Interview with Arif Amiri, CEO of Dubai International Financial Centre

Interview with Arif Amiri, CEO of Dubai International Financial Centre
Image courtesy of Dubai International Financial Centre

As a young student growing up in Dubai, Arif Amiri was keenly interested in flying and wanted to pursue a career in the aviation industry. Destiny, however, had other plans for him and he commenced his working life at the renowned multinational bank, HSBC. In the years that followed, he advanced in a career that saw him overseeing projects at Dubai-based real estate developer Emaar Properties prior to taking on the mantle of CEO at Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC). On the sidelines of the AMSI conference for young men, Arif Amiri shares with Tharawat Magazine the story of his unique journey and offers valuable insights for the next generation of leaders.

Right now, we are speaking at a workshop put together by your alma mater Al Mawakeb School that is aimed at inspiring the next generation of young men in their career and personal development. Why did you decide to get involved with this programme?

It’s really very simple. I owe Al Mawakeb School and its faculty a debt of gratitude for shaping me into the person I am today. They are an integral part of my success – every major milestone from A to Z. Moreover, I think having the opportunity to give back, not just to my school and its students but the community as a whole, is incredibly worthwhile because I know the kind of positive impact it can have.

Why is it important that young people have access to this kind of workshop?

Looking back to a time when I was their age, I realise that I was fortunate enough to have good people around me – whether at school or at home. These people were able to guide me and instil a sense of purpose in terms of what I wanted to be and the direction I could take, going forward. I think that really helped me in identifying my life goals and pursuing those goals. An event such as this one will inevitably help open up life-defining opportunities for young students of today.

What do you think are some of the challenges that the next generation of leaders face today?

The advancements in technology and knowledge have led to an unprecedented increase in career options for the next generation. Sometimes these options can seem intimidating. Some might find it difficult to figure out what they want to do in this next generation economy, or they might feel pressured to follow the path that is most ‘acceptable’. I also sense a fear or hesitation in many with regard to taking that next step in their lives or careers because they have settled into a comfortable routine.

This is the reason why I believe courage is the first quality one needs to develop. It is an ability that helps challenge the definition of success in a time when there are a myriad of different walks of life to choose from.

Today, you can be a successful businessman, or a successful artist, or indeed a successful chef – you must decide what professional and personal success mean to you. I think the next generation of leaders should know that success is not defined by a single element or one single contribution. Everything under the blue sky that contributes to society and leads to prosperity, harmony, and growth can be defined as success. I hope that more people come to realise this truth.

As opposed to the challenges, what unique opportunities does this generation have?

I recall a time when the late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, former Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, first paved the way for Dubai’s momentous journey. People were happy with what they saw the country achieve.

Subsequently, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, steered Dubai to significantly multiply those numbers and achieve even more stellar milestones in terms of being a global centre of excellence in key sectors. We realise from Dubai’s example that there is no room for limitations or barriers. It all comes down to your drive and how much you push the boundaries.

Just over a decade ago, we could never have imagined all the things that our smartphones can now do at the push of a button. Things that we have only seen in the movies and on TV are becoming a reality in our lifetime. I think the future is limitless, the opportunities are endless, and we just have to programme our minds to think in that way.

There is always an element of fear, but you have to take on risks and you have to be willing to push beyond your comfort zone. Only through doing so can you really test yourself to meet and exceed your expectations.

While we are on the topic of fear – you began your career in banking at HSBC when all your life, you wanted to go into the aviation industry. What was it like making that leap of faith?

It’s never easy to make a leap of faith. I remember the day when I received a letter of offer to join a leading global airline. At the time I was already working at HSBC. It was really tempting because as you said, my plan since childhood was always to work with an airline, and explore the world of aviation. Besides, this was a really good offer. I remember comparing the two organisations in my head and struggling to make a decision.

Ultimately, the multinational world that I was able to experience with HSBC and the exposure to different industries really fascinated me and I opted to stay with the bank. It was not an easy decision, and at the time, I did not know whether it was a wise decision. But once I made the decision, I was committed to making it a good one. Looking back today, I hope I have.

I would say you have. After HSBC, you held top management positions at real estate developer Emaar, before becoming the CEO of DIFC. Was there a moment when you looked back at your career and thought, “I’ve made it”?

No, I think that life is always a journey. You can look back and see what you’ve done and what you have accomplished, but it’s far more important to focus on where you are now and what you need to achieve. The further you grow in a job or career, the more you need to have a sense of accountability. For me today, I feel that I have been entrusted with conveying Dubai’s financial visions to the world at large. Working towards that goal is the most important thing. I never look at myself and say, “Oh I’ve made it, I’m successful. Great job!” It’s always about tomorrow.

‘Making it’ today is more than just shaping your individual career. I believe that it is critical to give back to your community, help build a vision for your society, and facilitate growth. The choices that I make will impact the next generation. Therefore, I need to ensure that I give back what is essential to build a more enhanced future for society.

This is my motivation. This is what inspires me to get up early in the morning and work through those late nights. Achievement is not – and should never be – about praising oneself. Ultimately, it is about shaping something that adds value.

When you look back, what skills do you feel have really mattered in helping you become the business leader that you are today?

That’s a really good question. I cannot honestly think of one particular skill set – there are many, and you cannot pick up many of these essential skills through classroom training. These are skills you learn through your life experiences, and through all the interactions you have with different people and influencers.

You have to be willing to learn from people. Every single individual or leader that I’ve looked up to, I’ve learned from. I always ask myself some important questions about the people I meet in my life’s journey – what are their strengths, what makes them who they are, and what enables them to contribute to society? I examine my answers and think about how I can adopt these strengths myself. So it really comes down to learning, but learning that is not limited to a single skill or ability.

If you could go back in time to meet your younger self, knowing what you do now and what you’ve experienced, what advice would you give to yourself?

I would encourage myself to dare a little more and challenge myself more as well. As many achievers have proven: true courage is defined by what you do after the element of fear sets in.

On a final note, do you have any words of advice for the next generation of leaders?

The journey is not going to be easy and not everything you do will go according to plan. That said, surround yourself with the best people and put together a team that can take things heads on and hit the ground running.