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Secret Life of Hussain Ali Habib Sajwani
Hussain Ali Habib Sajwani : the man behind Damac
September 22, 2008 7:31 by kippreport
Charming, courteous and entertaining. A honest man with appalling business judgment. Too ambitious for his own good.
These are a few of the descriptions, offered by those who know or work with him, of 54-year-old Hussain Sajwani, the chairman of Damac Group, the Dubai-based conglomerate that claims to operate in over 20 countries. Its real estate development arm, Damac Properties, calls itself the largest private developer in the region, with 670 million square feet of properties worth over $45bn.
Damac has ridden the Dubai boom, but its rise has been fraught with trouble. With fears of a real estate correction looming, the company is coming under increasing scrutiny over delays, cancellation of projects, problems in completed buildings (of which there are few), and questions over financing. Many are looking to Sajwani for answers.
In responses provided in writing to questions submitted by Kipp Report, Sajwani says he takes the criticism seriously, but he also seems to chalks much of it up to envy. “Isn’t it human nature to be envious?” he asks.
Born in 1954, Hussain Ali Habib Sajwani grew up in Dubai, according to a biography provided by his company. His father owned a watch shop in the creek-side Deira district and also handled small real estate projects in Dubai. But Sajwani did not want to join the family business. Instead, he wanted to be a white-collar professional. He wanted a degree, and he wanted to work regular hours.
From his official biography and previously published interviews, a picture emerges of an ambitious young man who bucked the expectations foisted upon him by family and teachers. By his own admission, Sajwani was a lazy student, graduating 26th in a class of 30. He went to join a medical college in Baghdad on a government scholarship, but he dropped out before completing his degree.
He showed determination in other ways, however. While in Iraq, he would allegedly smuggle goods like toothpaste and soap from across the border in Kuwait for pocket money. Eventually, he announced to his father that he wanted to go to the US to study. His father refused, yet Sajwani insisted. When his father asked him how he would finance his education, the headstrong young man said he would do so by working in bars. His father, a religious man, feared his rebellious son might actually do so, so he gave him the money needed for his American education.
Sajwani took up a course in industrial engineering and economics from the University of Washington. After finally earning a degree in 1981, he began his working life at Abu Dhabi Gas Industries Limited (Gasco), with the understanding that after he completed two years of work, the company would sponsor his MBA.
As often happened with Sajwani, events took a different course. He soon decided he would rather work for himself than be tied down to a state-run firm, and shortly after starting work at Gasco, he launched his own catering business, Damac Food Services. By 1982, the year Sajwani turned 28, Damac was off the ground. So the official history goes.
However, other reports tell a different story: The company Sajwani started in 1982 was not called Damac at all, these reports say, but a different firm altogether in which he lost most of the Dh20m sunk into it due to stiff competition from a Saudi rival, Mawarid.
According to this alternative history, Sajwani then invested in a company in Oman, which also failed. He finally started making significant amounts of money in the stock market in 1997. He returned to the US during this period, but took a hit when the dot-com bubble burst.
In 2002, with Dubai on the cusp of a property explosion, Sajwani began dabbling in real estate by buying and re-selling property from mega-developer Emaar. Questions have been raised as to how he made so much money so quickly. (In addition to being the chairman of Damac, Sajwani now heads Al Anwar Ceramic Tiles, Al Jazeira Services and Al Amana Building Materials in Muscat, and Al Ahlia Insurance in Bahrain.) Answering the question last year in a TV interview on Al Jazeera, Sajwani replied that Damac has been around for 25 years.