Ahmed bin Sulayem — people’s person putting Dubai on global business map

The DMCC boss is indebted to ‘his father and idol, the Dubai Ruler, for taking a chance with him' in 2001, when he was 23 years old


Joydeep Sengupta

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Ahmed bin Sulayem, Executive Chairman and CEO of the DMCC. — Photo by Neeraj Murali
Ahmed bin Sulayem, Executive Chairman and CEO of the DMCC. — Photo by Neeraj Murali

Published: Sat 22 Oct 2022, 9:53 PM

Ahmed bin Sulayem, Executive Chairman and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Dubai Multi Commodities Centre (DMCC), is a staunch believer in Canadian hockey legend Wayne Gretzky’s saying, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”

This is a belief that has stood the dynamic Emirati gentleman in good stead.

From a start-up of only 28 member companies in 2003, the DMCC has grown to become one of the world’s leading free zones in 2022, comprising over 21,000 member firms from 180 countries around the world and employing over 65,000 people.

Bin Sulayem is synonymous with the DMCC Free Zone master development in Jumeirah Lakes Towers (JLT), a 200-hectare business and residential community in southern parts of Dubai, of over 100,000 people from diverse nationalities living and working across 87 towers, adjacent to the much-anticipated Uptown Dubai district — currently under construction — under his watch.

But cut to the middle of 2001, where providence guided his career move.

Ahmed bin Sulayem, Executive Chairman and CEO of the DMCC, with reputed clinical psychologist, Jordan Peterson.
Ahmed bin Sulayem, Executive Chairman and CEO of the DMCC, with reputed clinical psychologist, Jordan Peterson.

Bin Sulayem, who was born in Philadelphia, United States of America (USA), and grew up in an illustrious Emirati family in Dubai — he lived in Al Mamzar and spent his weekends in the family farm at Al Khawaneej — was all set to pursue his higher studies in the USA, had it not been for the life-altering 9/11 attacks that changed the course of the Arab world.

The alumnus of Rashid School for Boys in Dubai had graduated with a degree in Business Administration from California State University in San Bernardino in the USA and was “considering pursuing a postgraduate study in e-commerce, which was the rage back in the day”.

However, bin Sulayem said: “Fate had other ideas for me. The DMCC was still in the works in the summer of 2001, and I was all set to go back to school for my postgraduate degree that Fall. As luck would have it, my plans went for a toss. 9/11 struck and the global narrative for the Arab world changed forever.”

USA’s loss was Dubai’s gain

Bin Sulayem’s plan to stay in his native Dubai couldn’t have been more opportune.

He, along with his community members, gave a fillip to the setting up of DMCC, which had been a non-starter.

“In 2001, my father and idol, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, gave me a chance and I took an opportunity that year. Till today, I feel I didn’t put a drop in the ocean in repaying the debt back. Why? It’s simple, even now I would never open the door for my 23-year-old self back in 2001 and that, my friends, is the difference between my leadership and His Highness’ attitude. He took a chance and a risk with me, I would never do that, even today I would never do that. To say I love him and owe him is a massive understatement,” he said.

But his stellar career path through the years shows His Highness’ reputation as a talent-spotter for nurturing second-generation leadership and talents for the growth and development of Dubai as the jewel in the Arab world’s crown.

Ahmed Bin Sulayem gifts Jordan Peterson a copy of  Sheikh Mohammed's book 'My Vision'.
Ahmed Bin Sulayem gifts Jordan Peterson a copy of Sheikh Mohammed's book 'My Vision'.

Those formative years were spent by bin Sulayem and his core team convincing a cross-section of companies, including diamonds, jewellers, gold refineries, food & beverage outlets, restaurants and JLT community spots to commit their futures to DMCC.

“The list is diverse, which is our innate strength. From Costa Coffee to Emirates Gold to International Gemological Institute (IGI), to Kcal, to Raed Baker’s Liali Jewellery, to Pepsi, to Rosy Blue to SBMH Group to SCAFA to Taché Diamonds to Total, who put their faith in us since inception,” Bin Sulayam said in deference to his early backers.

In the precincts of Almas Tower, a 68-storey business skyscraper in JLT, which was opened in January 2009, Bin Sulayem, a people’s person who can touch a chord with anybody and everybody with his easy charm, his success story has become a folklore. He is always mobbed by his admirers — from Emiratis to nationalities of all backgrounds who call Dubai and the UAE their home-away-from-home.

“The DMCC had barely 400 members when it sold out Almas Tower to end users within seven hours of its launch. Companies were making a beeline for us on the back of a global recession. This is a tribute to the strong foundation of DMCC and His Highness’ vision where a financial meltdown that had taken the world by storm didn’t impact us at all. We paid up the $200 (Dh734.60) million loan on time and our growth has been phenomenal year-on-year and even the challenges posed by Covid-19 failed to put a spanner in our works,” he reminisced.

Data showed that 2,485 companies were registered with DMCC last year and going by the trend in the first three quarters, the corresponding figure is likely to be over 2,600 this year — a new record that shows the emergence of the free zone as the one-stop destination for global investments.

Bin Sulayem is a generous man, who lavishes praise on all and sundry, especially those, including many Indian business houses, who helped the DMCC grow through the years.

He singles out Chaim Even-Zohar, editor-publisher of the Diamond Intelligence Briefs and one of the foremost analysts of the diamond industry, for his guidance in making DMCC as the leading hub for the sector.

For instance, in 2022, the DMCC was named the ‘Global Free Zone of the Year’ by The Financial Times’ fDi magazine, for a record eighth consecutive year.

The UAE was also officially appointed as the first and only Arab country to chair the Kimberley Process in November 2015. Shortly after, the UAE Ministry of Economy made bin Sulayem the country’s Chair of the Kimberley Process for 2016.

Bin Sulayem is effusive about blockchain and new-age economies such as non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and the Metaverse spearheaded by Dubai's government strategy, including most recently Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed al Maktoum's 2022 Metaverse Strategy.

The DMCC launched its very own Crypto Centre in May 2021 — “a value-added system for the sector” — which has already seen tremendous growth. Today the Centre is home to over 460 companies and is a major concentration of DMCC's new membership. The world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange Binance is also headquartered in the DMCC.

The DMCC boss is betting big on diamonds, coffee, gold, oil and gas and renewables for the free zone’s uptick in the coming years. He is simultaneously working on several projects amid Dubai’s futuristic leap, as he enjoys a late lunch at Bait Maryam, the passionately run ‘home’ offers a warm welcome and delicious, home-style Levantine dishes cooked with love and was awarded a Michelin one-star earlier this year, and one of his favourite restaurants in JLT.

Bin Sulayem shares a special rapport with his friend Koksal Baba, an internet sensation from Turkey. Baba used to be a professional boxer; and people recognise him from his YouTube videos about Turkey’s life. He has more than a million YouTube subscribers since he launched the account in 2015.

A healthy work-life balance

Trying to find time to relax with a healthy work-life balance is tough amid the myriad projects going on at the DMCC. But that’s not for lack of trying. Amid bin Sulayem’s many hobbies, he is a self-confessed gaming addict and loves sports — he professes a passion for basketball, holds a diving licence and is also into surfing “in a big way”.

In his spare time, which is “few and far between amid a hectic travel schedule around the world”, he plays with pet parrots — Raffi and Dona — an Amazonian and African Grey, respectively.

Bin Sulayem hits a sweet spot to be in harmony with nature and at peace with himself in the company of Raffi and Dona.

Water is the new oil

Bin Sulayem is working on several pioneering projects such as a new DMCC Water Centre. “There can be no better commodity than water, where Dubai can emerge as the next hub for this precious natural resource, from redistribution services from Lake Victoria in Tanzania, to importing Norwegian fresh water and sustainable packaging technology in sync with Dubai Can’s ambitions. We can emerge as a co-working place for a big aqua index and a water coin is a distinct possibility in the near future,” he said.

He is indebted to Yaacov Shirazi, the founder of Aqua Index Exchange, who recognised the need and potential of integrating the public trade of water into a global market and whose influence on him cannot be understated.

As the DMCC aims to open new trade corridors for water with strategic partners such as the top global exporters in the USA, China, France, Norway and Turkey to secure long-term security of supply for this precious commodity.

And that’s the genius of a man who — as Wayne Gretzky alluded to — “is always ready to move early and capture opportunities ahead of other markets”.

Onwards and upwards

  • 2001: Bin Sulayem joins DMCC
  • 2002: Becomes COO of DMCC
  • 2007: Becomes Executive Chairman of DMCC
  • 2019: Becomes CEO of DMCC

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