Our History

Our History

The Al Otaiba family: where it all began

The Al Otaiba family history starts with the pearl. There are few naturally occurring objects deemed more precious than this beautiful sphere: valued, beautiful, rare. While they have deep connections with most cultural traditions around the world, they are synonymous with the Gulf and one family name in particular: Al Otaiba.

That’s why to truly understand the rich and storied history of one of the UAE’s most famous families, we must first travel back thousands of years to discover the huge part played by these small, spherical entities – pearls.

The secret of pearls and the economic history of Arabia

Few people understand the incredible role that pearling played in the economic history of Arabia. For the course of 7,000 years, the exchange and trading of this luxury commodity was at the very heart of business in the region – and beyond. Traders were known to flock from faraway places including Europe, India, and America to trade these much sought-after natural creations.

Without the pearl, the economic tapestry of Arabia would never have been so broad and rich.

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Through the export of pearls, the business savvy minds of the region could trade for exotic foreign imports – such as rice and spices – which were, at the time, of great value. But the pearl was far more than a valuable bargaining chip when it came to barter. During the now infamous pearl trading boom between 1870 and 1930, the value of these tiny natural objects allowed a handful of the most forward-thinking, business-minded families to rise to great economic power – and stay there for generations to come.

One family was so successful in this pursuit that it rose high above the others and would come to be known as the ‘kings of pearls’ – that family was, of course, the Al Otaibas. With a fleet of ships, transporting the most beautiful pearls around the globe, the family quickly rose to power and became among the most influential traders of their time. Of the many legendary Al Otaiba pearl traders, there is perhaps one that perfectly exemplifies the enduring traits of the family to this day – drive, passion, and a constant quest for perfection – and that was Khalaf Bin Abdulla Al Otaiba.

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Khalaf Bin Abdulla Al Otaiba – the first of the master traders

Khalaf Bin Abdulla Al Otaiba is perhaps the family’s first famed master trader. At 15, he started his career as a pearl diver, training on his uncle’s boats and quickly rising to the rank of Nokhitha (Captain).

In the years that followed, he would acquire an unrivalled knowledge of the secrets of pearl trading in the Gulf and it quickly became evident that he would not spend his life as a hired hand – even to his uncle. Soon, with money saved from his pearl diving exploits, the young Khalaf Bin Abdulla Al Otaiba bought his own ship and began trading in his own right.

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This solitary vessel quickly turned into a fleet of 20 that he owned personally. At the same time, he financed around 100 boats per season for other merchants based throughout the Emirates – and sometimes up to 300. By the age of 60, he was a renowned and incredibly wealthy pearl merchant – one of the most respected traders in the region – as well as being the sheikh of his tribe.

It would also be Khalaf Bin Abdulla Al Otaiba who pioneered the now famed Al Otaiba family strength of diversification. Alongside his pearl trading business, he also established a diving equipment company that supplied most boats in the region and used his fleet of ships to import rice, sugar, coffee and oils from India and dates from Basra.

He was also representative of another Al Otaiba family trait: community spirit. Always looking to give something back, he opened the first school in Abu Dhabi in the mid-1920s, offering free education to local children and anyone else wishing to enrol.

As a pillar of the community and a famed and well-respected businessman, Khalaf Bin Abdulla Al Otaiba formed close bonds with many high-status individuals and dignitaries in the region, including Ali Bin Mohammed Al Mahmoud, Ahmed Bin Dalmouk, Salem Bin Mussabah Bin Hamoudah and Emir Abdulla Bin Jelwi, Prince of the Eastern Zone in Saudi Arabia.

These relationships – and indeed much of the story of his life – is indicative of the long and well-connected Al Otaiba family history: Sheikh Ahmed bin Khalaf Al Otaiba was close personal friends with Sheikh Shakhbot bin Sultan Al Nahyan (the former-ruler of Abu Dhabi), while Mohammed Bin Ahmed Al Otaiba and other family members had close ties with the Al Maktoum rulers of Dubai.

This authority over the region was most certainly not short-lived – both in terms of status and business success. Unlike many of their contemporaries, the Al Otaibas were astute enough to progress and adapt to the changing world of business in the UAE.

As the world evolved, so did they.

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The birth of the Mohamed Hareb Al Otaiba Group – from master traders to a business dynasty

The Al Otaiba family story is not simply one about the mere determination to succeed. While this was and is undoubtedly a trait of generations of Al Otaibas, there is much more to their success than this. The family harnessed this determination with their seemingly innate ability to remain active members of their community – always placing great importance on working with and supporting those around them.

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And as we jump forward to the creation of the MHAO group, this approach has remained the soul of both the family and its business to this day.

In the 1940s, the regions of Arabia were a very different place. The surge of the pearling industry that continued into the 1930s was then followed by a sharp decline as many countries ceased trading due to the advent of the Second World War. To make matters worse, the Japanese cultured pearl hit the market, meaning that the overall value of this once rare and highly-treasured commodity decreased.

Rather than buckle in these trying times for pearl traders, the Al Otaiba family did what they do best: adapted to the new business landscape and sought success in other markets. It’s a credit to the resolve and business acumen of the family that they could thrive where others were floundering during this time of global financial insecurity.

This new, modern direction for the family culminated in 1946 with the establishment of the Mohamed Hareb Al Otaiba Group (MHAO) in Abu Dhabi, which heralded a new style of business venture. The group grew quickly, acquiring some of the world’s most trusted brands.

In 1975, Mr Hareb Mohammed Al Otaiba completed a deal that was seen very much as a coup for MHAO in the region – brokering an agreement to bring the trusted and internationally renowned vehicle hire brand Avis Rent a Car to the UAE. The company’s first office was opened in Abu Dhabi and in the years that followed, MHAO led the expansion of Avis throughout the rest of the Emirates. Today, Avis Rent a Car is the fastest growing transport provider in the Middle East.

Big names were drafted in from other industries as well, such as the technology giant Xerox. This deal saw Xerox and MHAO join forces to launch Xerox Emirates which brought the entire range of digital copy, scan and print products, solutions, and managed print services to the UAE.

This period – under the stewardship of Mr Hareb Al Otaiba – would see the group’s greatest period of diversification since its inception, as MHAO branched out into new arenas while still only offering the highest quality products and services. After opening its prestigious Dubai showroom in the early 1970s, MHAO continued to see success in sectors as diverse as office equipment and sporting goods. But while the fields of business may have changed, the family’s continuous drive for quality has not.

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Looking to the future

With more than 70 years of excellence under its belt, MHAO is now one of the most well-known and respected names in the UAE. Across multiple industries, the result for the group has been the same: successfully bringing high-quality goods to the markets of the Middle East.

Since coming under the chairmanship, in 1995, of Mr Mohamed Hareb Al Otaiba – who rose to the challenge of running the group in his early twenties following the passing of his father – MHAO has only accelerated its strive for excellence, adding further household names to its portfolio.

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Mr Mohamed Hareb Al Otaiba’s MHAO continues to represent the values of the Al Otaiba family throughout the years with its trademark offering of high-quality products and an efficient service.

As for the future, the goal of MHAO is clear, to continue in the long tradition of master Al Otaiba traders and extend the journey to make both the company and family household names throughout the Middle East and beyond.

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Here's a journey through time highlighting the rise of one of the most influential business houses in the UAE -the Mohamed Hareb Al Otaiba group.

Seven decades of leadership experience and innovative thinking has resulted in the realization of a vision of quality products, excellent service ,professional management and a team of strong and committed people.