Obaid Ismaeel Al Ali
Continuing the old Emirati pre-oil tradition of putting every piece of the date palm to use, the entrepreneur discusses the similarities between Shanghai and Dubai and how every Emirati is an ambassador.
You’re from the UAE, but you had an unusual upbringing. Where did you grow up?
I’m from the emirate of Ajman. My father is a retired ambassador who worked in UAE embassies all over the world for over 30 years. I grew up in the UAE, Oman, Kuwait, Japan, and China and I went to school in Beijing when my father was working there. Now years later, I’m back living and working in China. Some people say if you drink from the Nile, you will return to Egypt! [Laughter.]
What took you back to China?
I had been working at EITC du (a telecommunications company) in Dubai when I received a great opportunity from a government entity to work in Ajman. This offer would mean I would work five minutes from home and I could spend more time with my friends and family; it was perfect. That same week, a company called Borouge also called to offer me a job opportunity. I had no interest in their proposal because I was pleased with the first offer but they insisted that I meet with them. When I did, they explained to me that what they do is provide solutions for society. Borouge produces plastic pellets that are used to manufacture products. For example, right now we are sitting in a coffee shop and I bet you that somewhere around us are several different items or parts of items that originated from Borouge. Many different consumer goods, appliances, infrastructure elements like pipes, take-away containers from restaurants, and various car components originate with Borouge. They explained to me that they were in the process of their third expansion in the UAE and were in line to become the biggest single-site polyolefin production site in the world, which upon completion will be producing around 4.5 tons annually of polypropylene and polyethylene.
So your interest was piqued?
Borouge sells 25 kg packages of rice granule-like material that is later injection-molded or extruded into various shapes to become plastic products. On these packages it says, “Made in the UAE.” This is not something you see often. I think any Emirati would take pride in this.
The opportunity they offered me was to promote and sell a national UAE product in China, the largest manufacturing nation in the world. The UAE has very few resources to export besides oil and oil-related products. So to be involved with producing something that increases the quality of so many products that are sent out to the rest of the world, I knew this was something I would take pride in doing. This was the reason I agreed to take the position with Borouge.
So Brogue exports a raw material that is a derivative product of the oil produced here in the UAE?
Yes, and let me tell you how this connects to our father, Sheikh Zayed, God rest his soul in peace. With oil production you have different derivatives, different by-products in either liquid or gas form. Those long chimneys you see at oil-production facilities are flaring a by-product, basically burning what is not needed by turning it into an inert gas. During the birth of oil production in the UAE, Sheikh Zayed would travel to all of the different projects that were being set up. Being a simple man, a man from the desert, where the resources that were available to him were very limited, he pointed to one of the chimneys and asked, why are you burning this? He was told that what’s being burned is not needed, that it was unnecessary. His response to this was, no! Anything that we can get, there must be a use for. So there has to be a use for this! The gas that was being burned was ethane. A few years later, ethane was no longer being burned but transformed into a raw material. This of course paved the way for a company like Borouge to be established.
It’s interesting that a perspective on resource utilization from the desert applied so well to the oil industry.
As Emiratis we are very fond of the date tree; we call it our aunt. Historically we were blessed with three elements: the sea, the camel, and the date tree. From the date tree, people can produce clothing, shelter, and food. It’s endless what you can do with the date tree—you can make use of the fibers, the fronds, the timber, and of course the fruit. So for people living in this land before resources such as oil were available, every little thing mattered; everything had a use.
Do you feel that you are continuing in this tradition?
To a certain extent, yes. My humble involvement in this is that I give back to such a great nation that has provided me with everything. I am blessed and honored to be a part of it.
How do you find Shanghai?
Shanghai is a city with a lot of influence because of its strategic position as a port and a travel hub. Chinese people who have visited the UAE compare Shanghai to Dubai and Beijing to Abu Dhabi—Beijing and Abu Dhabi being the legislative capitals, where the decision making takes place.
Shanghai was called the Paris of the Orient in the past. There is a lot of influence from the French, which you can see in the older architecture that dates back to the 1920s. In certain neighborhoods, you won’t think you’re in China, you’ll think you’re in Europe.
Do you see any similarities between Shanghai and Dubai?
The city is on the Huangpu River, which separates Shanghai in a very similar way to how the Creek separates Dubai. You have Deira on one side and you have Bur Dubai on the other side and the Creek cutting through them. So Deira is like the neighborhood of Puxi, which is the old Shanghai. That is where you’ll find the former French Concession and the old French architecture along small one-way roads. Now if you look at the neighborhood on the other side of the river, Pudong, it’s like Bur Dubai. You have the skyscrapers, you have the Pearl Tower, you have that beautiful stream of buildings that draws the modern Shanghai skyline, just like in Dubai, where it begins with Emirates Towers.
The UAE is such a safe place to live; does Shanghai compare in this department?
It’s very safe. In Shanghai, you can walk on the streets any time of day or night and no one will harass you or bother you. It’s the opposite— they will ask you where you’re from. The people are very friendly. It’s a vibrant city, very colorful. You can compare it to Dubai and the big cosmopolitan cities in Asia and in the rest of the world.
You’ve lived all over the world. You’re fluent in several languages, including Mandarin and Arabic. Are there any other countries you would like to live in or discover?
I’ve been living abroad for so long, and since Borouge has offices in Singapore, India, Vietnam, Japan, Indonesia, I often joke with my bosses that at any given time, they can just give me a parachute and put me on a plane, and wherever I land, I will get the job done. [Laughter.]
You’re one of the few Emiratis living in China. Do you feel that you have a responsibility to represent the UAE?
I come from a small country with a small population, so everything we do as individuals counts, it reflects back on who we are and what we represent. I believe that every Emirati citizen is an ambassador. We are all the tip of a triangle. What any one of us does reflects back on our country and on our people. So to be abroad is an honour, especially when I can amend some of the misconceptions out there when it comes to what is happening in the region and what the news reports.
What about the relationship between China and the UAE?
There is a very strong link between the two countries which share a long history. Pearls from the Gulf were traded for Chinese porcelain along the Silk Road for centuries. In 2016, 50 billion USD in trade occurred between China and the UAE. Through the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative ties between the two nations will be developed and strengthened further.
What do you miss about the UAE when you are in Shanghai?
There is no place like home, so I definitely miss many things. But given my history with China, I know where to find what I need, but some things I have to fly in from the UAE.
Like what, for example?
Dates! [Laughter.] Dates are something that I will carry with me everywhere I go. You can find them in Shanghai, but they’re not the same. There is a fruit there resembling a date, but it is definitely not a date.