Friday, April 04, 2008

The China Diaries

From Dubai to Shanghai in 72 hours, a reporter joins the business delegation accompanying His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum on a tour of the world's fastest growing major economy.
Sunday March 30,
Royal Wing, Dubai International Airport
Being in the Royal Wing is a special experience. There are no announcements, no check-in desks, no queues, no passport control. Luggage problems? Forget it. My luggage was collected four days ago and I am told it is already in a hotel in China waiting for me.
What is clear is that the 20 people sitting in front of me, between them, control over US$150bn of revenues a year. You name it - everyone including the bosses of DIFC, Istithmar, Etisalat, DIC and Masdar - are here.
I just follow the crowd, who all seem to be heading in the same direction, towards the only plane at the terminal - a Dubai Air Wing specially converted Boeing 747-400. I am ushered to the upper deck.
Inside, there is no such thing as economy class. It is literally a flying palace, with several wide open spaces everywhere. Strangely, there are no announcements on board either, no safety display, nobody to tell you to put your seat upright.
The plane starts moving, and three minutes later, having jumped the huge take-off queue, we are in the air. Confirmation that we are going to Beijing comes in the form of a card I am handed which reads "China World Hotel, Room 1421, Vehicle M7".
The in-flight map is switched on which reveals it is a seven-hour flight to the Chinese capital. It transpires that His Highness is not actually on this plane, but a second one following soon after.

Somewhere over China
I like the way they serve lunch on board: a spectacular international hot buffet trolley appears, and you just help yourself.

Time for a wander around this flying palace to see just who else is on board.
I bump first into Jumeirah Group executive chairman Gerald Lawless. Jumeirah is rumoured to be planning a new hotel in Shanghai, and Lawless seems hard at work on the details. Next to him is Dubai International Capital boss Sameer Al Ansari.
We get into a lengthy discussion about this week's Champions League clash between Liverpool and Arsenal. Al Ansari is not only a huge Liverpool fan but also failed to get his hands on the club earlier this year in a takeover bid that didn't quite come off. I suggest he should buy Arsenal instead - he could use DIC's cash.

"No chance," he says.
Arsenal shares are too expensive and in any case Arsenal has already reached its full value. There are actually very few clubs in the world that are worth buying, and Liverpool is one of them," he says.
Al Ansari is heading to Shanghai, and there is much speculation that the DIC will set up a fund to invest purely in Chinese companies. This could be a fund worth over US$2bn. He is giving nothing away though, explaining: "I'll make sure you are first to get the press release."

4pm It's starting to bug me that Al Ansari and his pals are talking about being in Shanghai tonight, whereas my hotel card definitely says Beijing. I run into Istithmar CEO David Jackson below deck, but he isn't much help.
"I'm just going wherever the plane is going," he says jokingly.
(local time) It is dark and we have landed, and everyone says it is definitely Beijing. I follow the crowd on the upper deck and we get off the plane, straight into a waiting fleet of black Mercedes cars.
Amusingly, one of the UAE business delegation joins us, before realising he is in the wrong town and rushes back onto the plane before it heads off for Shanghai. Half an hour later we are in the spectacular China World Hotel, told to go and relax.

Monday, March 31

6pm It's amazing how long you can spend doing nothing. I have been hard at it for 10 hours. HH has, it is being reported, arrived in Beijing and is holding talks with the Chinese president. Suddenly though, there is a rush of activity and I am told to be in the hotel business centre at 7pm. Could this be the moment?

Tuesday, April 1
China World Hotel

12.45pm I think I have been away for around 48 hours now, and apart from meeting some very rich and very successful people (who have all since disappeared), nothing has happened. I need a lot to happen in a hurry. I'm not about to be disappointed...

1pm Luggage packed and sent off to I don't know where, I get into a convoy of VW 3.0 V6 People Carriers, that makes its way through the streets of Beijing at high speed. It's difficult to see much: Beijing is like Dubai with twice the smog and three times the cranes.

The pace of growth here is nothing short of staggering. We drive past the new Olympic Stadium, built in the shape of an egg basket. It's just two miles north of Ikea in case you want to go there.

1.25pm We arrive at the Tsinghau University - the "Harvard" of China, supposedly the best management and economics school in the country. His Highness will also be here shortly, for a round-table with the students.

2.49pm It's time to go - and this time, we are definitely getting closer to Sheikh Mohammed.

I can see in front of me a convoy of around 50 cars, and a police escort in front and behind us. We head at over 160km/h down the main highways of Beijing towards the Great Wall of China. It is a surreal journey - every other road has been cordoned off, every traffic light we pass has been turned to green.

There is not another vehicle moving (outside our convoy) for miles. Traffic everywhere else is at a standstill, and hundreds of locals gather on the sides of the streets to find out what exactly is going on. I can't lie - I like travelling like this. George Bush would be impressed.

Badaling, Great Wall of China
3.30pm The convoy comes to a sudden halt just outside the Badaling Hotel, and I head up to an open tourist area on the Great Wall of China. There is a tap on my shoulder, and the now familiar "what are you doing here?" question. It is Emaar chairman Mohammed Alabbar. Behind him, is His Highness.

At long last. "So, your Highness, what do you think of China," I ask.

"I like China," he says, adding: "We can learn a lot from China and China can learn a lot from us."

This is Sheikh Mohammed's first visit to China in 18 years, and he looks pretty impressed, taking in as much detail as he can of the Great Wall of China. Below us, crowds are looking up at the royal party, though His Highness notices many of them have stopped in their cars.

"I came here in 1990 and all I saw were bicycles. Now look around and see the difference for yourself. It's all because of hard work that we see these results. If you sit around idle in life then nothing happens in your life," he says.

It isn't just HH who is impressed. Dubai Holding boss Mohammed Al Gergawi and Dubai Ports chairman Sultan Bin Sulayem are deep in conversation with Emirates Airline chairman HH Sheikh Ahmed, marvelling at everything around them.

"It is special, something very special being here. I am finding out how they do business and they are seeing how we do business. It is good to share our knowledge," says His Highness. Equally impressed is Mohammed Alabbar. Could Emaar have built the Great Wall?

"Hmm. I'm not sure," he says. "You see the Chinese people, they are amazing people. I look at what they have achieved here and I wonder if Emaar could have done this. It shows us that moving at a normal pace is not good enough."

So what makes the Chinese so special?

"Do you have children?" he asks.

"Because if you do you will know that it is in your genes how you perform in life. And the Chinese, I realise that it is about they way they have been brought up. These people you see here, they work very hard and they work very fast. And all the success they are now having, you know what, they deserve it."

4pm We're off again, doing close to 200km/h as we head towards Beijing International Airport. I really do like travelling this way - being in the middle of Sheikh Mohammed's convoy means we again have no traffic or traffic lights to worry about. The cars pull up right next to the private jumbo jet and we get on board, ushered upstairs again.

5.15pm We take off for the journey to Shanghai, which should take around 90 minutes. This plane is like the other one except a bit nicer. Daveham Fine Bone China plates are put out on the table as that amazing international buffet prepares to make another appearance. 300 miles North of Shanghai, 31,000 feet high

5.45pm Suddenly His Highness appears on the upper deck of his plane, with Mohammed Al Gergawi, Sheikh Ahmed and Reem Al Hashimi. All four of them look extremely happy with the progress of the trip so far.

"You must travel between London and Dubai a lot," Gergawi says to me.

"And how far is that? Several thousand kilometres? Well, so is the Great Wall of China. Isn't that amazing?" he says.
His Highness sits down, and is also still marvelling at the Great Wall trip.

"Amazing," he says.
Then I get straight into it. With the current valuation of the dollar, and the dirham, and what's happening in the US, and with inflation rising, does he...."

He interrupts me.

"What you are trying to ask me is if I am going to stick with the dollar. Why are you running around the bush asking different questions? Of course I will stick with the dollar," he says.

So that's clear enough. But for how long will he back the dollar?

"Up to now we are still with the dollar. Dropping the dollar peg is not easy. However, a committee is studying the benefits of staying with the dollar or not," he says.

But what about the US mortgage crisis? Surely that is going to affect the Dubai property boom at some stage. He totally disagrees, saying: "It will affect many countries but it will not affect us. We have made arrangements to enable our property market to avoid such negative impacts," he says.

We get back to the dollar again somehow, with HH adding that his special committee is looking carefully at what the impact of dropping the dollar peg would be, and will report its findings back to him.

It is clear is that the Ruler of Dubai is not going to make any knee-jerk reactions. We then skirt around several subjects - he reveals he is interested in making a bid for the Olympics, having been impressed by what he has seen Beijing.

We have been chatting a while and the plane is clearly making its final approach into Shanghai. HH gets up and heads back to the lower deck.

Emirates Airline chairman Sheikh Ahmed is still upstairs. "I'm just relaxing, don't ask me anything!" he says. Just one question I insist.

"What is the name of the new low-cost airline that Dubai is launching?"

"I don't have one. Do you have any ideas?" he asks?

"Emirates Express", I suggest.

"No, no. This is not being run by Emirates. We can't use the word Emirates," he says.

"What about Gulf Express?"

"Gulf Express? I like that. Yes, I like that," he says, before rushing back down as we land.

6.45pm We land in Shanghai, as usual storming through the cleared streets en route to the Shangri La hotel. It will be difficult, I know, to ever drive my own car again.

Wednesday, April 2
Shangri La Hotel

1.30pm The great and good of the UAE are assembling on the third floor for the main event - the reason we are all here - the UAE China Business and Economic Cooperation Forum. Just as I am about to enter the room, I run again into Emaar chairman Mohammed Alabbar.

"What did you make of the trip?" he asks me.

"There is passion everyone here has. A really strong passion," I reply.

"Yes," says Alabbar.

There is passion. You see a lot of people that jump around, and actually a lot of what they are jumping around about is hollow. But for every 10 people that are jumping for hollow things, one or two are doing concrete things. And they are the ones who make a difference."


Zawi said...

Wow man, you are rubbing shoulders with the Sheikhs. I am sure glad I found your site. Now a whole new world is opening up for China and we are just watching it all. What is the point of being the OIC chair when not even a trickle flows to Malaysia? Not as long as you have a dumbo warming up the seat, for 3 long years with nothing to show.
Tell us more Sir.

AC said...

go ahead & finish off the Chinese & Tamil school

SouthAfrica said...

What an interesting blog posting, and what an interesting life you live. I'm so glad I stumbled upon your writings.

I run a travel website and like to direct my readers to interesting blog postings. I hope you don't mind, but I've linked to this posting from our Dubai to Shanghai flights page.

Thanks for sharing your experiences.