UAE's top banker is investing billions into the region's education system

Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair’s foundation has partnered with MIT to offer a MicroMasters programme starting next year.

Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair has long been established as one of the Arab world’s best known, and most successful, executives – the longstanding CEO of the UAE’s oldest bank, Mashreq, and board member of the Al Ghurair Group, the global manufacturing, real estate and financial conglomerate with interests reaching through six decades and five continents.

But for the past year, the Emirati banker has also become one of the region’s most visible philanthropists. In July 2015, Al Ghurair announced the formation of the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education, a charitable organisation named after his father which, over the next ten years, will pledge a third of the family’s fortune toward educating young Arabs – a sum of more than US$1.1 billion [Dh4.2 billion].

Such a sizeable gesture took many as a surprise, but it is far from the family’s first good deed; in 1964 Abdulla Al Ghurair opened the country’s first boarding school in Masafi (now closed and simply known as the “Masafi School”). Al Ghurair also founded Mirdiff’s Dar Al Marefa Private School and Al Ghurair University in Dubai Academic City.

“Philanthropy has always been part of my life,” says the younger Al Ghurair, who has been in business for more than 30 years. “But traditionally we never talk about it, we just do it on the quiet side. Now it has come to a scale where you can’t just keep it under the ground, it has to be on the surface.”

At the time of the initial announcement, says Al Ghurair, the decision to form a foundation was just three months old. A mission pledge was announced to educate 15,000 young Arabs from the UAE and beyond, but no staff or infrastructure was yet established to make it happen. A significant milestone was reached in May when Al Ghurair, the foundation’s public face and chairman of the board of trustees, announced the Open Learning Scholars Programme.

Said to be the first of its kind in the Arab world, the programme offers its first cohort of students accredited online learning in key STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The initial phase includes a partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – number one in the QS World University Rankings – to fund the development of two new specialist “MicroMasters” programmes, launching next year and made up of five 12-week courses.

Starting from fall 2016, the 170 students from the UAE and across the region that have been awarded scholarships as part of the Al Ghurair Stem Scholars Program will attend one of the Foundation’s four partner universities – American University in Cairo (AUC), American University of Sharjah (AUS), American University of Beirut (AUB), and Khalifa University—the clear and organised goal is to offer life-changing education to those without the means or opportunity to travel.

“Philanthropy must be run as a business, not as a charity on the sideline,” adds Al Ghurair. “Our foundation has goals, objectives, targets, dates, budgets – we track, we push, we challenge, we do everything we do in our business environment. This is the only way you can make a fast impact – I don’t want my impact to be felt ten years from now, we want the impact felt immediately.

For me, with education, the sky is the limit.

It’s this mix of clear-sightedness and ambition which has seen Al Ghurair lead such a long and distinguished career. As well as his role heading the UAE’s largest private lender, Mashreq, since 2012 Al Ghurair has been the Chairman of the UAE Banking Federation. In 2007 he moved into politics, elected to a four-year tenure as speaker of the UAE’s Federal National Council. Other high profile roles include sitting as vice chairman of the Higher Board of DIFC, chairman of Masafi Company and Oman Insurance, and sitting on the Emirates Foundation’s board of directors. In the past he has sat on the board of directors for Emaar, Dubai Investments, Visa International, MasterCard and the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Speaking about the UAE’s future, Al Ghurair is matter-of-fact, predicting no great shocks or swells to the current economic conditions moving into 2017. “I don’t think we’ll see massive changes, but what I see is the business community has adjusted to this new environment, to the new scenario,” he said, adding that while business leaders have learnt from the last global financial crisis, “what we see now is nothing compared to 2008/09.”

The key to weathering future financial storms, adds Al Ghurair, is diversification. “I can’t change the environment, but we should be adapting to the challenges of our environment all the time. If you’re stiff, you’re going to break – the more flexible you are, the more chances you have to succeed.”

And right now, success to Al Ghurair is not just the bottom line. One senses he will not rest until each and every one of the pledged 15,000 young Arabs has received world-class education. “[Philanthropy] is in our DNA, it’s in our heritage, in our family, in our religion,” adds Al Ghurair. “We made our wealth from this region, and this is a way to say thank you, to help our people in the UAE and Arab world.

“Only through education can we raise the level of Arab youth, give them hope. Only with quality jobs will they contribute to our economy and development, will they stabilise the region – and will we evolve as a nation.”

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