Name: Salem al-Marri
Title: Country Manager, Japan, Emirates (since February 2018)
DOB: July 27, 1980
Working years in Japan: 3
Somehow, Japan just seems to keep pulling Salem al-Marri back into its orbit. As the recently appointed country manager for the United Arab Emirates’ flagship airline, Emirates, al-Marri is making himself at home in Tokyo.
The appointment is a homecoming of sorts for the UAE native. Al-Marri is back in the metropolis after completing an MBA here around a decade ago.
Along with an international family (his wife is originally from Kobe), al-Marri brings a wealth of global experience and lofty goals to his post. His unbridled curiosity and upbeat attitude are evident immediately.
“During my formative years, I was fortunate to be exposed to the world. My uncles were part of the second wave of people from the UAE sent overseas and I would summer in the U.S.,” he said.
In addition, he would also accompany his father on trips abroad. These experiences opened his eyes to the world and imbued al-Marri with a passion for connecting with others.
“I learned that there are many different people, backgrounds and experiences,” he said.
After graduating from Northeastern University with a degree in mechanical engineering and getting married, he did a U-turn and moved with his new family from Boston to Dubai, where he found work in oil and gas in Abu Dhabi.
Seeking change, three years later he landed a Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology government scholarship to study at Kobe University. While there, he was accepted to Hitotsubashi University’s International Corporate Strategy MBA program and completed his degree in 2008.
However al-Marri noted two failures in his life. He reflected that the first was self-induced in his twenties when he pursued monetary gain at the expense of his true passion. The second was the result of circumstance when he graduated just as the Lehman Brothers crisis hit.
“My plan was always to join Emirates. For me, it was all about the globe, the world, the people, the connection. I loved to go on new adventures and meet people,” he said. “The brand resonated with me. There were these little hints every time I saw it and I said, ‘Maybe one day.'”
However, al-Marri faced many obstacles before reaching his goal. In 2008, Emirates implemented a hiring freeze. Feeling unlucky but undeterred, al-Marri bounced around Dubai, working in a number of positions in fields that included government, investment banking, transport logistics and management consulting. The global financial implosion may have sidetracked his career, but his philosophy of saying yes to new experiences and doing things with heart helped him make up for lost time.
“I learned that life can put you on your knees sometimes, so you have to keep getting up and moving forward, or else you get stuck,” he said.
The flip side of the nearly six-year detour was that he accumulated business acumen and experience in different areas. When he heard that Emirates had a position open in route planning and strategy, he jumped at the opportunity.
“I knew it was a very low level one (position) and I was 33, and the average age to be accepted was 26. But I was willing to do it,” he said. “That was the beginning of my adventure with the brand that resonated with me from such a young age.”
He rose rapidly from the position of route planning analyst to route planning manager. He worked on major projects, including routes involving New Zealand and Chile that will start operating in July 2018.
“People in my former department called me the ‘game changer.’ They say I always like to change the game, which is something I believe in. You have to be unique and if everyone goes left, then you go right,” he said.
He describes his new role overseeing sales, airport operations, cargo, finance, management of corporate financial assets and the brand in Japan as akin to a mini ambassador.
“For us, Japan is a very important tier-one market. Ever since the discovery of oil in the UAE, Japan has been a key trading partner. It started with oil and gas, then moved to autos, electronics and now culture and knowledge, as well as tourism,” he said.
Direct traffic between the two countries is on the rise. Al-Marri shares that Emirates has flown 3.67 million people between Japan and Dubai since 2002, adding that, “Dubai has become one of the world’s leading, safest tourist and business destinations, and we promote it as an end destination for all segments.”
Emirates started servicing Japan with flights to Osaka in 2002, later expanding operations to include daily flights to Osaka, Narita and Haneda airports.
“The marketplace is changing and you have to be dynamic. So we really pay close attention to what we offer and how to customize and personalize it (flights),” he said.
Prime examples include adding an anime category, 84 Japanese movies and 25 music channels to the pre-existing 3,500 channels of digital, in-flight entertainment, as well as a kaiseki (traditional multicourse cuisine) Japanese meal plan.
The airline is also gearing up for big events such as the 2019 Rugby World Cup and 2020 Tokyo Olympics, followed by Expo 2020 Dubai in the UAE.
“Moving forward, we’d like to further grow the customer base of our Japanese market, and we want to do that through optimizing our product and service offerings for the Japanese customer,” he said. “Also, as a Dubai-based carrier we want to promote the Middle East and Dubai.”
Focus accompanies varied schooling, work
Born in the United Arab Emirates, Salem al-Marri brings a distinctly international perspective to his job. Al-Marri completed his undergraduate education in mechanical engineering at Northeastern University in the U.S. After studying at Kobe University and completing Hitotsubashi University’s International Corporate Strategy MBA program, he returned to Dubai in 2008 to a challenging job market precipitated by the global financial crisis. He worked in areas ranging from oil and gas to government, investment banking and transport logistics, but always maintained a desire to work for Emirates. In late 2013, he got his chance, starting over from scratch at the company as a route planning analyst in the Route Planning and Economics Section of the Strategic Planning Department. Promoted to route planning manager in 2014, he assumed his position in Tokyo in early 2018.
The Big Questions is a Monday interview series showcasing prominent figures who have a strong connection to Japan.