I don't feel good if I buy elsewhere. I am so attached to you."
I was 14 when I started investing in the stock market under my mother's name. At 15, I started buying property.
My father wouldn't normally give us cash to spend on trivial items. However, in high school I needed a car so he gave me Dh150,000 to purchase a 4x4. I bought a small SEAT car for Dh60,000 and invested the rest in the stock market. Six months later, I bought a Land Rover and a Jeep Grand Cherokee with the money I earned from the initial investment.
There is a certain satisfaction to earning and building your own wealth. It is different when you do it for yourself. Wealth has much greater value when it is built as an outcome
of your efforts.
I always remember my roots. My grandfather, uncles and cousins became successful in business when times were much tougher. They lived in tents and had very little to work with. Yet they became successful through determination, energy and intelligence. I had it much easier.
I lived in an air-conditioned house and had access to good education.
I am grateful for the opportunities, but I don't think gratitude is enough. We need to contribute to and create opportunities within our communities. At 18, I created the Sulaiman Al Fahim Group, an organisation to support education and sports. The organisation comprises one accountant and myself.
I started by sponsoring chess tournaments. Later, I sponsored Taleb Mousa, the UAE's first professional chess player. In 2003, he was the highest paid grandmaster with a Dh5 million sponsorship from my organisation.
In 2005, I sponsored six female chess players for with Dh6 million. They earned a monthly salary, had private coaches and competed in tournaments overseas.
I started playing chess when I was seven and trained during weekends.
I was ranked fifth in the world when I was nine. The Chess Federation gave me Dh1,000 at the time. How times have changed! I even played soccer for awhile. I tried really hard to become a good player and beat the other team, but I didn't achieve that goal. I love competing and winning.
Me and my university days
After high school, I went to the UAE University in Al Ain. I studied medicine, engineering and later switched to business administration.
I ended up spending six years in university. In high school, I received on-the-job training from Hill Baker Real Estate Consultants. I learnt a lot from them.
I knew at the time that I didn't want to be an architect or engineer. I was more suited to finance and marketing with engineering design.
While completing my BA in Marketing at UAE University, I worked in the marketing department of Abu Dhabi Foodstuffs Company where I learned product branding.
Then when I graduated in 1995, I worked for Emirates airline as a station manager trainee. The training lasts for 12-18 months before one is posted abroad to manage other stations. I think my success and progression at Emirates was due to the work experience I gained as a child.
In 1999, I went to Washington to do an MBA. While doing my MBA I worked at the National Bank of Abu Dhabi branch there. I received an MBA in Finance in 2001 and then completed an MBA in Real Estate in 2004.
There I worked as the first commercial attaché for the UAE Embassy and Consulate as a full-time volunteer for two years. It was a great experience. I met different people and gained new insights. I worked full time at the embassy and studied from 5:30 to 11pm.
In 1998, my mother, father and younger brother lost their lives in a car accident near Abu Dhabi airport. They had come to visit me and were returning
Suddenly I was left only with Saeed, my older brother. After the accident my personality changed. I became more isolated, introverted and stopped socialising.
I also stopped investing and did less business. That's when I moved to Washington DC to continue studying and volunteering.
Moving to the West was easy. I was used to being on my own and I truly feel at home in the US. I needed to start a new life to forget my loss.
I made many friends. And I met Dhabya, my wife, who worked as an office manager at the UAE Embassy. Meeting her changed my life. Dhabya is a very strong lady with exemplary leadership capabilities. She was like a life coach and a true friend.
She helped me a lot. We married in June 2003. Soon after, I returned to the UAE but used to visit American University in Washington DC to complete my PhD in Real Estate Investment. (My thesis was based on Palm Island and how funds were generated to develop real estate.)
Me and my mentors
There are two people in my life that guide me – Dhabya and Shaikh Tahnoon bin Zayed, the Chairman of Royal Group who owns Hydra Properties.
He is a visionary. He treats people with respect and is the perfect mix of kindness and business smarts. He is the man behind Hydra and Sulaiman Group. We share the same commitment to the development of the youth in our country.
He listens to me patiently when I come up with crazy overseas development ideas. Recently, I proposed a development opportunity in Mexico. Some people thought that the idea was too risky.
But Mexico has great growth potential, particularly in the real estate market as 50,000 retired people in the US look for affordable housing. It has many other things going for it as well, like hard-working people, reasonably priced labour and a supportive government.
What is the difference between The Hydra Executives Show and Donald Trump's The Apprentice?
Unlike The Apprentice, we have two teams, each one representing their own country. In our first season, the American and British teams compete with each other; in the second, it will will be India versus Pakistan.
The winner on The Apprentice gets a job with the Trump organisation. The winner of The Hydra Executives Show receives $1 million to invest in their chosen projects.
So the income potential is for life. The candidates perform actual real-estate development tasks for the most part and demonstrate skills in the functional areas of business.
For example, they have to sell property like sand in the desert. We see how good they are at sales. They don't have to be experts; they have to know how to relate to real estate.
The Hydra Executives Show will be on Infinity TV in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. It will also be aired on Fox Showtime.
We have an international distributor who has negotiated the rights to broadcast the programme worldwide.
Every season we will have two teams from two countries competing. This is like the business Olympics. The possibilities for future programming are endless. At the beginning of each new season, we will telecast what the previous winner is doing with his million dollars.
What are your personal plans for the future?
Dhabya and I have three children – four-year-old Shamsa, three-year-old Hind and two-year-old Mohammad.
I know I can't orchestrate their lives, but I want them to be involved in real estate in some capacity – business or law.
I will try to groom them like my father did with us.
Real estate is about life. It encompasses engineering, architecture, medicine, education and almost every other profession. It drives economies.
I hope one of my children will be the CEO. One must take my chair. One thing is for sure, they will all be trained by the time they reach the age of seven!
What advice would you give to aspiring real-estate moguls?
I once read a quote that resonated with me: "Action without vision is a nightmare and vision without action is a daydream." Have a goal.
Make it the highest goal possible. Do you want to be the next Donald Trump or Mohammad Al Abbar? Set your goals as high as you can. Then educate yourself. Education starts with school, but doesn't end there. Use schools, mentors, libraries and experiences. Step by step you will get closer to your dream. Do not be afraid of new ideas or taking risks.
Dr Sulaiman Abul Kareem Mohammad Al Fahim at the launch of The Hydra Executives Show, a real estate reality show... The winner of the show receives a million dollars to invest in his or her chosen project.