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Qatari Diar Becomes A Global Force In Real Estate

Published by Current on 2008-01-02

When the Emir of Qatar, His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, was told by this reporter recently that he was preparing a profile of Qatari Diar and its chief executive officer, Nasser Hassan Al-Ansari, the ruler immediately warmed up.

"Be sure to note how rapidly the company is expanding globally," the emir said. "And there's lots more ahead of us. This is Qatar being proactive. This is the new face of Qatar."

Exactly two years after it was launched with a capitalization of more than $1 billion by Qatar's High Supreme Council for Economic Affairs and Investment, Qatari Diar has become one of the world's leading sovereign companies in real-estate development. It has bought prime property in 18 countries, including the coveted Chelsea Barracks in London; it is building resorts in Morocco, Syria, Egypt, Oman, Sudan, Seychelles, Mauritania and Mauritius. It is constructing a 105-storey convention complex on Doha's corniche, which will give the sleepy capital a skyline to match those of flourishing regional cities such as Manama (Bahrain), Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

It is even developing tourism-related properties in Cuba, not always a must-go destination for foreign direct investment. It is looking at investments in the United States and Europe. Qatari Diar is also raising a $2 billion, 40-kilometer bridge linking Qatar to Bahrain, one of the world's longest.

And the value of the company's global portfolio? Nearly $40 billion.

That's not counting the $7 billion Lusail Development, one the largest and most innovative projects in the Middle East, which will involve creating a brand new sister city to Qatar's capital of Doha. According to Qatari Diar's chairman, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabor al-Thani - who's also the country's prime minister, foreign minister, and an influential member of the ruling family - Lusail will accommodate 200,000 people. That would double Doha's current population, and would most likely raise Qatar's overall population to nearly a million (of whom 80 percent are expatriates). The project will contain an entertainment area modeled after London's Piccadilly Circus.

When the leaders of the six member-states of the Gulf Cooperation Council met recently for a summit in Doha today, Qatari Diar's unusual record's was among the highlights that they were informally presented. It's a fair bet to suggest that the other leaders - from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates - were especially intrigued, not the least because each of their nations is in the midst of an unprecedented construction boom on account of rising oil revenues. And like Qatar, some of these Gulf states are also taking stakes in foreign entities. For example, Dubai - one of the seven principalities constituting the U.A.E. - has taken a 24 percent stake in the London Stock Exchange, and a 19 percent stake in NASDAQ (Qatar has a 20 percent stake in the LSE.) The Kuwait Investment Authority has invested in Daimler-Chrysler, and also the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, among other places. Just last week, Abu Dhabi poured $7.5 billion into Citigroup, making it the financial-services giant's largest stakeholder, ahead of Saudi Arabia's Prince Waleed Bin Talal.

Dynamic as Qatari Diar's chairman is, he acknowledges that the day-to-day driving force behind the company's growth is one of his long-time proteges, the 40-year Al-Ansari, who attended St. Thomas University in Houston, and then received a graduate degree in civil engineering from the University of Miami.

He attributed the fact that he was a good student to his upbringing, attentiveness and focus.

"I learned to listen from an early age," Al-Ansari said. "I grew up with five sisters - and you can't win with sisters."

Being the only son of a businessman, Hassan, Al-Ansari was fired up from his childhood by high expectations of his mother, Nasarl. "Never settle for less," she exhorted, even while he was studying in America.

"I took school seriously - I took my life seriously," Al-Ansari said of his life in America.

For Al-Ansari, that meant returning home to Qatar after acquiring his degree to participate in nation building. The Gulf War of 1991 had just ended, and Al-Ansari knew that there would be opportunities for young Qataris educated abroad who knew the ways of the world and who, in particular, knew how to promote private-sector investment through privatization in public services.

"When I first came back home, my parents said, 'You've become so American,'" Al-Ansari said. By that, of course, they were expressing some surprise how driven and ambitious their son had become.

He got a job with the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Agriculture, as a coordinator for construction projects. He rose rapidly through the bureaucracy, and soon found himself as project manager for the new Doha International Airport, Doha Port, and the West Bay Lagoon, a development involving extensive land reclamation and maritime engineering.

His work caught the eye of the ruling family. Not long afterward, Al-Ansari was brought by Sheikh Hamad as a technical adviser in the Office of the First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs. When Qatari Diar was launched in November 2005, Al-Ansari was made the CEO.

It was a propitious time to head such a company. Qatar had the world's third largest reserves of natural gas - after Russia and Iran -- and these reserves were expected to last for another 250 years. The export of crude oil, which in 2007 is expected to fetch more than $30 billion, accounts for more than 70 percent of the government's revenues, according to the Energy Information Administration in Washington. Qatar recently surpassed Indonesia - also a member of the 12-nation Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries -- to become the world's biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas. And with soaring oil prices, Qatar - which lifts nearly 800,000 barrels of crude oil a day - decided to channel more and more funds into the infrastructure, real-estate, and foreign investment. (The Gulf countries earn more than $5 billion a week; in 2000, OPEC's members had revenues of $243 billion from crude-oil exports; this year, the figure is expected to surpass $800 billion.)

"I was very lucky to be in the right place at the right time," Al-Ansari said. "My skills were my tools. And the fact that Sheikh Hamad was always accessible proved to be a great asset. We wondered why things weren't moving faster in our country. We looked at neighboring Dubai, and said, 'So why not such development here in Doha?' But we also understood that nation building wasn't just about real-estate and construction. We needed to emphasize education, the participation of women in the economy, and the promotion of culture and history."

So one of Al-Ansari's projects was the restoration of some of Doha's oldest neighborhoods. He's also supported the creation and expansion of an Islamic museum.

"There's a new Arab society being created in Qatar," Al-Ansari said. "There's a degree of social and economic egalitarianism here that you won't find in too many places in our region. The royal family sets an example by its own involvement and participation in day-to-day nation building. This is hands-on leadership, not leadership by remote control. That explains our rapid growth."

The annual growth rate is estimated to touch 8 percent. Al-Ansari's sector - real estate - is a major contributor to such growth. Starting with fewer than 100 people, Qatari Diar expanded quickly. Al-Ansari says that he always sought to get Qataris in top management positions, although his right-hand man is Lebanese-born John Ward, also a product of the American educational system.

"By deciding from the outset that we would undertake growth both domestically and overseas, I think we took people by surprise," Al-Ansari said.

While domestic expansion - formidable though it was - posed fewer problems on account of his familiarity with Qatar's political and economic system, the acquisition of foreign properties proved tougher. For example, Qatari Diar competed against 20 developers - mainly from Europe and America - before it won the 13-acre Chelsea Barracks complex from Britain's Ministry of Defense. The purchase price was reportedly around $2 billion, and Qatari Diar partnered with the CPC Group, the Guernsey-based investment vehicle of Christian Candy, a major London-based developer.

The towers of the barracks - which are a stone's throw from Sloane Square in London - will be razed in order to create a sprawling complex of nearly 2,000 homes, plus shops and office buildings.

"We're going to change the neighborhood in a way that is environmentally sustainable, a innovative design-wise," Al-Ansari said.

Was he fazed by the competition?

"Not at all," Al-Ansari said. "My college experience in America taught me to deal with different cultures and societies. I learned how to deal with all kinds of people without being scared about the outcome. Besides, I had the advantage of knowing in my heart that what I was doing was to project Qatari Diar as a global company, one based on ethical business practices, transparency and sound social values."

After the Chelsea Barracks deal was consummated, Qatari Diar opened a permanent office in London. That office, in addition to the company's headquarters in Doha and an office in Cairo, serves as a hub for global operations. An office in the United States is in the works.

"I want to build a global machine," Al-Ansari said. "I want Qatari Diar to be the Rolls-Royce of real-estate development. A world-wide brand - this is what I want us to become. But we're only 20 percent there. We're engaged in institution building in a country which is engaged in nation building. I count myself fortunate to be able to witness the transformation of my society within just one generation."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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