Interview with Mohamed Al Zaabi
Group CEO of Miral (Yas Island)
Stefan Zwanzger: Mohamed. You are celebrated as a modern day Walt Disney, building a 1 billion dollar theme park after another. Three parks that cost 1 billion dollars to build. And you have an entire island to yourself that you can fill with attractions. How does it feel to be a king of an island?
Mohamed Al Zaabi: First of all, thank you, Stefan, for having me here. It’s a pleasure and an honor to be with you. I’m a fan of what you’re doing. I’ve been following your community and the forums for the last six years. Back to the question. I think it’s a privilege, I would say. But I will also say that this is not the way we measure our success. It’s more about putting smiles on kids and families faces. That’s what we count. And if you ask me how many millions of smiles, I will tell you how many millions.
Stefan Zwanzger: So how many millions?
Mohamed Al Zaabi: (laughs)
Stefan Zwanzger: So how many people actually visited Yas Island attractions?
Mohamed Al Zaabi: We had, in 2019, more than 30 million visits to the island. That’s all attractions and assets on the island.
Stefan Zwanzger: But that doesn’t include transit passengers going through Saadiyat?
Mohamed Al Zaabi: No.
Stefan Zwanzger: They have to stop.
Mohamed Al Zaabi: They have to stop.
Stefan Zwanzger: If you can choose between being Walt Disney in the 1960’s or Mohamed Al Zaabi in 2021, which one would you choose?
Mohamed Al Zaabi: (laughs) That is a difficult question, Stefan. I would say Mohamed Al Zaabi. It’s not that I’m comparing myself to Disney, or anyone else, there is no way to compare. But I think being here and playing a role in, I would say, even little effort to move the wheel of tourism in this region, that would excite me.
Stefan Zwanzger: Let’s talk about Sea World. That’s your newest park. I have the feeling that’s going to be the most beloved and successful park on the island. What do you think?
Mohamed Al Zaabi: Indeed, without any doubt. We’re very excited. This will be our next flagship. And this will be the new Jubail Island. It will complement the existing experience. People will not enjoy only rides and other theme parks, but now they will come closer to observe animal behaviors and learn more about animals inside Sea World. I would also highlight one thing. It will bring technology with the physical world together under one roof. And that I will keep a surprise for our grand opening…
Stefan Zwanzger: What exactly this will entail, right, you’re not going to…?
Mohamed Al Zaabi: No. I will keep it a surprise for you.
Stefan Zwanzger: Okay. Which day is exactly the grand opening again?
Mohamed Al Zaabi: (laughs) That’s our surprise.
Stefan Zwanzger: So what’s going to come after Sea World? So Sea World is going to open, successfully, and then it’s 2023, and there are still lots of plots here, what are you going to put on them?
Mohamed Al Zaabi: I think by the time we deliver Sea World, Yas Island will be almost 60% - 65% built. So we still have 35% to be build. To know the future, you need to see our history. And since 2009, as I said, we have been opening attractions literally every year. Year after year. But Stefan, it's not only about adding attractions and adding new things. It’s also about two more elements. I would mention here approving the theme parks themselves. For example, Farrari World. When started we had literally 19 rides. Today we have 37 rides and attractions inside Farrari. And that is just a reflection of Meraal’s commitment to improve the customer experience. One example, and for me it’s a very personal example that I would like to share with you, is Farrari did not have enough attractions for kids who are 4 – 7 years old.
Stefan Zwanzger: In the beginning?
Mohamed Al Zaabi: In the beginning. And I meant rollercoasters. There was no rollercoaster for 4 – 7 years old. And one day I saw a kid crying because she wanted to try rollercoaster, and they told her: “No, sorry. You should be at least 140cm tall.” Then we made the decision. We built a rollercoaster that is for 90cm. So now a 90cm kid, 4 years old, can enjoy a rollercoaster and theme park.
Stefan Zwanzger: Did you have the number of the girl? Did you tell her that she can go back?
Mohamed Al Zaabi: I contacted her myself.
Stefan Zwanzger: You know her personally?
Mohamed Al Zaabi: Yes.
Stefan Zwanzger: So you actually talked to her?
Mohamed Al Zaabi: Yes.
Stefan Zwanzger: You told her that you were going to build a coaster for her?
Mohamed Al Zaabi: And I made sure that she tried it.
Stefan Zwanzger: And she did it?
Mohamed Al Zaabi: But she was already 140cm by the time we delivered it. (laughs)
Stefan Zwanzger: (laughs) Oh, damn it. So it was for nothing.
Mohamed Al Zaabi: (laughs)
Stefan Zwanzger: So you have three theme parks here, right now, that cost each about 1 billion dollars to build. Are they ever going to break even? Are they even supposed to break even? Or is this an investment in the national prestige of Abu Dhabi?
Mohamed Al Zaabi: Those theme parks are part of a long term vision for Abu Dhabi and Yas Island. Every business has its own financial and non-financial goals. Same with theme parks. Theme parks are a very challenging business, but it has criteria, it has financial goals and non-financial goals. Theme parks, operationally, should make money and it also helps us increase the value of our land bank. It helps us, as well, to increase the length of stay, which is one of our KPI’s, on the island and in Abu Dhabi. And it increases occupancy. I can tell you, we are very happy, extremely happy, with the results we’ve achieved the last ten years.
Stefan Zwanzger: Talking about visitation numbers of the parks. There are 1 million Emiratis, living in the Emirates, and then there are 9 million foreigners, of which about half, that’s my guess, would not be in a position to afford a Yas Island theme park ticket. The other half, maybe 4.5 million, work from Sunday to Thursday, so do these parks rely fully on tourists to fill them? Because, there is not, in my opinion or according to what I see, I don’t see the critical mass to fill these parks, particularly during weekdays.
Mohamed Al Zaabi: I see a capital in the middle of, I would say, half of the earth’s population. That’s what I would say. India is a two hour flight from here. Russia is a four hour flight from here, Egypt is a three hour flight from here, KSA and other countries. Those people are more than enough to fill our islands and our theme parks. But even for our residents and locals, we look after them. And we make sure that there are enough attractions and enough deals for them where they can come and enjoy their time with their kids. We look after everyone in this country.
Stefan Zwanzger: What is your favorite attraction on the island? Where do you go on Fridays? Do you go to Yas Island on Fridays? You live on Yas Island, right?
Mohamed Al Zaabi: I live on Yas Island, and I enjoy being very close to those attractions. But this is a decision made not by myself, to be honest. By my kids.
Stefan Zwanzger: So the kids are taking decisions?
Mohamed Al Zaabi: Yes.
Stefan Zwanzger: So you’re run by your kids?
Mohamed Al Zaabi: I run by my kids. On the weekends.
Stefan Zwanzger: Which theme park around the world has inspired you? Not in the Middle East. Outside the Middle East.
Mohamed Al Zaabi: I would say every theme park has something unique. From experience and rides point of view, wherever you visit, the park will have something.
Stefan Zwanzger: But which park is Mohamed Al Zaabi’s favorite park?
Mohamed Al Zaabi: I would say Disney Florida.
Stefan Zwanzger: Yeah?
Mohamed Al Zaabi: Yeah.
Stefan Zwanzger: So that’s your number one. And which of the four? There’s Animal Kingdom, Epcot, Magic Kingdom…
Mohamed Al Zaabi: I would say my favorite area is the new Avatar...
Stefan Zwanzger: The Avatar Land?
Mohamed Al Zaabi: Yes. That’s my favorite one.
Stefan Zwanzger: So how did the negotiations with Disney progress on Yas Disney Land?
Mohamed Al Zaabi: (laughs and fist bumps Stefan) Next, please.
Stefan Zwanzger: You were starting as an engineer? That’s your degree, right?
Mohamed Al Zaabi: I am, yes.
Stefan Zwanzger: And then you became an IT manager.
Mohamed Al Zaabi: Indeed.
Stefan Zwanzger: And now you are the CEO of Yas. Now, what’s the secret? How did you get there? What’s your secret?
Mohamed Al Zaabi: That’s a very interesting question. I would say thinking big. That’s the first thing I would say. When I resigned from my first job in 2004, I was asked why. And my answer was, ”I want to be CEO.”
Stefan Zwanzger: You were the IT manager at that time?
Mohamed Al Zaabi: I was the IT manager at that time.
Stefan Zwanzger: And you said you want to be a CEO?
Mohamed Al Zaabi: I want to be a CEO.
Stefan Zwanzger: Okay.
Mohamed Al Zaabi: So that was my dream. That was my goal. Maybe I took it from my dad. Maybe he inspired me. But that was my dream and when you work hard on yourself and you don’t look back or around you, and you just laser focus on your goal, you will achieve it one day. But you need to work hard.
Stefan Zwanzger: 24 hours?
Mohamed Al Zaabi: It’s not about 24 hours. It’s not about how many hours you put, it’s about the team around you. It’s about the vision that you put. It’s about the dream you dream of every day.
Stefan Zwanzger: When you select the people you work with, what are you looking at? Their education, their experience, their past jobs, their driving style, their personality? What’s important for you?
Mohamed Al Zaabi: I would say first, their passion. What do they want to achieve? Everyone has something like a small engine inside him. It’s the source of your energy. It’s the fire that you woke up every morning jumping with energy and excitement to come to the office. That’s what you look for.
Stefan Zwanzger: You look for their engine to be on?
Mohamed Al Zaabi: And to be powerful.
Stefan Zwanzger: What kind of recommendation do you have for young Emiratis moving forward? If they want to be like you, what do they have to do to get there?
Mohamed Al Zaabi: Don’t stop dreaming. We are extremely lucky, Stefan, in this country. Extremely lucky. I think the luck comes from, I would say, the support from leaders and the government here. There are so many opportunities in this country. There is appetite and willingness to be in the top and the best. That is very unique. With the support from leaders, any dream, any idea you have, you can implement. Where else in the world you can dream and see your dream come that fast in front of you?
Stefan Zwanzger: So you’re a dreamer?
Mohamed Al Zaabi: I like to dream.
Stefan Zwanzger: Still today?
Mohamed Al Zaabi: And tomorrow.
Stefan Zwanzger: Even though your dreams came true?
Mohamed Al Zaabi: There is no stopping. There is no limit. I think the more you achieve the more you dream bigger and the more you see bigger support from people around you.
Stefan Zwanzger: You are very active on social media, like Elon Musk, you know. You respond to everybody, you post a lot, including all the books you read. And you have kids, and family and you’re CEO. Are you ever offline? Ever?
Mohamed Al Zaabi: I could be after this interview. (laughs) You can’t compare me with Elon Musk, there is no comparison here. I personally believe that social media is the new platform where you can hear and listen to our customers’ feedback. It’s amazing how much information they share with you. I remember, 5 years back, I noticed a number of ladies, local ladies, they were asking for ladies day. At that time we had only ladies night. So it was difficult for us to extend it to make it ladies day, because you lose half a day of business. So I asked my team to explore it. They said, “No way, forget it.” We kept it on the shelf. We did not act on the idea. Then, same feedback, same, I would say, comments I was hearing on social media. I went back to my team and said, “Guys, this time serious. We have to try it.” They said, “Okay, Mohamed, just for you, we’ll try it. But we will try it on Sunday, not Thursday.” And I wanted Thursday. Just extend the ladies night. And they said, “No, it will kill our business, we should not do it.” They tested Sunday, they came back to me “Mohamed, it failed, we will not do it again.” The comments kept on social media saying they want ladies day. And I went back to my team, “Guys, this time you will make it Thursday.” Thursday will be ladies day. And it was the most successful day ever in our history.
Stefan Zwanzger: In the history of Yas Island?
Mohamed Al Zaabi: In our history of Yas Water World.
Stefan Zwanzger: How about extending the new Midfield Terminal, the new terminal of Abu Dhabi Airport, to Yas Island so all people in the world could visit Yas Island, without visas, and Taliban, Americans, Austrians and Iranians could ride Formula Rossa together?
Mohamed Al Zaabi: (laughs) Stefan, I like your ideas. You always come to me with new ideas. And you always touch on ideas that somehow, at certain times, we explore it. This idea has been always there. And I agree with you, Abu Dhabi airport is close by. It’s seven minutes from our attractions. We have always been trying to crack it in the way that we allow people, especially transit passengers, to come to the island. And I’m sure one day we’ll reach a solution to allow them, somehow, at a certain time, to come to Yas Island.
Stefan Zwanzger: Mohamed, it was a pleasure. And really, thank you for answering all these questions. I appreciate it.
Mohamed Al Zaabi: Thank you, Stefan. It’s my pleasure.