Zabeel Investments, which bought 50 per cent of the US-based Light Group in February, is still keeping a close eye in the United States market. With $1 billion (Dh3.67bn) earmarked for acquisitions, the company is ready to seize further opportunities.
In this exclusive interview with Emirates Business, Executive Chairman Mohammed Ali Al Hashimi says there is more opportunity in the US than anywhere else in the world.
"What is happening in the US is a temporary thing," said the 35-year-old former CEO of Amlak Finance. "The window of opportunity is open there."
However, he believes Europe is too expensive. He said: "Europe is something we would like to do but I think it's not the right time."
And he added: "Our aim is not to be the biggest but to be the best."
How big is Zabeel Investments' interests in the US real estate sector?
Currently we have $5 billion (Dh18.4bn) of property and $1bn worth of non-property investments. Our US portfolio consists of our investment in the Light Group.
Despite the gloomy outlook for the US economy, are you still looking at investing more there?
I think there is more opportunity in the US today than the rest of the world. What's happening in the US is a temporary thing that is why we are keeping a close eye because I think the window of good opportunity is there. That window is open at the moment and I think it can open a little bit more. But then it's going to shut and that is why we are choosing the right timing.
Does that mean today is the best time to buy? Is Zabeel taking advantage of the relatively cheap US assets?
I do see the US market dropping a little further. I don't think we've seen it bottom out yet, particularly when you are talking about good prime assets.
Maybe the lower assets have already hit the bottom but we are still looking at relatively high-end assets and in premier locations. We're really paying attention now so that if something comes along tomorrow we'll be able to make a move. We are doing a lot of homework and research as we'll not say 'we are ready to come and buy as we have all this money sitting behind us' and buy anything we can find.
We have heard you are scouting assets in major US cities such as Miami, Los Angeles and New York – is that correct?
These are the primary places we're looking at as they are the major cities in the US where we feel we want to be. There are others that will come along. We have people out there and they are looking and sourcing various locations. But we want to make sure that it's done very quietly and carefully.
How much investment are we talking about? And have you set a timeline?
We are looking at investing about $1bn in the US. Most of the properties that we're looking at would be related to Light Hotels, and the major driver of success is the location. I think, at the end of the day, it's not really the timeline that matters. It's based on what we feel is the right opportunity coming along the way. We're not going to overpay for assets as we don't buy with an intention of sitting on them for a few years then flipping or selling them on.
Are you considering investing in Asia – which is set to be the next economic superpower – or in other GCC countries?
Our focus remains the UAE – mainly Abu Dhabi and Dubai – and the US. I always say this and I continue to say that no matter what other people say, the most stable market with the best returns in the world today is the UAE. Not only in terms of returns but as well as everything else, like stability and security. We're very happy with what's going on here. There's nowhere else in the world experiencing the growth and expansion that we are experiencing here.
Are you considering a move into Europe?
Europe is something we would like to do but I think it's not the right time because it is still a little bit expensive there. The euro is strong and the dollar is weak. I don't think the opportunities are there right now.
Some observers say the rapid success of Zabeel is due to the influence of the firm's investors, who are said to include Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid, Crown Prince of Dubai. Who are the individuals behind Zabeel Investments?
One of the things that I have been very clear about is that we are private institution. We have been private from day one and it is our intention to remain private. We don't comment on the shareholders. What I can say is that the success of every company in Dubai has something to do with the support of the Ruling Family. We're very fortunate to have leaders such as His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, who gives opportunity to people. That is something you will not get anywhere else in the world.
Where we are today is because of Sheikh Mohammed's vision. Also, success is driven by the things you are able to do and how fast you are willing to go and do them.
We, in Zabeel, operate in a very fast environment. We do things professionally. I run this institution the way I would run a private or public company. Anything else is driven by profitability.
Are you saying Zabeel intends to remain private in the long term against the backdrop of a growing list of companies planning to go public?
That is the intention at the moment, to keep it private. We are comfortable with the way things are going. We have the ability to continue to expand the way we are. There's no reason to change. We're trying to differentiate ourselves from everyone else.
Our aim is not to be the biggest but to be the best. That is why if you look at our projects, in the things we get involved in, we are targeting the very top end. Our strategy is focused on the high-end market and we have no interest in participating in other segments in the real estate sector.
With such a hectic schedule, do you still find time to pursue your hobbies?
Oh yes, I try to spend as much time as possible with my family. Every morning I drop my seven-year-old daughter off at school. I also love soccer and try to fit that into my schedule every Friday with my old American college friends.
So did you get upset when a consortium including Zabeel Investments and Dubai International Capital failed to buy Liverpool Football Club?
Yes, but at the end of the day another opportunity always comes along. We move on… very simple. I am always asked if I'm still going to buy a football club or something like that, but I say 'I'm more than happy now to sit in front of the TV and watch my team with some close friends'.
PROFILE: Mohammed Ali Al Hashimi
Islamic finance expert Mohammed Ali Al Hashimi founded Zabeel Investments in February 2006 and has been responsible for its rapid expansion. He plays a hands-on role in the development of the company. As a member of the Young Arab Leaders organisation he believes in youth empowerment, education and early childhood development. Al Hashimi, who was formerly CEO of Amlak Finance, has been named one of 2008's Young Global Leaders by the World Economic Forum.