Long before the international media and social media stratosphere took notice, Mohamed Hadid was quietly building a name for himself as a successful real estate developer and entrepreneur in the US and beyond. He did it in his now famous Hadid style – exuding class, confidence and style. Yet beyond the glamorous image he is now known for, Hadid’s life story is one filled with difficult challenges, hard work, ingenuity and perseverance. On a sunny afternoon at the Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills, California, Hadid shared his amazing journey with eniGma’s Editor-in-Chief Yasmine Shihata. Read on for a glimpse into Hadid’s inspiring journey…
I met Hadid years before he and his now supermodel daughters, Gigi and Bella, became household names; yet even then, his presence, charisma and star power were evident. Hadid had already made his mark in Washington DC, Colorado and Los Angeles as a world-class real estate developer. He built and furnished his projects in his unique and opulent style and built a name for himself. He also built a certain image for himself, by always dressing sharply and keeping company with beautiful people and the who’s who of social circles.
Yet beyond his glamorous image, is the true story of a proud and determined Palestinian refugee who worked tirelessly to build a life for himself outside of his motherland and to make his family proud. His is a story of hard work, ingenuity and perseverance, filled with highs and lows, obstacles and challenges, which resulted in a life even better and bigger than his wildest dreams. And what matters most to Hadid is the fact that he is the patriarch of a family he adores and is immensely proud of.
No one can capture the essence of Hadid’s story better than he can. So it was my pleasure to sit with him at the Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills, where he shared his amazing journey with me with great honesty and openness. Here are excerpts from Hadid’s truly inspiring journey…
Tell us about the origin of the Hadid family…
Our ancestry makes up so much of who we are today and who we will be in the future; it’s important to know who you are and where you came from. The idea that someone else was there before me and I carried on the torch is very important to me. My great great grandfather, Daher Al Omer Zaidany, was the first Arab ruler of Nazareth, Haifa and Jaffa in Palestine in the 18th Century when he seceded from the Ottoman Empire. He was the first ruler who gave the Jews a handwritten mandate to live in peace under his rule. My father embedded his legacy in us, as well as the importance of education and religion. The essence of religion is to be good to people and to give back. This history makes my family and I who we are; our culture, our religion and what my great grandfather taught us.
My great great grandfather also built so much around Galilee: in Haifa, Jaffa, and Nazareth. I feel I’ve somehow taken that legacy in my heart and it has inspired me because I read so much about the big things he built and the infrastructure he created in that area. I really relate to it.
How have you passed on this legacy and these values to your children?
I have to give credit to my two ex-wives, because they helped me give our kids the backbone to be able to find themselves and become independent. As long as you give your children a sense of security, you can let them go out and experience life on their own, fend for themselves and create their dreams. You instill in them the idea that a good education is their backbone. You teach them that whenever they make money, they should share it with the world, along with their knowledge. It’s not all about money. As we speak, Gigi is in Bangladesh on a UN mission and she has already helped build seven schools around the world. Not in a specific area and for a specific religious or community, but for humanity. What’s important is to be able to give back to society.
As an Arab, Muslim Palestinian in the US, what challenges did you face when you first came to the States?
I have been a refugee from an early age, and that made me look at things differently. I was born in Palestine and when I was one month old we went to a refugee camp in Syria. My father was well educated, so he got a job immediately and we left the refugee camp very quickly. That is why he always felt that education sets you free. He knew that he just had to work harder, and that was embedded in my head. I am a refugee and I am going to be a refugee for the rest of my life. I am proud to be Palestinian because we are a rare breed.
I always felt I was different no matter where I lived. And I felt people needed to know about me because I am Palestinian and Palestine does not exist as it once did. So for me changing my name or blending in was never an option, because I am who I am. I wanted to be different. I wanted to prove myself and I worked harder.
I never thought of myself as discriminated against, I just looked beyond my being a Palestinian, Arab and Muslim at a time when many people in the US thought the Palestinian Liberation Organisation was a terrorist organisation. I wanted to show that Palestinians are peaceful, smart and have a lot to offer. At a young age, I realised I had to work harder, imagine bigger and create everything in the biggest way possible in order to succeed. So, in my design work, for example, I had to create a niche for myself because otherwise no one would pick my designs. I had to have a bigger voice because otherwise I would be sidelined. If I was in a meeting with six or seven people, I was always the first and the last person to talk, so people would remember me. These are things you do unintentionally, just to get yourself noticed and for your work to be acknowledged. You have to be the best, because if there are other similarly qualified people pitching with you, who are all white or Jewish or whatever, you will be the last one picked. So, I had to do something different to get people’s attention. And once you get people’s attention they respect you, and you can go forward in life.
How did you feel after you became successful and made a name for yourself?
Anybody who succeeds and becomes famous always faces some jealousy. Fame comes with pros and cons. But I am so blessed to have five healthy kids who have all done well for themselves. My firstborn, Marielle, worked for seven years at the fashion brand Guess and then created her own clothing line, and now is a mother of two. My second born, Alana, is a great designer who has collaborated with many talented names. While my youngest three, Gigi, Bella and Anwar are all studying and working at the same time. Gigi is in school studying forensic psychology, and Bella and Anwar are in design school. All three have flourished in their modelling careers as well and have collaborated with the biggest and most famous names in the industry. They deserve credit for their success, as they have been so focused and honest. Work doesn’t come to them, they go out and fight for it. And they have become great role models for so many children. That’s very important and it gives me immense pleasure and pride. They carry the Hadid name very well and are very proud of it.
Tell us a bit about your childhood, starting in Syria.
My father got a job in the University of Damascus as a professor, then he was hired by the Voice of America radio program as a translator, writer and broadcaster. He was one of the first to be flown to Washington DC to broadcast from there. I remember sitting at home and listening to my father say “This is Anwar Hadid coming to you from Washington DC through satellite.” That was in 1952, I was three years old and so proud of my father.
We moved to Lebanon for a couple of years, then to Tunisia, until my mother sent me back to Syria to stay with my aunt as she was afraid that I would lose my Arabic; Tunisia had French education at the time. We all moved to Washington DC in 1964, where I went to high school. I was probably the only Arab in my school at the time. Then I got a (American) football scholarship to Duke University, but I was let go after six months because it turned out I couldn’t play American football well.
I had to figure out how to get to my next school. Getting an education was difficult for me because it was expensive, and my father had four kids in college at the same time. I wanted to pay for my education. Eventually I got a scholarship for North Carolina State University and from there I went to Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It was challenging, but I knew that I wanted to be an architect and an engineer and I managed to do that.
How early did you know what you wanted to do?
At first, I wanted to be an artist. But I knew art didn’t make money and my dreams were too big for art. So art became my release. It was what I loved.
I have been working since I was in high school. I worked as a bus boy, a tire changer, a mechanic, a painter. That was normal in America. After university I started working as a designer for different architects, but I realised that I wanted to do my own projects.
I went to Greece as my father had been transferred to the Island of Rhodes to head the Voice of America there. On the way to Rhodes, I made friends with two guys on the plane and once we got to Rhodes they took me out. I didn’t drink alcohol and I still don’t; I never drank or smoked in my life. We went to this disco, where the line was three miles long to get in. You had to wait for the people to get out to be able to get in because it was too small. So I looked at them and said let’s use our savings to open up a club. (I had just finished a big job in the US and had some extra money to invest). Two weeks later, we opened a club which became one of the most famous in Rhodes.
In the meantime, I went back to DC and started a classic car business with one of my partners from Rhodes (who was a car dealer). I was about 22 at that time and we had the best time ever. Then I started building little projects here and there and getting more into real estate. After that I went to help build a project in Doha, Qatar, the Sheraton Grand Doha Resort & Convention Hotel, which is still there today.
How did you become known internationally?
I started thinking beyond Washington DC and started an export company. I would go to different parts of the world and sell them products, anything from tractors, to furniture to knowledge, anything in demand. One of the countries I went to was Qatar, and in the early 70s, they needed a lot of know-how. I met a Palestinian there who brought me onto the Sheraton project, and suddenly I was their designer and developer. At that time, they were hungry for new ideas, new things, new people, so I became everything that I wanted to be in one place. I brought in many people in for the project, but I didn’t get much credit for it, but I didn’t care. I gave myself credit for it because I knew that without me it couldn’t have happened.
I learned a lot about the Arab world at that time, but I realised I needed to make my stamp in the US, not the Middle East. So I left Qatar and went back to Washington and continued to work there.
My first project there was built as a world trade center, but I ended up renting the building then selling it for a big profit. I started looking for projects no one else wanted, because I couldn’t compete with the established players in the industry. I would select projects and change their value by designing something very special.
I decided to create buildings that were close to the design of international landmarks but not known to the community. I also started looking for areas in DC around the Capitol, which was surrounded by areas in despair. So, I would take a piece of property nobody else wanted and create something beautiful out of it.
I knew I needed to find my niche in the market and to do something different – and once I created that niche, I started buying properties and developing in better areas. I ended up building seven or eight million square feet of office buildings in the late 70s and 80s. Then I started building communities. I built a mosque and school, Dar Al Hijra, for my community in Fairfax Virginia. Then my Ritz Carlton projects came about. I bought and developed three hotels from bankruptcy in NY, Washington and other places. I also built one in Colorado, and one in Houston, Texas, and became one of the largest Ritz Carlton owners at the time. Then I started developing for others as well.
Then, in 1989 to 1991, the market collapsed, and because I was one of the largest owners of land in Colorado, I ended up losing everything. So, I took a couple of years off and I decided to train for the Olympics!
Wow, the Olympics, how did that come about?
Actually, I started skiing when I was 37! My friend Franz Weber, was one of the fastest skiers on earth and he trained me in Aspen. He thought I was a genetically good skier because I could keep up with him. And it was the perfect release for me, as skiing made me feel free.
After the market crash, I was shattered, and I didn’t want to do anything. I wasn’t worried about money – I knew it would come back. I was worried about my family and my two kids. I wanted a new journey, so we moved to California to start a new life.
A friend who was about to train for the Olympics for the next two years, convinced me to go to Chile with him to train. I qualified for the Olympics, and since I had the Jordanian passport at the time, I decided to participate for Jordan.
Jordanians were making fun of me, and I understand why. I was this 43 year-old guy who was competing with these young athletes. But, I was just having fun. I decided to go to the Olympics by myself for Jordan, whether they liked it or not. I was the only one in the Jordanian team. I didn’t win any medals, but I had the best time ever. I did something that was so unusual. I was taking risks and loving it. It was an amazing experience.
So you are ready to take risks when you are passionate about something?
Yes, I am a risk taker, which is a good and bad quality at the same time; but for me it always worked out. I try not to think about the past, I don’t think about how much money I lost, because I never really had any. People say all my former properties are now worth 16 to 17 billion dollars; I say, so what? The past is past, you have to move on. My legacy is what I leave on earth; it’s not money, it is the people who are going to carry my message; people who can make new trends like I did. I always say, “Don’t follow a trend, make your own.” If you have kids that carry your name, your culture, your religion, your sense of humour, your sense of elegance, that is much more important than money. None of my children need me for money, even at a young age, and that to me is my legacy. They all have a purpose in their lives – so when I die, I will feel comfortable.
My father used to tell me, “Don’t trust anyone who does not have poor friends, because poor people are often rich in knowledge.” A lot of people want to socialise with the rich, but they don’t know that being rich has nothing to do with physical things. Richness comes from the mind. I didn’t understand that at the time, but as I got older I appreciated everything my father taught me.
In 1984, I created a fund for families with children eligible for scholarships. My sister ran it and I funded it. The deal was that these students would have to give back and do the same when they graduated and made money. Thus they would fund another person in their place. The students could be Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Palestinian, Syrian, Lebanese, anything.
Eventually my sister retired, so now I just support individual cases. My kids support education as well, out of respect for what I have done. As refugees, we were taken care of in Syria and Lebanon, so they feel obliged to help other refugees regardless of where they are from.
What did you do when you went to California?
I needed to make money again, so I worked with a couple of friends to start financing small emerging public companies. In return for the investment, the companies gave us founders stock on a discounted basis. Automatically when we gave them money, their situations improved and their stock went up. We funded things like voice power technology in the early 90’s, and the stock went from seven cents to seven dollars, so we were making millions. Yet, we also missed out on opportunities, like for example eBay. They came twice and wanted us to give them $7,500 and in return they’d give us one third of the company; but I didn’t understand their vision, unfortunately!
Overall we did well and I was able to use the money I earned to pay off a lot of debt then to get back to what I loved, designing and developing real estate. I wanted to build mansions in Los Angeles, Aspen and Mexico. I wanted to use my knowledge in the hospitality business as a way to create new products for people who wanted bigger homes with bold timeless classic designs for modern living; a combination that people hadn’t done before. The idea was for everything to feel larger than life. So, I started building large homes with theatres and very large rooms, since I realised there was a demand for that but nobody had done it because it was too expensive. I did it and thankfully I was successful.
And LA is a perfect playground for all these large properties…
It is, and there’s not that much out there. Styles change, and people copy what you do, so you have to always create new designs. At the end of the day, even though I’m American and I’ve been in the US for 50 plus years, I like the edge that being different, a sort of foreigner, gives me. I like my accent, I like that my kids say they are 100% Muslims, because I’m a Muslim and their mother is Muslim too, yet we are modern. Being a Muslim is not just about wearing the hijab and praying five times a day; it’s what you give to the world. Be compassionate towards people, but be yourself. These are the kind of things I try to embed in my family.
You come from a big family, is that something that you always wanted as well?
Yes, I used to have a big farm in Maryland in the 80s, and my whole family would come over and bring friends. It was my happiest time. There would be 50 to 60 people staying there; it was like the TV show Dallas, but with Palestinians (he laughs). The property had about 50 bedrooms and a landing field, so I would fly in my plane and bring my whole family. I was living the dream I had when I was young.
What would you say is the biggest challenge you still face to this day?
The challenge is to keep the evil away. You have to know when to say no to people who want to take advantage of you. Success and popularity has its advantages and disadvantages. For me, popularity doesn’t do anything for my business, maybe because I made my name in the past.
But because of it, I worry about everything I do and how it could reflect on my children. One little mistake, one bad Instagram post can reflect on my kids, and vice versa. We’re so connected and disconnected – and there are people who want to find something to hurt us with. And when we use our popularity or platform for a cause, some people get offended; but when you don’t, they blame you too.
Who would have thought one of the most famous families in America would be a Palestinian Muslim family, it’s pretty remarkable…
It’s funny a journalist for GQ recently asked me “Are you aware that the Hadid family is one of the most known families around the world?” I hadn’t really thought about before.
I now walk in the middle of Cairo or Bangladesh airports or elsewhere and people know who I am; it’s strange. And when I went to Beirut, I had thousands of people asking to take selfies with me. It was surreal.
Have you ever been back to Palestine?
Yes, I went back to where I was born. My family still owns the house. My great grandfather descended from prophet Mohamed, and just lately they sent us a document that shows our lineage. It’s very important to understand that Palestine was there forever; they tried to take it away and they probably will succeed. Most of Palestine is now Israel and I don’t think they will ever allow a two-state solution. The Arab governments don’t care enough to ensure it will happen and every Arab country has its own problems. Today we also have Syrian refugees and Iraqi refugees. The Palestinian crisis used to be the main crisis, but sadly now there are so many.
And now the Skyline project in Egypt is bringing you back to our region. How does that feel?
As an Arab, making my living in the US, I want to go back and leave a mark in the Arab world; a region I love and respect. Yet, I can’t do this on my own, I need to have associates I trust. That’s why I’m doing the Skyline project in Egypt. It will be a one-of-a-kind project that will be a huge complex for living and working, offering an amazing vantage point to view the city. It is set to be world’s largest building and will also feature the world’s largest infinity pool.
I want to create something that will stand the test of time; that generations in the future will remember. Hopefully the Skyline project in Egypt will do that. The Al Morshedy family who are behind it, are a great family. Together we want to create something that will be ground breaking and great for the community. We want this project to be an example for others to follow. We are working on a project in Morocco, as well. I’m thrilled to be doing projects in the Arab world that will take me back there regularly.
And you are being true to your vision, creating buildings that are larger than life…
Yes, but this time it’s also the vision of the Al Morshedy family and the amazing team that we put together. Hopefully we will create something iconic. A great legacy.