Collaborate or die

By Rehan Khan. Published in The National on 29th January 2009. There is a scene in the film Gladiator when the mighty Maximus Decimus Meridius, played by the tough as nails Russell Crowe, and his fellow gladiators are thrust into the great Roman Coliseum to face down an enemy unbeknown to them.  The independent, combative and competitive gladiators wouldn't normally work together. They were too busy entertaining the audience to care for such things as camaraderie. Their raison-d'etre was kill or be killed. Sounds like the kind of language used in many business school MBA programs. But this new erstwhile enemy they are about to face is a force beyond their reckoning; it's an enemy unseen and its power is unknown as it whirls its destructive force through the battleground they find themselves in. The only choices they have are to collaborate or die. As all of you who've watched the film will know the gladiators put aside their egos, circle together with their backs against one another and work together to defeat the enemy.

Watching the financial carnage unfold around the world one is left with the gnawing feeling that its time a lot of people in the real-estate industry put down their spears and arrows and instead chained themselves to one another, in a bid to either succeed or fail together, because there's really no other way. We're all in the middle of a storm, though not quite perfect, its still tumultuous enough to shake the very foundations of our industry. The old obsequious notions of how we did things to differentiate ourselves are being scattered in the dust. Suddenly being a developer who goes out on a limb to make them selves look different through the use of technological gadgetry or through the endorsement of a celebrity, whose best years are behind them, seems quite an absurd way of trying to attract customers. What happened to the good old fashioned principles of providing value to clients through excellence in customer service and by offering the right product at the right price? Umm yeah that sounds like a good idea I hear you say.

Funny how times change then - suddenly the didactic macho bellicose language of real estate developers around town has been replaced by temperance and sobriety. And wait for it – a seemingly genuine sincerity to do what they said they were going to do. That is build the damn buildings to time, budget and to plan. Now since I'm also from the same industry it may appear a trite impolite to be standing on a soap box wagging a finger at my peers. But let's face it everyone in the industry had their heads either above the clouds or in the sand. That included customers, brokers, developers, bankers and the regulator. So that's pretty much just about everyone. Since we've all got ourselves into this fine mess together, we need to somehow untangle ourselves without tripping over one another and bringing the whole industry crashing down about us.

Clearly the banks have a role to play in terms of injecting the liquidity which provides the oxygen for customers to buy. Customers must have a reasonable expectation of what can be achieved. The regulator and law makers have an important stewardship and governance role, to ensure the playing field is equal for all professional developers to compete in. They must provide timely and well thought through legislation. And of course developers need to do what they do best – develop. But what we must see now from master developers and sub-developers alike is a true spirit of vertical collaboration and cooperation. All our ships are in rough seas and together we must steer the flotilla out of the shoaly waters and into calmer oceans.

Developers such as us and master developers together must form Developers Associations, whose primary objective is to ensure the success of the master development. By vertically collaborating on technical, operational, marketing and governance issues with the authorities and regulator the professional cadre of developers working in unison will ensure that projects which they have staked their company's futures on will be delivered. This coming together will collectively focus efforts on all fronts and will allow developers to speak with a more unified voice and better serve the interests of their customers.

The UAE and particularly Dubai has attracted some of the best entrepreneurial minds from around the globe. We probably have some of the brightest people from some of the most diverse parts of the world within the borders of the UAE at this time. If however the development industry continues to hemorrhage the way it has recently, this intellectual talent pool will be sucked out and lost to other countries in the region. We are truly at a crossroads in the history of the real-estate development industry and we have to make it together. If we lose this moment, if we lose this opportunity to collaborate and cooperate then we would have lost this chance for a generation.

Developers in Dubai have a great entrepreneurial spirit and need to stand up and be counted. This is not the time to run to the hills. Maximus knew how to fight an overwhelming enemy when he told his men "whatever comes out of these gates, we've got a better chance of survival if we work together, do you understand?" If we as the development community don't understand it now we never will. Let's get our backs together, support one another and look the enemy in the eye. Are you not entertained?