Dubai’s emphasis on trade, and its eventual conversion into a globe-trotting paradise, was born out of necessity: unlike its neighboring emirate of Abu Dhabi, unlike most Persian Gulf states, Dubai does not has almost no oil to exploit. What it had was a natural harbor and a prime location just inside the Strait of Hormuz, the entrance to the gulf, where trading ships from India and East Asia could stop after a long journey.
The Al Futtaim family, inspired by the waves of Arab nationalism that swept the Middle East in the 1940s and 1950s, were early supporters of independence from Britain, which held nominal control over Dubai and eight other Gulf emirates, known as the Trucial States. After Britain withdrew in 1971, six (eventually seven) of these states formed a federation, the United Arab Emirates, with Abu Dhabi as its capital.
Dubai’s ruling family, led by Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al-Maktoum, has made a deal with its merchant elite. In return for their support, the government would grant them monopolies on imported goods and the right to exclusive deals with foreign companies – the Al Futtaim family, for example, won a lucrative deal with Toyota, a deal that still gives it today controls around 30% of the emirate’s car market.
Unlike some families, who did little more than act as gatekeepers for foreign businesses, the Futtaim took an active role in adapting retail to the local market. Under their control, Ace stores, which sell strictly hardware in the United States, are more like department stores in the Middle East, offering not only hammers and nails, but also tents and training equipment.
“He was one of the last old-guard merchants who built Dubai,” said Jim Krane, fellow at the Baker Institute for Public Policy and author of “City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism” (2009) . in an interview.
For decades, the Al Futtaim family ruled as a unified entity, the Al Futtaim Group, but it began to fragment in the 1990s, thanks to a falling out between Majid and his cousin Abdullah. At one point, the argument was so heated, and so bad for the family business, that the royal family had to intervene.
Mr. Futtaim founded his own company in 1992 and opened his first mall, City Center Deira, three years later. It was a landmark: not only did it allow increasingly affluent Dubaiers to experience Western-style shopping, but it also blended the experience with dining, leisure and entertainment options for families.