Arabs Unseen: A Saudi developer with a cause

In his book Arabs Unseen, Mohammed Mahfoodh Alardhi, executive chairman of Manama-based Investcorp and chairman of National Bank of Oman, profiles several of the region’s entrepreneurs, with an emphasis on those with a social orientation. This week The National is publishing four of the profiles, and today we feature the Saudi developer Sultan Batterjee.

The excerpt

Some of Sultan Batterjee’s fondest memories take him back to the dinner table at his childhood home in Jeddah. There, his father and grandfather, both successful entrepreneurs, would sit for hours on end, discussing the finer points of a business plan or financing for a new project – and always with an eye, he recalls, to adding value to the community, to bettering Arab society at large.

“Their discussions were always so lively and intense,” remembers Sultan, who as the owner and chief executive of the design and construction company IHCC, as well as founder and president of Lifestyle Developers, has continued his family’s legacy of business success. Although much of what was said during those dinner table discussions was beyond the grasp of a young boy, it was there, he says, that the seeds of entrepreneurship and social responsibility were sown.

Indeed, as much as any trait Sultan inherited from his forebears, that familial wisdom passed down during his youth shaped his outlook on life and career, and propelled him forward. It was one thing, he understood, to generate profits. But to be the kind of executive he aspired to be, to leverage corporate success for social good, he would have to do much more. Sultan spent years in rigorous preparation, learning how to motivate and to manage – and above all, how to lead.

After high school in Saudi Arabia, Sultan went on to study abroad in the US and UK. He then cut his teeth in investment banking at firms such as Lazard Investments, Merrill Lynch and Encore Management. In addition to providing him with much-needed structure, those experiences exposed him to the highest business standards and best practices on the planet, and when he returned to Saudi Arabia, Sultan hit the ground running. Eager to find opportunities for economic growth, he was also primed to have an impact on Saudi society, and as any observer of his companies can attest, the young developer has done just that. Plenty of entrepreneurs can point to some way by which their work supports the local community. But a successful business built on giving back – well, that’s something all too rare in today’s Middle East.

A sense of purpose has long driven the young Saudi. Born into a wealthy family, Sultan need never have worried about earning a living; employment was always optional. “I’m fortunate to have a father like mine,” he says. “I could have stayed home, done a few deals now and then, and relaxed. But that just isn’t me. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had this burning desire to do something big – something meaningful.”

Sultan discovered a startling statistic, he says: “65 per cent of the people in Saudi Arabia don’t own homes, and it’s the same story in countries across the region. You’re talking about tens of millions of people, many of whom are professionals contributing to the economy – engineers, doctors, bankers, lawyers – but the economy isn’t giving nearly as much back to them.”

It wasn’t until he was married, though, that Sultan saw the potential for a company that could raise the standard of living across the region. “After I got married, I needed to buy a house,” he recalls. “And when I started shopping for one, I was struck by how overvalued all of the properties were.” The rental market was no better: “Nothing was designed to my taste, the quality of the construction wasn’t very good, and everything was very costly,” he says. “And that’s when I decided I would do something – something in the real estate field.” Reflecting on his purpose – to be a developer with a cause – Sultan had a kind of epiphany; “I thought to myself, I’m a young man, I’m educated and I’m capable. And God has chosen me to know things about design and construction. So if I say I’m working with this purpose, then I should use that knowledge that God has given me to raise standards of living across the region – to change the equation.” Thus was born Lifestyle Developers, a real estate development company, devoted as the name suggests, to enhancing people’s quality of life. Sultan had decided that given the crowded competition for high net worth individuals and the government’s focus on housing for low-income populations, he would target those in the middle – people whose needs he understood, whose tastes he could cater to. “They want to be proud about where they live,” he says. “They want their home to reflect who they are. But they’re not looking for the house of their dreams.” These young professionals, he realised, men and women working hard to reach the next level, to move up in the corporate world, had been wasting their money. They would rent an overpriced apartment for five or 10 years and then they would move out. “And when they did,” he says, “they owned nothing.” Sultan sought to offer these young professionals “the engines powering our growth”, a dignified alternative. Rather than handing over their hard-earned income to a landlord who couldn’t be bothered to fix a leaky faucet, they could spend the same amount to finance, and ultimately own, a stylishly designed space in a Lifestyle Development building. “After 10 years, they have the option to resell that or to rent it out to someone else, giving them a steady source of income.” Every Lifestyle Developers project embodies four core elements: design, quality, affordability and community. In addition to elegant décor and a full range of modern appliances, all apartments come with a long list of amenities, including shared spaces where neighbours can interact: a gym, a library, a nursery, indoor and outdoor gardens – even a ballroom. A concierge is on call 24 hours a day, while CCTV cameras provide an extra layer of security. “When they move in, residents receive a gift box explaining the whole concept”, says Sultan. “How to get in and out, how to treat one’s neighbours, how to be part of a vibrant community.”

“We thought about the apartment as though we were building it for ourselves,” he says.

Connected world

Across the world, Sultan says, standards are rising, and fast. “In all the high streets, in all the cities across the globe, you see the same brands. And that’s because “globalisation” only really happened four years ago.” While air travel and international trade made the world a more connected place, true globalisation only came about with social media. “Take a girl in a village in Egypt,” he says. “Seven years ago, if she bought a new bag, she would have compared herself to the other girls in her village; her standard would have been capped by her village.” Now she has Facebook, he says, “and with a single click, she can compare herself to a girl in Miami Beach.” The same applies to residential real estate.

“These young people aren’t going to settle for just anything,” he says. “And that’s why we’re in this business of affordable luxury; we want them to be inspired by where they live, and we want them to stay here.” Like countries throughout the region, Saudi Arabia suffers from a brain drain – a loss of home-grown expertise and technical skill to other, more developed parts of the world. “These young professionals get scholarships to study abroad in the US or the UK, and they become accustomed to a certain lifestyle.” Yet when they return to the region, he says, they’re not finding that lifestyle, so they decide to go back. “And that’s our loss – we lose these minds that the government and private sector have spent huge sums of money to educate and train.” Through projects like its new Diyar Al Salam, or “Homes of Peace” – 114 smartly-appointed apartments in the heart of Jeddah – Lifestyle Developers hopes to stem that trend. “We’re a profitable business,” says Sultan, “but a lot of what we do goes back to the community and to helping ensure a sustainable future.” Whether it’s building a library for an all-girls’ school in Jeddah or carving out a rare green space for the general public, Lifestyle Developers often does pro-bono what the state can’t or won’t. “There was an empty parcel of land in the desert that the Jeddah municipality had set aside to be a park”, he recalls of the latter. “But we knew how long that could take. So we decided to do it ourselves – to establish this park as a kind of example to other funds, other high net worth individuals.” Sultan named the park after himself not to boost his ego, he says, but to make a point. “I could have called the park anything. But I wanted to say to those high net worth individuals: Look, this young entrepreneur, this guy who is new in the game, is doing something for the public good. Your companies are worth billions. So if I can do this, just imagine what you could do. I’m not saying everyone should build a park – there are many other things that could benefit the community. But if these big players were to put aside just a small amount of money every year for the youth – for that 70 per cent of the population – we would have green cities in no time. We would have a very different region.” More than a green space, Sultan Batterjee Park stands as a testament to the power of purpose. Indeed, through his continuous pursuit of knowledge, and an inexhaustible resolve to raise standards of living across the region, Sultan has come to serve as a model of success – an inspirational figure, not only to his peers in the industry, but to the unsung millions across the Arab world with ambitions of becoming successful entrepreneurs.

From the book Arabs Unseen by Mohammed Mahfoodh Alardhi, copyright © 2015. Published by arrangement with Bloomsbury Publishing India.

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