Dubai property tycoon’s bet on fast food cements billionaire status

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Mohamed Alabbar is best known as the founder of a Dubai real estate firm that built the world’s tallest skyscraper, but it’s an investment in fast food that propelled him into the leagues of the region’s richest businessmen.

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Americana Restaurants, the Middle East operator of KFC and Pizza Hut, is now worth $6.24 billion — well above the $3.5 billion it was valued at when it was taken private in 2017 — after pulling off the region’s first dual listing. Investors flocked to the IPO with $105 billion of orders, and the stock surged 13 percent in Abu Dhabi on Monday before closing 7.6 percent higher.

Alabbar is set to net $900 million from Americana’s IPO and his remaining stake is now valued at $1.98 billion, based on the offer price. That makes the tycoon one of the UAE’s richest private residents with a fortune of $1.3 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, after accounting for prior transactions including his initial purchase of Americana. There’s a chance Alabbar was a billionaire before but through assets that are opaque and hard to value.

“It’s not about the money for me. I’m just doing it for fun,” Alabbar told Bloomberg in an interview, declining to comment on his net worth. “I don’t even like to wear an expensive watch.”

The billionaire hasn’t decided what he’s going to do with his windfall just yet. “I’m speaking with a bunch of people, but I’m not going to go far away from my traditional businesses,” he said. “I’ll do businesses that I know.”

Alabbar’s fortunes are closely intertwined with Dubai — the city where he was born and helped transform into a major commercial center. His entry into the 10-figure club comes as the economy booms again, drawing in everyone from bankers and hedge funds to crypto enthusiasts.

Dubai has become a haven for those escaping the conflict in Ukraine or Covid lockdowns elsewhere. To capitalize on this influx, authorities introduced a raft of measures aimed at making the city more attractive for its traditionally transient expatriate workforce.

The improving outlook has pushed real estate prices to record highs and boosted the tourism industry, with millions of visitors flocking to the emirate’s beaches and cavernous malls. New developments are selling out quickly and revenue at developers, including Emaar Properties PJSC has soared.

Crucially for Alabbar, the Middle East has also emerged as a hub for initial public offerings, buoyed by rising oil prices and investor inflows at the start of the year. More than $20 billion has been raised so far from share sales, putting the region on course for its second-best year on record — eclipsed only by 2019, which saw Aramco’s $29.4 billion IPO, data compiled by Bloomberg show.

Americana joined this rush, with Alabbar and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund selling a 30 percent stake. The business has rebounded from the pandemic, generating $2 billion in revenue for the year ended Dec. 2021 — up 8.5 percent from 2019 — and a profit margin of 9.9 percent.

In its IPO prospectus, the firm outlined a strategy to double its revenue and grow profitability in the medium term, pointing to rising disposable incomes in its markets and a growing addressable population — over 270 million, 78 percent under the age of 45.

Diversification

A fan of cigars and endurance horse racing, Alabbar, 66, started his empire with real estate in 1997. He founded Emaar, a firm that arguably kick-started Dubai’s property revolution and whose imprint on the city is visible almost everywhere.

Alongside the world’s tallest tower — the 830-meter high Burj Khalifa, where apartments sell for up to $4 million — Emaar developed vast swathes of residential areas and constructed towers emblazoned with the company’s name. Betting that residents would flock to malls in Dubai’s sweltering summer months, Alabbar also built the world’s biggest mall — complete with a giant aquarium.

Alabbar’s current holding in Emaar Properties is worth about $4.6 million, according to Bloomberg calculations. The Dubai government continues to own a large chunk of the developer, but it’s unclear how much.

Along the way Alabbar diversified away from real estate, which he once called a “dumb business. In addition to Americana, he set up Noon.com — the region’s answer to Amazon.com Inc. — alongside Saudi Arabia’s PIF.

Noon is currently loss-making, but the billionaire sees room for growth. “The numbers are looking good, he said. “Provided the world is stable enough perhaps in two years myself and my other shareholders probably could think about an IPO.”

Alabbar owns 50 percent of Noon and the other half is owned by the Saudi wealth fund. The two have a long-standing partnership, though they aren’t planning any new deals at this stage. “I think with the way the relationship is going we can do more together,” he said.

Sleepy port town

Alabbar’s rise to prominence has been a long time in the making. When he was born in 1950s, Dubai was a world away from the skyscraper-studded business hub it is today. A sleepy port town, where many houses lacked running water, its airport — today the world’s busiest for international travel — was yet to be built.

The son of a dhow captain, Alabbar went to college in Seattle, becoming the first from his family to get a university education. He later worked in Singapore, a city widely considered a model for modern Dubai and took on several government roles on his return to the emirate, playing a key role in transforming it into a global hub.

Among initiatives to attract tourists and boost the emirate’s reputation, he set up a shopping festival, a golf tournament and the Dubai World Trade center that served as a magnet for international conferences. In doing so, he became one of Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s most trusted technocrats.

“In Singapore, everyday there was something on city development (in the newspaper),” he said. Back in Dubai, he raised $300 million to start a development company and when word spread, Sheikh Mohammed called him from a camel race to say the government would invest in the new firm, Emaar.

Biggest mistake

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, though.

A decade after Emaar was set up, Dubai and Alabbar faced their biggest challenge when the global financial crisis caught up with the emirate and nearly brought down its real estate market, forcing a bailout from neighboring emirate Abu Dhabi.

“We were reasonable on debt and we managed our cash flow very well,” Alabbar said. “So when the crisis hit 2008 — even though sales were a disaster, profitability was a disaster, we didn’t involve the government at all.”

For a while, it seemed like Alabbar’s fortunes had turned. He was removed from the board of the Investment Corporation of Dubai, the emirate’s main holding company, in 2009, just weeks before Burj Khalifa was inaugurated, and replaced by a new crop of officials.

Meanwhile, Alabbar lost $100 million in a venture into African mining, though he enjoyed traveling across the continent, calling it enriching. “It was going ok without much trouble, but then Ebola hit,” he said. “It destroyed everything.”

And a venture into US property in 2005 — which he calls his biggest mistake — also ended in disaster. “I was emotional about buying in the US and soon after the crisis hit us, he told Bloomberg.”

But as Dubai started to recover, so did Alabbar’s empire. Emaar listed two subsidiaries on the local stock market and in 2016, Alabbar announced one of his most ambitious projects: a tower even taller than the Burj Khalifa.

As often happens with Dubai’s boom-and-bust cycles, lower oil prices meant that Dubai’s star waned again. Trading on the local stock market was lackluster and real estate prices edged lower. Then Covid came and hit Dubai as a trade and tourism hub especially hard.

Emaar’s mall operator was delisted and the plans to build the world’s tallest tower were put on ice. Spending $2.5 billion on a new tower, as a public company at a time of so much political uncertainty in the world is questionable, Alabbar said.

“Waiting for one or two years doesn’t harm us,” he said. “I’m taking my time there even though the market is good in Dubai but I think one has to be careful.”

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