There's an irony that the MAG Group and its founder Moafaq Al Gaddah, one of the richest men in the region, had their first brush with the limelight not for making money out of any venture, but for giving it away.
This resulted from the Dh25 million Al Gaddah donated to the Dubai Cares charity programme in October, 2007, which sought to help educate one million children around the world. The image the group gained from this one act was incomparable to what it had tried to achieve through its decades of business operations prior to that.
But for Al Gaddah, the one act went far beyond being in the spotlight. "Philanthropy is not organised in the Arab world and it relies on personal efforts," he said. "Education is the best aid you can provide as you are helping to build a future for an entire family.
"It was a quick decision [to be associated with Dubai Cares]. I am very concerned about charitable work and support such initiatives. We have a budget for education and charitable work. My personal motto when engaging in charitable work is simple — Don't feed me fish but teach me fishing."
The MAG Group engages in multiple disciplines, ranging from automotive spare parts to real estate. The group has in its 30 years of operations built a presence both in the region and beyond.
But the man who owns a fleet of luxury cars including a Rolls-Royce, Maybach and Bentley used to walk six kilometres each morning to get to school in a small village in Syria.
One transformational step Al Gaddah made was during a visit when he was in grade nine to see his father in Kuwait. He was impressed with what he saw in the Gulf city in that summer of 1976.
"I started comparing the life in Kuwait to what I had in Syria," Al Gaddah said. "The charm of the city made me not want to go back to live in the village."
Al Gaddah was the only son in a family with three sisters. His father was against the idea of leaving school and working at an early age, but Al Gaddah left school in Kuwait and chose his line of business after two weeks.
"I possessed nothing of real value then except for my personality and dedication to work," he said.
"And my strong feet enabled me to tirelessly travel around Kuwait, where I began a business as a vendor."
With goods worth Dh500 Al Gaddah started his business sponsored by his uncle. He is not in the least embarrassed that he started business as a street vendor. "There is no shame in doing any sort of work if it's not harmful or illegal," Al Gaddah said.
He remembers how he was chased along with other vendors by the municipality, but he was one salesman who didn't mind taking the odd risk or two. "I always had a sense of adventure and risk taking — nothing scares me," he said.
In four months, he made 1,000 Kuwaiti dinars (Dh13,142) and bought gold for his mother. "My monthly income was 300 dinars which was equal to three times what an engineer was making at the time.
"My daily tours, which used to start early in the morning and go on until late in the evening, took me to every street and almost every household in the city. The merchandise I dealt in was low-cost personal products and household items.
"My customers were from a social spectrum that covered pedestrians to housewives.
"Many begin business as vendors, especially when they don't have a reasonable capital or when they have no qualifications for employment. For me, the motivation to opt for this kind of business was very different.''
"My target was to make more to invest more. After two years I got 6,000 dinars, then decided to invest in Abu Dhabi in a spare parts shop with my cousins."
Eventually, the fledgling business took off in Dubai — in the Naif locality — and the other emirates. That also marked Al Gaddah's evolution as a businessman in his own right.
"I never bought assets at the launch of my own business, but I sold our property in Syria and invested here [in the] UAE. My father was against this, but I used to say that instead of these properties I would buy him a place and I did."
Al Gaddah firmly believes that whatever the effect of the economic crisis on the UAE, there is simply no alternative or an emerging competitor to this market.
"The UAE is different and has its own norms and has achieved what other countries can't do in a century," he added.
Although real estate is the most impacted by the meltdown, Al Gaddah said the MAG projects are going ahead and the company has not sunk like other companies.
"We can't deny that our schedule has been a bit affected, however we are going ahead with the development plans."
Also, the company was one of the few to cancel a project and return the funds to the investors.
"We did cancel one project in Business Bay, which was completely sold out. The monies were returned to all the buyers while there was no law to force us to do this."
However, he will not deny how the real estate boom turned in substantial profits during a particular phase.
Al Gaddah said: "Searching for a plot to build an industrial compound in the UAE, I found a 5 million square foot plot in Sharjah and bought it at Dh17 a square foot. With the unrealistic demand and prices in the market during the boom, I got to sell the plot at Dh55 a square foot."
It was his entry into real estate investment and led the way to realising bigger profits until the downturn erupted. Today MAG is investing in the local industrial sector as well as in projects such as automated parking facilities, in addition to investment activities outside the UAE.
Married twice, Al Gaddah is the father of ten girls and five boys. He is a loving grandfather of four children.
He was 18 when he got married the first time, and 38 when he did so a second time. Both households get equal attention in his life.
"I tend to spend most of my free time with the family, especially on the weekends," he said.
He is also particular about his work habits and the start to each day is organised to accommodate that.
Waking up at 5.30am for a spot of sports, he has breakfast with the children and be in the office not later than 8.30am. He's there until 3.30pm and then it's back home. The afternoon is for the family or for any urgent appointments or other events.
Al Gaddah, who was wearing Prada shoes and a Bentley watch for the interview, has his son, Mousab, to take care of his appearance.
"I live a happy life and am very satisfied. I don't like to be excessive, but at the same time I don't deprive myself of anything."