Witty, charismatic, gracious and down to earth yet so larger than life, Mohi-Din Binhendi’s life is the stuff that legends are made of. The former director general of civil aviation (DGCA) - Dubai, now chairman and CEO of BinHendi Enterprises, is the man who helped shape Dubai airport and Dubai Duty Free.
An interaction with this UAE legend takes us back in time and also leaves us feeling grateful towards men like him who helped elevate the standard of living and travel in the country.
Gulf News caught up with him at his villa in Jumeirah, which is designed like a yacht.
“I love the ocean. It is a place where I can spend hours. My house has been inspired by my love for the waters,” said Binhendi, making himself comfortable in the visitors’ meeting area, overlooking the Kite Beach.
“As you can see, when I step out of my backyard, the sea is right there. It is one of the best places in my home.”
Turn back the clock
“In 1973, the then Ruler of Dubai, Late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, took the big bold step to build a new airport. Until then, the airport was an old shed with a control tower and a runway. A guard would open and close the main gate to the airport. As we watched the new airport come up, we used to wonder — Why is there a need for a new airport? But the late ruler was a visionary and he was so right. As people started visiting Dubai, even that new airport started looking small,” BinHendi recounted how it all started.
He went on: “In 1971, the [UAE] federation was formed. I was given the post of director of customs for Dubai. I was in my early 20s then, a fresh graduate.”
The big move
In 1978, Binhendi had the surprise of his life. “One morning, when I reached office, I was surprised to find a letter on my desk. I opened it. It was a decree from His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, appointing me as the DGCA. I was a bit scared in the beginning that I would be responsible for running the airport.”
He recalled that he was not interviewed for the job.
“That is how His Highness works. He focuses on some people and decides that the person is right for the job. I am thankful that I proved to be the right man on the seat. Holding the decree in my hand, I went to meet His Highness. He said, congratulations. I said I wanted to ask him a few questions. He said don’t ask me any questions. I said one question please. He said nothing. He said the airport is your responsibility. I was so touched by this. That was the beginning of my story. The ending is what everyone can see today. It’s a long story,” Binhendi said.
Taking responsibility and delivering
“There are different departments in the airport — like Dubai Police, Dubai Immigration, Dubai Customs, the Air Traffic Control. Any aircraft that arrives in an airport needs to land safely and securely. There are many elements that make that happen — be it the control tower or the fire fighters on stand-by. All the departments work together as one team to ensure the airport runs smoothly. And this team needs one head. DGCA is the person appointed to ensure smooth running of all facilitate at an airport,” Binhendi explained.
“I do not sit at my desk just counting my fingers. My mind is working on ideas all the time and how well I can deliver them. I think about ways I can make things interesting. It helped that I had the backing of a visionary boss — His Highness Sheikh Mohammed. He has an amazing vision. He never looks back. When he wants a project, he just gets the project done,” he said.
Later on, Binhendi began reporting to Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, President of Dubai Civil Aviation and Chairman, Dubai Airports, and Chairman and Chief Executive of Emirates airline and Group.
"It was such a pleasure working for him as well. We would put our heads together and work as a team. Today, what you see at the airport is the result of the hard work that we put together.”
Giving shape to ideas
He further said: “The ideas all spring up when you are working on a project. When we moved to the Terminal 1, my job was to get it functioning just like an international airport. The airport then had scarce facilities. The toilets were not up to the mark. One of my early tasks was to ensure that the airport was as user-friendly as possible. From good toilets, to having cafes, restaurants and shopping — everything became a top priority.”
Before Binhendi took over the position of DGCA, Dubai Police was running the airport.
“They did a good job, but it was difficult for them to comprehend all that was required. Things began to shape up once my team and I took over.”
Bechtel, an engineering company, was hired to handle the logistics.
“Bechtel was a top company then. A meeting was arranged and I started working with Bechtel, telling them about my requirements. I was lucky to have them on board as they were one of the best engineering companies in the world then,” he said.
New arrival and departure lounges were built. Money was spent to automate the toilets. Ideas were beginning to take shape finally.
“Deadlines were given to all stakeholders to finish their jobs on time. Toilets were remade with hand-cleaning material, blowers to dry hands. Soon, there was this buzz that Dubai airport was shaping up,” Binhendi said.
“There was no budget. Whatever funding was required, it was given by the government. Had there been budgets and committees, our work would not have progressed as quickly as it did,” he said.
Setting up Dubai Duty Free
“In the old airport, there was a catering company called Albert Abela. The company was moving to its own premises and the space they occupied below the airport was getting vacant. An idea struck me. I thought why not have Dubai airport’s duty free shopping there?”
Binhendi said he contacted his friend Bryan Adam, who was a designer. “Don’t mistake him for the singer [Bryan Adams],” quipped Binhendi.
He asked Adam to make him a conceptual design. Within two days of Binhendi reaching out to Adam, the latter arrived in Dubai and within the next 15 days, he was ready with the design for me in a big zipper bag.
Binhendi took the bag to His Highness Sheikh Mohammed’s office. “His Highness asked me what was there in my hand? I asked him whether he would like to see it now or after lunch. He said, let’s see it now. I opened the bag and showed him the design. He said, ‘Duty Free, but we don’t have a place for it.’ I said, we do, and I explained the location to him.”
Sheikh Mohammed liked the idea and said he would come down and see the place the next morning, recollects Bin Hendi.
“Sure enough, the next day, he came to the airport. He looked at the space and told me to go ahead with the project. Al Mulla Construction won the tender to construct Dubai’s first duty free shopping area. The bid went for Dh9.5 million.”
Binhendi said the next challenge was to find an operator to run DDF.
“A couple of British expats I knew suggested I visit Shannon airport. At the time, it was the best international airport in terms of duty free shopping experience. So, I travelled to Shannon. With me came along my lawyers from Fox and Gibbons and other team members. We sat and discussed. The lawyer looked at everything. The night before signing the contract, I told them that I wanted to add one clause in the contract. The Shannon airport team said they thought the deal was struck. I asked them for a seven-year protection clause for their consultancy. Basically, I wanted Dubai airport to be the leader. They agreed. And the rest is history.”
He added: “The Irish are a bunch of great people. Colm McLoughlin is such an honourable person. We have so much respect for what he does. It was such a pleasure working with him and his team.”
Fast forward to now
After his resignation as DGCA, Binhendi said he found time to follow his passion and hobbies. He is the chairman and CEO of Binhendi Enterprises, one of the UAE’s leading business conglomerates engaged in general trading, hospitality, fashion, real estate, watches and jewellery, construction, media and advertising. Over the years, the group has successfully introduced many world-renowned, high-class brands to the UAE.
I love the ocean. It is a place where I can spend hours. My house has been inspired by my love for the waters.
“I love the ocean. I love fishing. During my DGCA stint, there was not a minute to spare in pursuit of my hobby. Now I have the time to purse my passion.”
Binhendi is also a fitness freak and regularly works out at the Kite Beach. “I also have a well-equipped gym at home and spend quite a bit of time there. I am a biker and love my rides on the Kite Beach cycling track.”
Daughter: Maha Bin Hendi
Binhendi is also the patriarch of a close-knit family. His daughter Maha Binhendi, managing partner at the Maha Bin Hendi Law Firm, told Gulf News she had one of the best childhoods. “My elder sisters — Amna, Aisha, Aziza — are married. Shamsa and Mohammad came after us. We are a very close-knit family and talk to each other every day.”
Maha said one of the most cherished childhood memories for her is her travels around the world with her parents. “Summers were usually spent in London. My father put us in a summer camp in Florida, United States. That was where I learnt playing tennis and I still play tennis. It is one of my favourite sports, after Beach Padel tennis and fishing,” Maha said.
United as a family
“My father taught us to be united as a family. No matter how things end up in life, family always comes first. My mother, too, inculcated these values in us,” she added.
Maha said her father is her idol. “Not just me, but even my siblings, nephews and nieces look up to our father. He is very supportive, always jolly and in high spirits. He is a very social person, talks to anyone of any age and the best thing is that he’d always put a smile on a person’s face. He is our pillar, he always provides us with the best advice. He is our buddy and best friend.”
Values from her father
She further said: “I have learnt from my father the best values that any human being must have. He enshrined qualities such as generosity, etiquette and respect in us.”
Supporter of education
Maha said her father is a supporter of education. “The sky is the limit when it comes to education in our family. He supported me in studying in London, from where I earned my LLB degree. He encouraged me to complete my LLM at Fordham Law School in New York. I have had the best opportunity in studying abroad, which was not something common back then in the early 2000s. I am so grateful to my father for this. Now, he is pushing me to complete my PhD in the United States, which is in the pipeline,” said Maha, who manages her own law firm, set up in 2018.
Son speaks: Mohammed Binhendi
Her brother, 25-year-old Mohammed Binhendi, is the group CEO of BinHendi Enterprises. A graduate from American University of Dubai, he is currently managing all the businesses of Mohi-Din Binhendi. Mohammed is a very capable businessman and likes fishing like him, says his father.
“My father has set a very strong example in the family. His leadership qualities always inspire me to do better. But what I truly admire about him is that he is very down to earth. He is a humble man, humorous and full of life. He looks at a glass half-full, not as half-empty,” said Mohammed.
Third generation: Latifa Ahmad AlMheiri
Binhendi is also close to his grandkids, who cherish each moment they spend with him. One of his grandchildren is Latifa Ahmad AlMheiri, a high school graduate from the International School of Choueifat Dubai. Latifa is gearing up for further studies in finance. She will either study here or in the United Kingdom.
“I picked finance as my major as I always heard my family discuss business-related topics while I was growing up. For most part, numbers have always intrigued me, which is why I want to pursue finance. I believe that if you cannot manage your money you will always end up working for someone who does. I want to be independent.”
“My mother taught me that charity begins at home. When you’re happy at home you can be successful anywhere else. Home is where everything begins. She also encourages me to take part in voluntary work,” Latifa said.
Latifa endeavours to be independent and she is ready to work hard for it. “I will always work hard to achieve the best result.”
“One of my best memories with my grandfather was when we both attended the Dubai Duty Free tennis tournament and I spotted my favourite football player sitting just a few seats away from us. It was none other than the Argentinian legend — Diego Maradona. I remember turning to my grandfather, extremely excited and repeatedly saying: ‘Maradona Maradona’, that’s really him. I was so overwhelmed. So I asked my grandfather to come with me. We approached him and we had a short conversation. We took a photo together, which was the highlight of my day.”
She also cherishes going on fishing trips with her grandfather. “We go for frequent fishing trips to Dibba Al Fujairah. I actually get sea sick if I have to be on a boat for too long. But, just knowing that I am spending time with my grandfather makes me ignore that whole thought,” she added.
Family comes first
“I’ve learnt to value my family. We meet every week. We travel together, go on staycations together," Latifa said.
"I was my father’s shadow when I was younger. We would do activities together, mainly football. His love for the game made me love it, too. He would take me to the majlis where his friends used to gather. He also tried teaching me Spanish by watching ‘Dora’ on television, and so much more. My summers were always the best — thanks to him. My father planned many road trips around Europe. Currently, my father and I bond over Cryptocurrency. I am more than blessed to be born into such an amazing family,” she said.