A new school of thought

In July last year UAE businessman Abdulla Al Ghurair announced he would donate $1.1bn to create one of the largest privately-funded philanthropic education initiatives in the world. Together with his son, Abdul Aziz, he tells us about laying down a blueprint for change for young people across the Arab world

In the early 1960s when Abdulla Al Ghurair built his first school, he did so in the foothills of Fujairah, an emirate known more for its jagged mountains than the glass-and-steel skylines of other UAE emirates. The Masafi School was built beside the Al Ghurair family farm and attracted students from all over the country. Although it was open for less than a decade, the UAE’s first boarding school counts cabinet ministers and business leaders among its alumni.

Today it is still possible to spy the old school, a handful of concrete buildings bounded by scratched-dirt roads, from the farmstead. Yet Abdulla’s perspective has shifted fundamentally in the half-century since that facility opened. His gaze is now fastened firmly on long-lasting change, on a legacy that will stand for far more than just the sum of his past.

“The foundation did not stem from a dream but from my faith, and it is Islam that urges me to do good on this journey” In July last year Abdulla announced that he would donate one third of his wealth, amounting to an estimated $1.1bn, to education in the Arab world, over a 10-year period. The Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education (AGFE) would take a systematic approach to tackling one of the region’s greatest challenges. It would strive to improve education standards across the region, through offering scholarships enabling a minimum of 15,000 promising Arab youth from underprivileged backgrounds to pursue quality higher education.

“The first Quranic verse that descended on Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) said ‘Read’,” notes Abdulla today. “The foundation did not stem from a dream but from my faith, and it is Islam that urges me to do good on this journey.

“The formation of our identity begins with education; education is where it all starts,” he continues. “It is a necessity and other charitable causes don’t have the same vast potential.”

Abdulla will not carry this fight alone: AGFE is a family affair and one intended to enshrine a culture of giving within future generations of Al Ghurairs. Abdulla’s son Abdul Aziz, CEO of Mashreq bank and a former Speaker of the House of the UAE’s Federal National Council, is chair of the foundation’s board of trustees. He is the man charged with ensuring that his father’s vision becomes reality for a new tranche of Arab youth – those with the potential to become either the region’s greatest asset, or liability.

“As a region, education will be the key to our future and to any success we might enjoy,” says Abdul Aziz. “We don’t want to focus on anything else but that. And we don’t want to do anything else except give bright young people access to the best education in the world.”

Within that remit, the foundation is concentrating on areas of study that will enable students to match the needs of employers across the Arab world. Graduates of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects are in acute demand, and so AGFE is channelling its efforts into that space in a bid to peel back youth unemployment, which stood near 30 per cent in the Middle East in 2014, according to the World Bank.

“We need to make sure that all of our candidates graduate in subjects that are needed by their nation and the region, so that they can contribute to building and supporting the region,” says Abdul Aziz. “We want our scholars not only to be successful and leaders of the future, but also to give back. I hope that the beneficiaries today will be in a position to help others in the future.”

Father and son are alike in frame and bearing: tall, imposing, and each disposed to long moments of stillness, as if observing their surroundings with an analytical eye – a characteristic honed, perhaps, through lives spent charting the myriad complexities of the business and banking worlds. Their studied demeanour is reflected in the foundation’s approach, which is committed to maximum impact and minimal overheads: every dollar must count towards an education.

“My father was initially of the view that we shouldn’t announce the work of the foundation and continue to work discreetly, away from the spotlight,” recalls Abdul Aziz. “However this is a huge undertaking: how can we get 15,000 students within 10 years without announcing or promoting the initiative? My father agreed that the work should be institutionalised, and accordingly we now have a foundation that is run by a CEO just like any of our other enterprises.”

To fill this role the family turned to Maysa Jalbout, an expert in education for sustainable development. Before joining AGFE, Jalbout was founding CEO of the Queen Rania Foundation for Education and Development, where she spent five years working to improve opportunities for young people in Jordan.

“We’ve made a commitment to ensure that impact and assessment is embedded in the way we are set up, in the way we design the programmes, and the way we function as an organisation,” says Jalbout. “We have hired a monitoring and evaluation expert and we have rooted it in our operational plan: results will inform not only board decisions but how we review our programmes and change them on a regular basis to respond to the needs of students.”

The foundation will support students through three distinct channels. The STEM Scholars programme will fund undergraduate and graduate students wishing to study at leading universities in the region and abroad: if they have the talent and the application, AGFE will provide the means. The Young Thinkers programme, which has yet to launch, will cater exclusively to Emirati students completing their high school education and transitioning to university. Finally, the Open Learning programme will allow students from anywhere across the region to study at top accredited universities through online degrees and credentials.

“We know for a fact that there is a hunger among Arab youth to learn"Applications for the first cohort of STEM Scholars closed in June; the foundation received more than 14,500 submissions in five weeks. Those who have been successful will be notified in August, though the final award of the scholarship will depend on the student securing admission to one of four universities with which the foundation has partnered so far: American University in Cairo, American University of Sharjah, American University of Beirut, and Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi.

The foundation has also signed a collaboration agreement with the US-based Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), to expand access to and use of accredited digital learning environments. MIT, through its Office of Digital Learning, will provide academic credentials to Open Learning students across the region. The promise of this collaboration has encouraged AGFE to issue an open invitation to academic institutions to pitch innovative ideas to tackle some of the challenges with which Arab youth are faced. Take refugees: conflict in the region has forced 13 million children out of school, according to a 2015 UNICEF report; find a new way to deliver quality education to some of those displaced millions, and the foundation will provide support to pilot and scale.

“Secondary education is not enough in today’s world if we’re going to get ahead, innovate, and be able to compete on a global level,” says Jalbout. “We know for a fact there is a hunger among Arab youth to learn, to go to universities that provide higher quality education, and for students who have been through the cycle, to upgrade their skills so they can attain the jobs of the future. Scholarships are becoming an increasingly important tool for achieving those things.”

Successful applicants, Jalbout says, will be possessed of a spirit familiar to Abdulla and the family. “We’ve clearly articulated that hard work is essential in success and we’re looking for young people who want to work hard and aspire to big things,” she says. “That’s an ethos that has come directly from the family and we hope to pass on to as many young people as possible.”

“I remember in the 1960s when [my father] was giving zakat he would do it himself, going from door to door and handing it directly to people,” recalls Abdul Aziz. “He made sure that my brother and I came with him to seewhat he was doing and to learn about the importance of charity.”

It is a message that has been passed down the generations. In summer 2015 Abdul Aziz’s daughters volunteered to travel to Zanzibar in Tanzania, East Africa, to work at an orphanage and in schools on the island. Word spread among their friends and fellow students, and in the end around 50 young people made the trip.

“I was shocked that so many would do something like this,” he says. “But I realise that in the region there are many good people who wish to help others. They need a role model and I believe that in institutionalising his giving like this, my father can be that role model. Today I am blessed to have a father like him, not only one who gives his money away, but one who ensures that this giving will be sustained long into the future.”

While Abdulla and his children may no longer press alms directly into the hands of those they help, their actions today carry a greater weight than any coin or purse. The impact of such a strategic approach to investing in youth is invaluable; the number of Al Ghurair scholars who might one day change the world themselves, incalculable.