On His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai’s 70th birthday, Mahmoud ElBurai clearly remembers that day in 2001 when he received the call in his home at the Jabalia refugee camp of north Gaza. It changed his life for good. ElBurai, who is now a senior advisor to the Real Estate Regulatory Agency of Dubai and the Vice President of the International Real Estate Federation of Arab Countries, had then topped the national exams in Palestine. But the political situation in the country and his humble life in the refugee camp did not offer him the promise of a higher education or a way out of the crisis. “It was clearly a very difficult time for me. With two weeks remaining for universities to start classes in September, I was pretty much staring at nothing. My good scores had given me the opportunity to meet Yasser Arafat (then leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation), but nothing came out of it and it made me wonder at the futility of hard work.”
ElBurai was home with his dad, when the father and son came across a Red Crescent advertisement in the newspaper. “There was only a fax number and my father suggested I write to them. I did, and I told them that I had lost all hope and needed a scholarship to help me pursue my higher studies anywhere in the world.”
A few days later ElBurai received a call from Elias Bou Saab, Executive Vice-President of the American University of Dubai. “He told me ‘Mahmoud, His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum (then the Crown Prince of Dubai) had agreed to take care of your education, so can you come to Dubai?’” It was quite unbelievable at first, says El Burai, who was convinced it was a joke. But when the visa arrived and things started falling in place, the enormity of the situation and its life changing implications became clear to him.
“I arrived in Dubai in 2001, and enrolled into the electrical engineering programme at AUD. I had a room for myself, my education costs were covered, there was food provided every day for the next five years, and a monthly salary from His Highness. I was so well taken care of that I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Then one day I finally met His Highness (Shaikh Mohammad). He told me, ‘I want you to continue to be number one’.”
ElBurai, one of six siblings, lived with his family in the Jabalia refugee camp that covers an area of 1.4 square kilometres and houses 113,990 refugees. His parents were teachers in the UN-run schools in the camp, where ElBurai was also enrolled, and the family lived in a makeshift room in the dense area with poor living conditions. “I spent most of my time at home. There were no playgrounds, and we roamed around the squatters, and lived in constant fear of being asked to leave anytime,” says ElBurai.
Between 1994 and 1997, things deteriorated further, with his father being arrested by the Israeli police and his mom diagnosed with cancer. Being the second of the siblings, he took care of the family, helping them in their education, cooking for them and even looking after the home. “Mom died in 1997 in the camp and on the day she died, her wish was to see me back in school. She didn’t want me beside her as she died, all she wanted was a good education so that I could find a way out of the refugee camp.”
In his final year of school, Palestine was gripped with the Intifada protests and schools remained closed for most of the time. “There was news of family and friends dying and I was in deep despair. Add to that there was no electricity and I struggled to study in the light of kerosene lamps,” says ElBurai. But his determination saw him overcome the challenges and he cleared the national exams, scoring the highest in the country.
Becoming a future leader
“There is a story about the olive tree in Palestine and they say you can burn it, uproot it and you think you can destroy it, but the shoot will always reappear,” says ElBurai. “Thanks to His Highness I discovered myself in Dubai.”
The initial years at AUD were a bit of a struggle for ElBurai. “I failed the TOEFL exam when I took it because I was not good at English. So I completed my language courses before starting university. In 2002 Bill Clinton came to Dubai to deliver a speech at the first AUD graduation ceremony. On that day I made up my mind that I wanted to give the valedictorian speech for my graduating class where I wanted to tell my story and thank Shaikh Mohammad for his kindness. I wrote my speech two years before I graduated. On the actual day of graduation in 2006, when I walked up to the podium as a class topper, and finally delivered that speech, Shaikh Mohammad had tears in his eyes. It was a very touching moment for me.”
After his graduation Mahmoud spent a couple of months at Dubai Holding in a special rotation programme that saw him move to the real estate sector and train in strategic planning, portfolio management and development, among other things. That year during Ramadan, another chance meeting with Shaikh Mohammad, changed his course of life once more. He was sent to the National University of Singapore to complete his master’s in real state. “I came back at the end of 2007 and the next year we faced the global economic downturn. I moved to Rera, where in October 2008, I started as the director of real estate sector development, and remained in the position till 2011.”
Mahmoud’s zeal for perfection and his hunger for education has seen him in various positions over the years. From being the founder and CEO of the Dubai Real Estate Institute that has trained almost 80,000 real estate service providers to working with the Dubai Police and other departments of the Dubai government in areas of sustainability, happiness and smart city planning, he has moved out of his comfort zone to foster new partnerships locally and internationally, dealing with crises and creating opportunities for the Arab youth. In 2017 ElBurai graduated from the Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Centre for Leadership Development as one of the future leaders of the Dubai government.
I arrived in Dubai in 2001, and enrolled into the electrical engineering programme at AUD. I had a room for myself, my education costs were covered, there was food provided every day for the next five years, and a monthly salary from His Highness. I was so well taken care of that I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Then one day I finally met His Highness (Shaikh Mohammad). He told me, ‘I want you to continue to be number one’.
Supporting him in his journey has been the power of knowledge, be it an MBA in finance from his alma mater AUD or a PhD from the Grenoble ecole de management in France or a master of cities programme at the London School of Economics and now a new course in sustainable development at Oxford University.
“Almost 25 per cent of youth in the region suffer from unemployment and education can be a tool to support them. I received the blessing of education because of one kind gesture from His Highness and like him I want to be a hope creator and an inspirational leader for millions. He has made me the person who I am today.”