Who Is The Real Sheikh Mohammed?

I sit in the garden at the Beach Palace, and breath in the sweet sea air that is punctuated by the invigorating coolness that promises Dubai's winter has come. It will be a cold night.

Fifteen years ago, I first sat in this spot and looked out at the sea with Sheikh Mohammed. It was always such a peaceful spot. Nothing has since disturbed that peace, the green lawns still stretch out in front of me, with the palm trees swaying in the gentle, cold breeze.

And yet, there is a quite a difference in what we see today from what we saw then. Back then Sheikh Mohammed told me what this scene would one day look like.

Back then there were big tanker ships in the distance, at least I think they were tankers, but there were also smaller ships that had massive dredges on them that shot sand into the sea. A haze rose above the spots where they worked, marking the places where they piled the sand with such power that you could almost sense the sting of the sand as it hit the water. And in some places it had already risen into small island mounds that protruded from the water in intermittent spots.

A strip of firm Island was then visible from the land close by, reaching towards the ocean, and further, the smaller island spots were also visible.

Sheikh Mohammed said to me that he wanted to build an island that looked like a palm tree from space, in the sea.

In our part of the world, the palm tree is a symbol of life. There are over 200 different types of palm trees, and they have given the Arabs, past and present, food, shelter, and medicine. It was not strange at all to me that he should pick that symbol.

He explained, very logically, that he needed to increase the beach front because this was the most prime land that the government could sell to pay for its other projects. It all made sense... and it's not that I didn't believe him, I had seen some of what this man had already achieved. But in my mind, I found it all very hard to grasp.

As a kid, growing up near the ocean in Aqaba, I would pile sand into the water at the beach and watch the tide pull it back gently with every lapping wave. My mind wandered to those snippets of memory, and as I watched the ships lumbering peacefully about their work in the distance, I knew I was not an engineer, so I had better not try and figure out the mechanics!

But still, a whole Palm tree? Sheikh Mohammed described buildings and hotels on it, houses and flats. People living happily on the fronds of the structure. And it made me smile. It was too big an idea for my head to imagine as hard as I tried. But I was deeply interested in what made this man tick. I often asked him, how he had come up with this idea, and he would just smile. 'Demand', he would say, 'I understand what people want. And if I think it's right, then I try to make it happen.'

This man had a deep understanding of demand on a large scale and looked for simple and straightforward ways to create the supply, depending on whether or not that demand fit a complex matrix of criteria in his genetic makeup. Was it fair, just, and equitable? Was it lucrative, would it be sustainable, and allow others to buy in? Did it fit the social, historic, and futuristic moral and ethical scales that his grandfathers had genetically bred into his being? Would it be a vehicle to increase the greater good? So many people used the word "risk" when they described Sheikh Mohammed a decade ago; he himself described it as 'the ability to recognize opportunity.'

What I saw was not wanton risk-taking, but a very deep calculation, that happened almost as an instinctive process. So deeply calculated, in fact, that it was exactly the same process any major company would go through in creating a feasibility study, and yet he easily performed the same equation mentally. He watched people and things around him, like nobody I had ever seen before, taking in the smallest details in a broad sweep, and recalling them easily with an exceptional photographic memory.

Incredibly brave maybe, decisive, and packaged in an understanding and a confidence that allowed other people to buy-in, and actually depended on other people buying in... but I wouldn't call it risk-taking.

How many of us go through cycles in our lives where we think of what we are good at and what we enjoy doing, and then try to turn that into a business model, instead of joining a team that is already a functioning unit? Maybe it was that celebrity period and the beginning of the communication age that led people away from contributing to a larger whole, and made them believe in acting as individuals who became embittered by failure. This was a man who didn't do what he wanted to do, he facilitated other people's dreams, even sometimes shaped them, when they couldn't see them clearly.

Sheikh Mohammed understood on mass what others wanted, and empowered them to do it by giving life to their instinctive demands, and providing a blueprint. And they were based on simple concepts, the need for dignity, pride, activity, safety, all lessons he learned from nature. Most lessons he says he learned intuitively from horses.

Still, I sit here and look out from my peaceful spot. And ponder who Sheikh Mohammed really is.

Today, beyond the rolling lawn and the peacefully swaying trees, the sounds of life, so much life, sway gently to me in the breeze.

From space you can now see a Palm Tree in the sea.

Those big sand tanker ships and the little spots of islands in the ocean have been replaced by yachts and boats of all shapes and sizes that glide at varying speeds through the network of channels. It is traffic that is not marked by frustration and the sound of engines revving, but instead the gentle vibrations that denote the depths of the different rumbles and sizes of the engines that power those groups and parties of people all so happy, all with different music playing.

The backdrop is a network of buildings that are exactly as Sheikh Mohammed had described them a decade ago. It's a community that is thriving, it's a community that I could never have imagined, even when he painstakingly described how it would be to the minutest detail.

The funny thing is that he called this 'a project'. It makes me giggle to think of the way he says that.

Looking out at this thriving buzz that is a network of people who are living and working together, passing the journey that is their lives now here in Dubai, on that structure that is the Palm, it seems absurdly funny that Sheikh Mohammed referred to it as 'a project'!

For anyone else, it would be the work of a lifetime. But the memory of the casual reference to a project now appears hilarious because that's all it was actually to him, in truth.

The fact that it didn't come easy makes it more funny and is part of the complexity which makes up the man that Sheikh Mohammed is. The level of adversity he faced, the level of sheer jealousy that was thrown at him, the amount of nay-sayers that voiced their opinions in a deafening chorus was unbelievable at the time.

I lived it - I know.

And I don't blame them, and neither did he. It practically served as motivation for him, he is a person that literally is able to feed off the negativity that is thrown at him and turn it into positive output.

It wasn't just 'the project 'of The Palm that brought this onslaught, but the magnitude of the collective 'projects' he was announcing and commencing work on at the time, and long before, that brought what can only be described as a truly vicious and long-winded written, vocal, and physically obstructive attack on himself and his plans.

One by one as the projects came alive, the storyline changed.

At first, such projects were impossible and crazy, next, they were doomed to fail. Then when built, they were commercially not viable, and when they sold, the master picture was said to be unsustainable. Then when consolidated, more and more of those who were most negative of all, most vocally strong, began to convert slowly into ambassadors and champions of Sheikh Mohammed's ideas - then the process, or the journey, if you will, started to become clear.

This has been the journey of the last thirteen years, as we all witnessed Sheikh Mohammed's work. During this time, it was fascinating to watch how people began to react and change towards him as well.

The Sheikh Mohammed known to us in Dubai is recognized for specific qualifications now. He is most certainly one of the only men that has lived in this century that has been able to reach down through the generations to give hope for the future, and plant it firmly, with deep roots, in the hearts and minds of the young across the Arab Region, well beyond his borders.

His beliefs of what his people need to be happy is something that he has proven with what he has built: dignity, freedom of expression, work or employment and a sense of achievement and belonging, a sense of safety and security both personal and for one's family, and the right to expect that that safety is guarded fiercely by their leaders.

Sheikh Mohammed has given his people a chance to share in the economic prosperity of the overall ship, a chance to benefit, and improve their lot, without being forced to take, because they can see a way to earn that better life. And more so, they were given the tools they needed, while constantly being encouraged to improve and evolve mentally.

Sheikh Mohammed's sense of humility, and way of firmly rejecting that his title makes him a leader and not his work, is fundamental to the way people see him. The depth of humility and simplicity while still upholding the grandeur and sanctity of the institution he represents is also fundamental.

But it is that process and journey where he was able to match those two rivers, one, being a river of ambition for a dream of the greater good, with the other river, of world events, so that eventually those two waters joined into one open sea, is the main reason people changed their perception of Sheikh Mohammed.

The lifespan of that one 'project', the Palm, is a micro example of that journey.

In all its stages, from the time Sheikh Mohammed assessed the demand for it, to envisioning it, to the adversity he faced, followed by its construction, and development into the thriving community it is, as if it has always been there... in one short decade.

Now multiply that by at least 50 other mega projects, the last two which he unveiled being the RTA/ Meraas Dubai Canal, and the Meraas Parks and Resorts. We have only to watch the beauty of the lights that twinkle on Emaar's Burj Khalifa, and admire the hive of creativity that is now Tecom's Design District to recognize the talented people Sheikh Mohammed empowered and encouraged, and the daring feats of so many things that he has done.

Each of his projects has followed a similar path and today, it is easy to now see how Sheikh Mohammed moved from the man who was challenged for daring to believe in a better future, to a man that is now followed and believed in by so many across the Emirates, nation, region, and the world.

One must also accept, however, that it was the frequently repeated process of public disbelief in an idea, followed by his successful execution of what was deemed impossible, that very much shaped his character, to the point that it has now in itself become a characteristic.

Couple it with political responsibility, and an inherited and deeply ingrained sense of Arab culture, and his own family history, and you may start to get a measure of the man that is Sheikh Mohammed. For me, the Arab Spring was an absolute epiphany. Like the rest of the world, I watched political institutions cave in, and young people take to the streets.

All around us in the Arab world, it was deeply frightening to see the streets seething with so much anger and frustration, and violence. Even when it was understandable.

It started in Tunisia with a young man setting fire to himself because he could not find work and only asked for the dignity to find the means to support his family, and next it overflowed... Scenes of regime change made up our every day, and no Middle Eastern country was exempt.

The UAE and Dubai were just as susceptible to this as anywhere else in the Arab world. During that period, I watched two Arab leaders clearly emerge as statesmen who knew the key to their people.

Poverty was a key driver to the Arab Spring to a very large extent. But so was lethargy in Government and a failure of young people to understand and accept that they were not being given a platform to voice their wishes or their needs for a better future.

Sheikh Mohammed knew this, and quietly he and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, embarked on a marathon tour of the UAE.

I watched as these men went house to house, and toured the desert of the seven Emirates. There was not a single family that they did not visit, nor a community that they did not address or listen too. And it was this genuine two-way process of communication and the ensuing actions that they took based upon what they heard that kept the calm in every way. Countries around us experienced turbulence despite their wealth, and yet I do think the style and actions of the leaders here changed what could have been.

And beyond that, the fact that Sheikh Mohammed was vocal with other Arab leaders and brave enough to tell them in no uncertain terms that made young people in the Arab region believe in him. He said outright in an address, "My brother Arab Leaders, you must change, you must serve your people and (not yourselves) otherwise you will be changed, and rightly so."

It was this kind of uncompromising clarity and honesty that has earned him the trust of the Arab street that he has now enjoyed for generations. And also this unbending honesty that has gained him the respect of his Arab peers in positions of leadership, they clearly understand he says what he thinks in no uncertain terms. And even when they do not enjoy it, it is that wisdom, and that approach to serve his people that has gained Sheikh Mohammed such a vast popular following in the Arab street that he is now seen as one of the most senior Arab statesmen who is able to troubleshoot any situation by the populous.

This is Sheikh Mohammed.

He is a man who was born destined to build a country, and he shows no signs of slowing down in that effort, and he is the greatest hope that the Middle East has to ever-achieving peace and a bright future for our region in this day and age.

He is one of the greatest ambassadors the Arab and Islamic people will ever have.