Dubai’s Future Is In the Hands of Two Very Different Princes

Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum and brother Sheikh Maktoum face the task of safeguarding Dubai's status as the Middle East's pre-eminent business hub.

Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum
Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum

Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum and brother Sheikh Maktoum face the task of safeguarding Dubai’s status as the Middle East’s pre-eminent business hub.

Guests throng to take selfies with the dazzling ruler-in-waiting along with dozens of local officials. The royal works in the room with the ease of an Instagram celebrity who mingles with superstars like footballer Cristiano Ronaldo.

A few meters behind him, blending into the crowd at an event at the Dubai Expo earlier this year, stood another man, who may be less conspicuous in the city’s social scene, whose influence is keeping government-run officials foreign. Winning praise from investors. Companies on their toes.

As his 73-year-old father, ruler of Dubai, is entrusted with more responsibility, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum, 39, and brother Sheikh Maktoum, 38, each have a place. The aftermath of Russia’s war on Ukraine faces the task of securing Dubai’s status as the Middle East’s pre-eminent business center amid competition from regional rivals and international scrutiny.

“Think of it as a company that helped propel the emirate through the debt crisis of 2009,” said Nasser Al-Sheikh, former Dubai finance chief. “Hamdan is the chairman and Maktoum is the CEO. Hamdan is the face of Dubai and the Crown Prince, but decisions on all issues are made after consultations between the two brothers.”

Sheikh Hamdan, the charismatic Crown Prince and heir, is the market-in-chief of a city built on glitz and capital and capable of attracting millions of tourists. Sheikh Maktoum is proving crucial for Dubai as a financial market this year as he continues to call the shots at the emirate’s huge state-run enterprises. He is part of a push to sell stake to investors – most recently, this month to road toll operator Salik – and has occasionally called on corporate chiefs to talk them through their numbers.

Beyond financial markets, Dubai is under pressure to crack down on illicit money flows, while the energy crisis may have boosted oil revenues in the UAE, but will lead to a global move away from fossil fuels in the long term.

The brothers – who were born a year apart from the same mother – also need to maintain a delicate balance of power within the UAE. Dubai’s leadership persuaded Abu Dhabi to focus less on trade and the economy, and on foreign policy, which led to military engagement in conflicts from Yemen to Libya and Turkey. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia presents another challenge with its desire to emulate Dubai as a magnet for foreign talent and investment.

The two men rarely speak to the media. The Dubai Media Office said it was not possible to arrange the interview within the given time frame and declined further comment.

Sheikh Hamdan’s surname is Faiza, Arabic who runs to the aid of others. He was appointed Crown Prince in 2008, bypassing an older brother, Sheikh Rashid, who died in 2015 at the age of 33.

While his social media accounts are filled with more formal photos of government business, Sheikh Hamdan has been shown skydiving, mountain climbing, and horseback riding or standing on top of the world’s tallest tower. He has 14.6 million Instagram followers – the equivalent of the population of the United Arab Emirates – and mingles with people in Dubai’s malls and restaurants, continuing the image of a leader his father has groomed for his future role.

Hamdan accompanies his father to most meetings with other rulers of the UAE’s sheikhs and presides over Dubai’s 22-member executive council, which also includes his brother. The council’s website says that Hamdan is “characterized by his youthful and dynamic personality” which has helped him build relationships with the population of Dubai. He is also the Chairman of the Investment Corporation of Dubai, the Sovereign Wealth Fund of the Emirates.

Meanwhile, Maktoum has been described by the council as having “traits of an ambitious young leader”. He came into limelight when he was appointed Finance Minister for the UAE following the death of his uncle in September 2021. Share sales of long prized state-owned firms brought them to the attention of investors. Over the years he had called for listing of government companies to boost Dubai’s stock market.

Sheikha Najla Al Qasimi, a senior researcher at the Dubai Public Policy Research Centre, Booth, said, “Sheikh Maktoum is currently playing the role he has set for him, which is defined and technical.” He has also served as the Ambassador of the UAE. “Sheikh Hamdan’s role as Crown Prince is more political. He is well-liked by local people and tribes, while also being able to connect with and appeal to Dubai’s larger expatriate community.”

This year’s public listing is the start of a flurry that saw a total of 10 state-owned firms set to offer shares to investors. Sheikh Maktoum has helped raise more than $6 billion in total through the sale of a stake in the main utility, the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority, along with business park operator Tecom Group.

In September investors sold all shares of road toll operator Salik and Dubai increased the size of the sale. Goldman Sachs Group Inc. And the transaction coordinated by Merrill Lynch is designed to raise $1 billion.

“As the financial hub of the region, Dubai’s markets are not fully reflecting that situation,” said Mohamed Abu Basha, head of macroeconomic research at Egyptian investment bank EFG Hermes. “If you want to further promote the Dubai story, you need to continue with this IPO which I think is long overdue.”

Sheikh Maktoum has also focused on corporate governance. As head of the government’s auditing department, he keeps a sharp eye on the finances of Dubai’s state-controlled entities, some of which were at the root of Dubai’s financial problems a decade ago. The focus is understandable – he’s one of the chief executives overseeing the city’s finances.

Since taking over at the Financial Audit Authority, Shahi has ordered financial investigations into several state firms when potential corruption is suspected, people familiar with the matter say, speaking on the record about confidential discussions. Denies. He keeps official meetings short, serious and to the point, he said, in an area where extended chit-chat over tea often takes place before getting down to business.

An executive of a Dubai-owned enterprise said he was shocked when he received a call from Sheikh Maktoum’s office to summon him. As he reached the offices, he was taken for a walk a few moments later with only Sheikh Maktoum’s bottle of water in his hand. He immediately started going over some transactions, asking for details and reasons.

Upset over the meeting, the executive began accessing his files in a panic, before being put to rest by Sheikh, he said, refusing to be identified when talking about a private meeting. After his departure, Sheikh Maktoum gave his direct number.

One banker said Sheikh Maktoum, who also plays the role of a deputy prime minister and deputy ruler of Dubai, has been known to request updates on specific projects, sometimes late at night or over the weekend.

Tarek Fadallah, Head of Middle East Business, Nomura Asset Management, said: “The UAE stock exchanges have seen positive changes since Sheikh Maktoum took office. “It certainly helps that he is the son of the ruler of Dubai and that he is from a generation that is comfortable with rapid change.

Sheikh Maktoum’s aim to ensure Dubai’s 2009 recession, when it required a $20 billion bailout from Abu Dhabi, is not repeated. When Sheikh Maktoum was in his early 20s and Dubai was on the verge of default, he turned to the then finance Chief Al-Sheikh for a detailed walk-through of the financial situation.

“He asked me to sit with him and run him through the numbers,” Al-Sheikh said. “He wanted to know exactly where the stress points were and what caused them.”

Dubai now faces new obstacles. Earlier this year, the United Arab Emirates was added to the so-called ‘grey list’ of the Paris-based watchdog Financial Action Task Force, which highlights the Gulf country’s shortcomings in dealing with illicit money. Since then, the UAE has said it will expedite extradition treaties.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there has been increased international scrutiny over how Dubai deals with illegal finance. Politically, the United Arab Emirates has maintained relations with Russia. UAE officials have said privately that the country will abide by international sanctions.

Saudi Arabia’s inauguration under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto leader of the millennium, is also starting to attract foreign talent that might normally end up in Dubai.

The UAE has responded with efforts to make the country more attractive to foreign firms and encourage income earners to take deeper roots. It criminalized cohabitation of unmarried couples, allowed migrants to marry, divorce and use their country’s inheritance laws, and removed the need for a license to consume alcohol, it has also eliminated the need for local partners to start a business. It has introduced long-term visa schemes and has opened the door to selectively granting UAE citizenship, a rare move in the Gulf region.

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