Opening up

Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair on why it’s time for Gulf philanthropists to step out of the shadows and into a new era of impactful giving.

Time is a valuable commodity to Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair. The seasoned banker is in Dubai for just a few hours, having spent much of the previous month out of the country. For a few minutes, however, he allows himself to reflect on the life cycle of the modern-day Gulf citizen.

“At first it’s college, and then straight away you have to establish yourself in business, so you’re not thinking about philanthropy, because unless you’re successful then you won’t have any money to give,” he muses. “If you are then successful, you’re still not able to think about giving because you are overloaded with work. 

“It only comes when you have achieved and overachieved, that you look back at the age of 60 or 70, and realise that in all that time, you have done nothing for your community,” he continues. “Then you rush into doing something and when you rush into doing something, you make mistakes.

“Really, if we could plan it, the impulse for philanthropy should come at the age of 30 or 40. Now is the time for a generational change. If ours was the era of building phenomenal wealth, then it is up to our children to think about giving back. You don’t have to donate a big sum of money, but you can do something that shows that your heart and soul is invested in doing good.”

Al Ghurair himself never accepted overwork as an excuse not to invest in good deeds. The CEO of Mashreq, one of the UAE’s leading commercial banks, he also helps to manage his family’s diverse holdings in real estate, foodstuffs, contracting, publishing, and petrochemicals, among other sectors.

The former Speaker of the House of the UAE Federal National Council, the country’s legislative body, Al Ghurair is also chairman of the Family Business Network GCC, a regional association of leading family business members.

Furthermore, he has for decades acted as a quiet but committed philanthropist. He sits on the board of the Emirates Foundation for Youth Development, an integrated national initiative founded by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. He has also donated millions of dollars of his own money to a host of humanitarian initiatives: tokens from UNESCO and Unicef, among others, are tucked among the banking awards accumulated by Mashreq over the years.

His priorities lie in two areas: improving education across the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia region, and providing greater opportunities for women to earn and to contribute to the growth of developing economies.

To these ends, he has channelled money into a series of education initiatives, most notably through the Citizens Foundation, one of the largest nonprofits in Pakistan. He has also engaged with PlaNet Finance, a microfinance initiative that – among many other projects – has equipped women in Palestine to manufacture a range of foodstuffs now available on supermarket shelves across the region.

“You cannot overspend in raising education across our region,” he insists. “We can look at different levels of education for educating girls, women, boys and men, bringing them to high school level and then taking them all the way to college. An educated individual can support a bigger family.

“[The Palestinian initiative] is economically empowering and it also helps to preserve the culture of the region,” he continues. “I don’t have to dislocate a woman from her village; she doesn’t have to come to the city. You stay where you are and look after your parents and kids, meanwhile here is the money for you to start a business at your small village level.”

Al Ghurair on lessons in giving

“You should raise your children to give. During Ramadan, I train every day and I train hard. People ask, ‘How can you do that? You don’t drink water, or eat anything.' Yet we grew up this way so it’s nothing new for us. Likewise, you have to shape people to give from a young age.

“When I helped fund a school in Pakistan, my goal was to visit and to take my children and show them; 'Here is where the boys and girls used to study under a tree. Now they study in these classrooms.' It’s a trip that has not yet taken place, sadly, as I have not had the time. But I hope that one day my children will see the difference this work has made.”

image title image title
Al Ghurair's early philanthropy has focused on improving educational opportunities in needy communities, and empowering women in Palestine and elsewhere. Photo: Getty Images.

That the awards earned through his personal giving are not front-and-centre of Mashreq’s trophy cabinet, speaks to Al Ghurair’s reticence to showcase his contributions in the field of philanthropy. He is dutiful in his adherence to his faith, and in particular the notion that one should give without fanfare.

This does, however, raise a dilemma: without speaking openly, how can philanthropists motivate others to become engaged in giving?

“As Muslims we follow a philosophy of giving without talking: the aim is not to become popular, or be known as someone who gives,” he explains. “I've seen donations where the name isn’t even on the cheque; it’s from a ‘well-wisher’.

“This is a good philosophy, but it also raises a problem,” he continues, carefully. “We are perhaps at a time where somebody should change this culture, and talk about what they do so that they encourage others to come forward and get involved.

"Political, religious and business leaders should come together and say: ‘We want people to talk, it is good to talk, you are not walking against the culture’. It’s not about personal pride; it’s about inspiring others.”

A benefit of this approach, Al Ghurair insists, would be to bring the philanthropic sector out into the open, thereby submitting it to the same scrutiny afforded other multibillion-dollar industries.

“I want a system where a donor can track his money: where is it going, who is benefiting and who is the ultimate beneficiary?” he says. “That kind of visibility will inspire people, and encourage them to come forward because they will know how their money is going to be spent. They will know that a specific region, tribe or even family benefited and that will give them satisfaction.

"For many people giving is a black box: they donate, and they don’t know where the money goes.”

“Now is the time for a generational change. If ours was the era of building phenomenal wealth, then it is up to our children to think about giving back.”

One of Al Ghurair’s greatest disappointments is watching money be frittered away on administration and other overhead costs. He recalls making a donation to one charity, only to see 50 per cent of the cash disappear into a black hole marked “logistics".

“It was so sad, as I knew that half of the money did not reach where I intended it to reach,” he recalls with a wince.

Typically of a born businessman, Al Ghurair is unwilling to accept such disappointment without at least proposing an alternative industry model that might make better use of his – and others’ – funds in future.

“[Within a nonprofit organisation] the donor can provide the skeleton management, but the other 85 or 90 per cent of the employees should be volunteers, and this is where we need experts,” he says. “We need doctors, we need lawyers, we need bankers, and we need businessmen and teachers and university professors. We need them all to donate their time, so that critical strategic thinking can come from these people.

“I’m calling for a solution where we should not really spend more than 10 or 15 per cent of the donated amount, on employees,” he continues. “The rest should come from volunteers who believe in this philosophy and say ‘I don’t need that paycheque’. People have to come in and donate their time and their energy and their skill. They have to do this because they believe in making a difference, and it’s those people that will turn the project into a success.”

By way of example, Al Ghurair cites Médecins Sans Frontières, the French-founded NGO and Nobel Peace Prize laureate best known for its projects in war-torn regions, and developing countries fighting endemic diseases.

“These people donate their time and all they need is somebody to pay for the logistics,” he notes. “These professionals will leave their businesses behind for some weeks of the year, they will do the operations and look after the patients. This is a genuine approach.”

image title

While retirement from the fast-paced world of banking and finance is not currently on his agenda, Al Ghurair does intend to spend more time on philanthropy when he eventually steps back from Mashreq and his numerous other business concerns.

In the meantime, he hopes to establish an entity to champion the culture of expert volunteerism that he believes could change the structure of giving in the Gulf for good. 

“We’ll set up an efficient organisation, a foundation with people who will put their heart and soul into their efforts,” he says. “We will support them with funding but we won’t recruit people who are only interested in the pay cheque. They will focus on education, and empowering women economically, and they'll explore public-private partnerships across a range of issues.

“Now, because of the wealth of the nation and its economy, from which I have benefited, I can give a lot more than I might once have been able to,” he adds. “There are many people around the world who do these things just to make more money, or to brag about it. I don’t want to do that; I want to work from the heart.” – PA