Considering that Dubai’s Jumeirah Group is rarely out of the UAE’s papers and regularly makes global headlines, the man behind the brand does a remarkably good job of staying out of the public eye. Reluctant when it comes to media interviews, preferring to let the quality of his hotels speak for themselves, Gerald Lawless is somewhat an enigma — everybody in the Middle East hospitality industry knows him, yet he scarcely speaks about himself. But with Jumeirah’s rapid portfolio expansion over the past 12 months propelling Lawless to the top ranking spot in the Hotelier Middle East Power 50 list of most influential hoteliers and a recent reshuffle of the company’s board bestowing on him the new and improved title of president and group CEO, Hotelier decided it was time to change that.

When we approached Lawless for an interview back in July, we didn’t tell him that he had scored the number one position in the Power 50. As always, this ranking is kept a secret until the September issue is published. Instead, we said we were inviting everyone in the list to Hotelier Towers for an interview and photoshoot. It was touch and go; Lawless accepted, but then promptly declined upon reading our questions. However, some gentle persuasion and rather persistent calling confirmed the meeting, and the head of the Middle East’s most famous home-grown hotel chain even took time out of his day to come to our office — quite a feat considering his obvious anxiety at being in the region’s largest publishing house.

It’s a story many know but Lawless, who joined Jumeirah upon its foundation in 1997 after a 23-year career with Forte Hotels, first came to Dubai in 1978 after convincing his exasperated superiors at Forte that he wanted a post abroad. With his previous hotel experience at this time covering just Ireland and the UK, this was a “pretty exotic” move, recalls Lawless, but more importantly, “one of the defining moments” of his career. He opened what we now know to be Le Méridien Airport Hotel and remained with Forte in Dubai for four years, then moved around to South Africa, Bahrain and Dublin. With Dubai still close to his heart, in 1990 Lawless suggested that he set up Forte’s regional office in Dubai and expand the portfolio in the region. His wish was granted, as long as he also looked after the company’s eight hotels in the Caribbean and covered both faraway territories from an unlikely location — Slough in the UK. Ultimately, it took Lawless 13 years to actually move back to Dubai, which he did in 1991 to set up Forte’s office but he has been in the emirate ever since.

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From Forte to Jumeirah
However, despite his loyalty to Forte over the years, things turned sour in 1996 when the group was taken over by Granada in a hostile bid. In 1997, Lawless made the decision to move on and set up what is now Jumeirah in the “biggest and most defining” moment of his career. The question here is obvious; was it always the plan to develop Jumeirah as a global hotel chain, and did Lawless know 15 years ago, that in 2012 he would be in charge of 21 operating hotels and a pipeline of 13 more?

The answer he says is obvious too — “because I could see what was happening here”.
“I was invited to have a look at the Jumeirah Beach Hotel which was under construction and afterwards, I said to my wife ‘there’s no doubt, there’s no question this is what I want’.

And so the growth started; with Lawless working on the “very dynamic” development of Jumeirah Beach Hotel, Burj Al Arab, Wild Wadi, Emirates Towers and then Madinat Jumeirah, delivering the vision of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai.

“At the time people kept asking him what is your vision for this and he’d say ‘you’ll see’ and he did say [Burj Al Arab] would be the symbol of Dubai and I think he also felt very much that it would be a symbol of Dubai’s tourism or what he was going to develop with tourism. But did I know this was going to happen? No, not at the time,” says Lawless.

With Jumeirah’s Dubai presence established, in 2003 the company started putting the strategy together to develop the luxury brand abroad, having acquired hotels in London in 2001, but it was “joining Dubai Holding at the end of 2004 that became really a defining moment for us in terms of the future of Jumeirah and how it could expand,” says Lawless.

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