An adrenaline-fueled Mohamed Hadid is twisting and turning his lithe frame for the camera in a sun-filled photo studio on the outskirts of Dubai. As he jumps in the air for an action shot, he lets out a self-conscious laugh but his blue eyes flash with assurance. For someone who isn’t a model, he moves with studied attention, offering a new pose for each frame. One can’t help but think, so this is where his model kids – Gigi, Bella, and Anwar – got it from. Through the speakers, James Brown is belting out hit after hit. Hadid knows them all by heart. He sings along in perfect English marked with an unidentifiable accent, the sign of a global citizen.
Over the course of 40 years, Hadid has traveled to Dubai only a handful of times and his phone buzzes with invites as though the community is welcoming back a long-lost relative.
Dubai, however, is just one leg of a longer journey that began in Paris. Hadid flew to the French capital from his hometown of Beverly Hills, landing smack in the middle of a city wrought with social unrest. He recalls the windows of his hotel being smashed, cars set ablaze, and violent clashes between police and civil servants. His tanned brow furrows. “Sometimes, working people need to stand up for their rights,” he says. “When the economy is down, there is less pay and more to pay.” It’s a working man’s reality that the self-made Hadid – real estate developer, architect, and occasional artist – knows all too well. “My business goes up and down with the market,” he comments. “But I never looked at my projects as ‘making money.’ It’s the pleasure of doing them that matters.”
From Paris, Hadid next traveled to Cairo, home to his current passion project. Along with his partner Hassan Morshedy, owner and CEO of Memaar Al Morshedy, he is introducing Skyline. Spanning 40 acres, the city within a city will comprise residential, commercial, and entertainment facilities all under one sprawling garden roof. “I wanted to get involved because it’s for the up and coming – the young working class, couples, or single people looking to live in a good environment. We need places like this in the Arab world,” says Hadid, adding that presently, there is no in-between. “Either you are in an amazing space or a poverty driven area,” he says. “It gives me pleasure to work on something that people can afford.”
Expected to serve between 40,000 and 50,000 residents, Skyline will offer 16,000 apartments just outside Cairo. Hadid adds that the design – a block of sweeping lines and sophisticated geometric forms – aims to be “friendly and green” and will include headline-making features like the world’s largest infinity pool. It’s a new direction for the man whose hotels once ruled Aspen and who outbid a fellow real estate goliath: former US president Donald Trump. Ask him if he’s found a new guru and Hadid waxes poetic. “I belong to a bygone era – that of my ancestor Daher al-Omar. I saw the stuff he built in Palestine, in Galilee,” he says of the mid-18th century Arab ruler. “He’s in the past, but I feel like he’s my mentor; he wanted to improve the lives of people.”
Skyline is not the first major project Hadid has been part of in the region. In 1981, he worked on a hotel for which he didn’t receive credit – or his last payment. The experience left him with an open wound, one that still seems somewhat raw. “Maybe it’s because I’m Arab. They have this distrust in Arab talent…” his voice trails. “What makes me furious is people who misunderstand me,” he says, lowering his voice to a growl. “That and mediocrity – when you settle for less than what you deserve. In other cultures, they help each other, allow you to grow, prosper. In the Arab world they always seem to put you down. ‘If this guy is wealthy, he must have gotten it illegally.’ They never uplift you.” He shrugs. “It’s easier for me to do business in the US.” Hadid is not a businessman who forgives and forgets. “Partnerships are tough,” he smiles. “I digest, cut my losses, and move on.”
Hadid was born in Nazareth in 1948, in a wood-paneled room with fine Italian frescoes decorating the ceiling. The year also marked the establishment of the Israeli state. When Hadid was just a month old, his family fled to Damascus. In the years that followed, they continued to resettle – Beirut, Tunis – before ultimately emigrating to Washington DC. “My father was probably working four to five jobs at a time,” remembers Hadid. “Translator, broadcaster, editor… I don’t think he had time for his kids. But we knew he loved us; he was trying to make a living for us. We were eight children and my grandmother, who was blind.”
Hadid charged through school. First Duke University, then North Carolina State University, and finally Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “I wanted to be an artist,” he reveals of his earliest ambitions. A conversation with his father convinced him to study engineering instead, though he does paint today, calling art his “release.” Hadid’s college years were formative. He learned to fly at 16 – having purchased an old Cesna 150 on credit and taking practice runs at Deep Creek airport outside Washington DC. Four years later, he opened a nightclub in Greece while on holiday on the isles. Aquarius quickly became one of the It places for jet-set bohemians. After each summer, the budding entrepreneur took his savings and parlayed them into real estate.
Meanwhile, in the US, Hadid remembers his mother keeping a home that was open to everyone. This did not spare the young Hadid from prejudice, however. “I think because of my light coloring, from what I experienced, people did not think my name should be Mohamed,” he recalls. “I’ve always loved my name. To me, it’s very unusual; like an exotic plant. At one point, a friend started telling people my name was something different. He didn’t want to embarrass himself that he had an Arab, Muslim friend.” Hadid asserts that while he always felt comfortable with his identity, he raised his five children – Alana, Marielle, Gigi, Bella, and Anwar – to decide on their own paths. “But I think they like the idea of being who they are, and they are strong, modern women,” he says of his daughters. He comments that people are sometimes surprised by his openness.
“My parents were liberal,” he shrugs. “We were raised to do whatever you can and whatever you want, as long as you are safe. I let my kids do the same. I get a lot of heat. ‘How do you let your daughters walk around half-naked?’ It bothers me to hear it but I’m always very kind. Only God judges people. You take care of your family, I’ll take care of mine. We are parents, not jailers.” Hadid states that his life’s priority is his children, but the patriarch makes a point of saying that his fathering days are behind him. “Am I going to have more babies? No. Am I going to get married? No. I’m just trying to keep healthy.”
Hadid is reflective of his journey. “I just received an invitation from Harvard University to speak about my life to a thousand kids,” he reveals. “I’m not a good speaker. I’m scared to death. I’m thinking of what to say to them almost every night.” He dives into a test run. “A refugee from Palestine that literally travelled the world. I always thought that was how people lived. Pick up your bags and move on,” he says, adding that his is a life of experience that helped him understand happiness and pain. He recalls how, when the US market collapsed in the late 80s, he left Washington DC for the West Coast so as not to show his weakness to his family and to protect his reputation as the man who led. During his newfound time off, he learned speed skiing, practicing the sport in a wind tunnel in Pasadena and earning a spot on the Jordan Olympic team. “I always thought big,” he admits with a grin.
Hadid puts his experiences down to being canny. “You don’t need to think about it; you grab it, then decide and learn to do it. Don’t let an opportunity pass you by. There is no such thing as failure.” With his burning ambition in no way ceasing, Hadid projects that he will happily work forever. “You get to a point in your life where you go where you want to go. I feel fulfilled doing this project – Skyline – regardless of the outcome. But I feel that it will be successful. I think I will enjoy doing projects in the Arab world. I don’t know why… Maybe it’s just coming back home.”
Originally Published in Vogue Man Arabia April 2019