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Right: Saif Ahmed Al Ghurair is seen with the Late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum. Image Credit: Dubai Chamber of Commerce & Industry (DCCI)

[Gulf News has published a series of interviews with prominent UAE business personalities who have played a pivotal role in building the nation. In this interview published on November 21, 2002, Dubai businessman Saif Ahmed Al Ghurair talks exclusively to Gulf News. We're republishing it here to honour the pioneering Dubai businessman, who passed away on Tuesday, August 27 , 2019.]

Dubai: There was a time rice and dates were his staple.

Fish was a luxury. And, there were months a small boat was his home. The sea had its perils – it was also his lifeline. Today, he is a leading businessman in the UAE. We look into the yesterdays of Saif Al Ghurair. His story is akin to a fairytale, but it serves as a fable.

As he puts it in his own words: "Those who took to the sea got pearls and fish, while those who stayed in the desert got sand and camels."

In a career spanning five decades, he has met leaders and Rulers in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah. An intrepid traveller, he has journeyed to Basra in Iraq, Kuwait, Iran, Yemen, Africa, India and further afield.

Al Ghurair, is described as a "veteran" of the economic and construction boom that has taken place in Dubai and the UAE.

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Left: Saif Al Ghurair in conversation with Mohammed Rashid Al Daoor (left). Also seen is Essa Saleh Al Gurg. Image Credit: DCCI

As he enters his 80's, he recalls events, personalities and memories.

He witnessed the days of Sheikh Shakhbout and his brother, President His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan as well as the Late Ruler of Dubai Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum.

He was one of the first businessmen to set up cement, sugar and flour factories in the UAE.

Al Ghurair started his commercial activity at sea during the 1930's, when he traded in pearls.

But he has not forgotten Sheikh Rashid, who stood by him in times good and bad.

I met Al Ghurair at his majlis in the morning. His son Mohammed, an educated and dynamic man, was also there.

Al Ghurair did not ask me about my list of questions. He simply smiled and said: "Ask me what you want."

The following is the full text of the interview

Tell us about your early life...

I first traveled to Basra in 1944 aboard a small ship, which also took us to Africa. Everyone was surprised and asked us how we managed to travel all this distance aboard that tiny ship. It was an exciting adventure because the ship was very small and looked like a Pharaonic boat that you see in museums.

Was it a perilous voyage?

Extremely – we were aboard a small boat swaying violently with the waves... we used to go on voyages to Basra and other places through the Iranian coast, Bushaher and Kharj island.

What was your role? Were you a sailor or a trader?

I was the ship owner or the Noukhida*. I owned the goods which included small dried fish and was not worth more than 1,000 dirhams. It was all I had – we called it Jashe'i, which the people in Basra loved.
*Noukhida is a term used in the local UAE dialect. It means the master of the ship during the time when the people of the UAE used to go to sea for fishing, trade and pearl diving and stayed away for months. The position was very powerful and prestigious. Not always is the Noukhida the ship owner.

We were aboard a small boat swaying violently with waves...we used to go on voyages to Basra.

- Saif Al Ghurair

What did you buy from Basra?

Dates... in Dubai and the Gulf region, we relied on dates as the main source of food... we used to buy them from Basra, where we used to spend two weeks or more. We were selling and buying freely, but we used to pay customs fees of 10 dinars per ship to authorities near Shat Al Arab.

I remember I asked them why they charged me 10 dinars for a small ship and one of them said to me: 'Why don't you get a bigger ship?'

Who was with you aboard that ship?

Some of the men working on board were men from the mountains. I had also hired sailors from Bukha, which is located in Oman.

Let's talk about Dubai...

Actually, the beginning was in the desert... sand, camels, horses and donkeys. Those who took to the sea got pearls and fish while those who stayed in the desert got sand and camels.

The desert people were like an army who protected our homes. But there was no difference between those who lived in the desert and the people who lived in urban areas.

We loved each other and co-operated with each other. Life was simple because the desert was our place and the sea was our life. Ships were primitive and were used mostly in pearling. Men who used to go to sea used to stay away for months.

Thanks to advancements in technology, the places we today describe as being close were faraway islands then.

Life was hard and most ship masters preferred to stay off shore for months to stop sailors from running away because of exhaustion.

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A view of the Murshid Bazar, Deira (1989). Image Credit: Gulf News archives

Did you have such an experience?

Yes I did. I started pearl diving when I was 14 years old. Our only food on the fished and ate it as our meal, but we did not have much time for this because we used to work all day. This routine went on for years... our generation and the previous generations knew only the sea because it was our life.

How was Dubai at that time? Where did you live?

We lived near the coast..our old home is still there... opposite Al Shindagha.

What does Al Ghurair mean?

It is an old name used in the pre-Islam era of Jahilia... we have received a book from an Iraqi historian about our origin, but we still cannot specify the exact origin.

Some say we had come from Najd, which is today in Saudi Arabia and others say we are from the UAE.

Our great grandfather is Majid Al Ghurair, who had a market called Souq Redha named after a well-known person who used to sell tea. The place is now more than 200 years old and during that time places were named after their owners like Souq Naif and Souq Murshed.

We had our own souq so did the Rulers of Dubai. Regarding my ancestors, my family tree is traced to Juma who was followed by Obaid, then Ghurair, Majid and finally my father Ahmed, who has five sons – Abdullah, Majid, Marwan, Juma and myself.

How did you benefit from your experience at sea?

In the early 1920's, the price of pearls had surged and brought prosperity and wealth to the region. Many people had wealth, but they did not know how to use it. People used to dive, get pearls and later sell them at the end of the season. Then they went back to their homes in the desert… it was their way of life.

But after cultured pearls were created, the prices of natural pearls collapsed and worsened conditions in the region. This remained until oil was discovered, first in Saudi Arabia and then Kuwait. Lifestyles changed and traders began to travel more often.

What did your father do?

He was in pearling. When that period was over, I started traveling with my brothers to India, Africa and Basra in Iraq. If one was not able to go to Basra, one would have starved because it was a centre for dates.

Those who had dates would not die because dates are complete meals.
*As food sources were limited during that period of time, dates were one of the main sources of food. People in the region depended on it as a crucial part of their diet.

When did all this happen?

In the early stages of the World War II as pearl prices collapsed after World War I and remained low until the second war.

When did the most significant changes take place in Dubai? It all started at the end of Sheikh Saeed's rule* and the beginning of Sheikh Rashid's rule... all the Rulers of Dubai loved their people and supported them with all means. Some of them even deprived themselves of things to help others. If someone went to the Ruler and asked for a favour, he would not be turned down.
* Sheikh Saeed bin Maktoum Al Maktoum is Sheikh Rashid's father. He was Ruler of Dubai between 1912 and 1958.

Can you talk about your relationship with Sheikh Rashid?

Sheikh Rashid was an exceptional man... he inherited high values and ethics from his family. He preserved those and also added his own values to suit the new age. He built the Khor, the ports and the airport. He helped everyone who wanted to set up a development project or another business, but did not have enough.

Did he help you?

Yes he did... he helped me a lot when I wanted to build factories, but did not have enough funds. He gave us money which we used in setting up those factories.

It was because of Sheikh Rashid that I managed to enter the industry sector. He supported us a lot. For example, when I thought of building a cement plant, it was Sheikh Rashid's idea and he strongly supported us after he saw the pollution and mess at the Khor as a result of cement imports.

We had asked advisers how we could set up a cement plant when there were no raw materials for this industry. The answer was sand. We then began thinking about money and we would have cancelled the project had Sheikh Rashid not supported us.

Sheikh Rashid was an exceptional man... he inherited high values and ethics from his family.

- Saif Al Ghurair

Was this the beginning of industries?

Yes it was. We liked getting involved in industrial projects as we liked trade. We found great benefits in industry. We built several factories including the cement plant, Masafi water bottling, the flour plant and the sugar refinery in Jebel Ali.

For example, the sugar refinery is the biggest in the region with an annual production of two million tons which is exported to Iraq, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. By the way, we were also the first to think of setting up aluminium industries but the well-known businessman Mahdi Al Tajir intervened and took away the idea from us. The parent company, however, helped us build another smelter... we boast of our industrial experience because the country needs industries along with construction, real estate, and trade.

How old are you and which personalities have you interacted with?

I was born in 1924. I witnessed Sheikh Rashid's life and part of the rule of his father Sheikh Saeed when I was a young boy. I was in school and I used to visit him with my father.

What about the stages of building the UAE federation and its benefits?

It was an extremely important move. At that time, the Arab nation was trying to achieve unity, but such efforts were not successful. There was no real unity or co-operation, but there was only domination.

Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid changed those concepts and ideas. They first signed a unity agreement between Abu Dhabi and Dubai called Al Semaih pact, which was followed by the UAE union as we know it today. Sheikh Zayed is the founder of the federation along with Sheikh Rashid... they have given a lot to establish the country.

Back to economy... did you start on your own or as a family?

During that time, there was no difference between a person and his brothers or members of his tribe. The custom was that the eldest brother went to work and was eventually followed by the rest of his younger brothers.

Do you see a difference between your generation and the present generation?

Modern life has several advantages and disadvantages. Its advantages would include the availability of better education while its bad side is that there is no real cohesion.

In the past, the tribe in the desert was as one cell or one unit... its members were cooperative with each other... they loved and helped one another. Times have changed – as such values no longer exist even between neighbours.

What about old Dubai... what values prevailed then?

There were desert values... co-operation, sincerity and nobility. These values still exist in the UAE as there aremany people who still love and help one another... this also exists between the Rulers and the people.

Have you played any social or cultural role?

Like others, I have contributed in this aspect. We are trying to give back part of what the government has given us – we are trying to help people solve their problems.

What do you think of this growing activity in Dubai including festivals and other events?

Sheikh Zayed, Sheikh Rashid and General Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and UAE Defence Minister, have done what no other Arab rulers have. There are opportunities not only in Dubai, but all emirates.

How do you perceive the relationship between individuals within the UAE society?

The country would not progress without its Rulers and citizens. Here in the UAE, foreigners are treated with respect and appreciation and they live in peace.

This is a result of working together, that is between the government and individuals. Here in the UAE, all people are treated with respect. There is no difference between rich and poor for even the majlises of all the Sheikhs are open to all citizens.

What do you think of what happened in the stock market – in 1998?

I believe that anyone who enters a field which is not his makes a mistake... experience is very important and it could be supported by education.

What do you think of those who were in your generation... for example Sultan Al Owais..?

He was an extraordinary person... very generous and honest. He trusted everyone so much that he never accepted written documents.

He was a rare personality – there are many other people in the UAE who have such characteristics like Sheikh Zayed, Sheikh Rashid, His Highness Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, and Sheikh Mohammed... they were and are among the best people. When you go to their majlis, you feel secure.

Is it a sort of democracy?

It is humanity and kindness... it represents respect for man and such a characteristic is inherited from our ancestors.

Some of your frank opinions could draw criticism – what do you think?

Opinion is important. One presents what one thinks is right and a sincere person does not hurt others.

What do you think of the media today? Are you in favour of the role it plays?

The media today is in a very difficult position for it is dependent on how good the speaker is. But it is necessary.

What about the media and technology cities set up in Dubai?

They are needed and they are unprecedented. But the most important thing is that those who work in these institutions are qualified.

What about all these festivals in Dubai?

They are the language of this age. Advertising, promotions and trade are all the requirements of this age. It also depends on demand and supply.

Don't you think that there are too many commercial centres in Dubai?

It is a matter of demand and supply – if demand is high that centre will make profits and vice versa. This is normal in a free economy – we have a free economy and it is subject to demand and supply.

You are one of the most prominent personalities in Dubai... do you think you are a modest person?

Modesty is a characteristic of our Rulers... anyone can enter their palaces and no one will be rebuked for anything he says. I recall that a Jordanian police officer came to Dubai, but he was upset because everyone called him by his name Mahmoud without his military title.

When he went to Sheikh Rashid's majlis, he found that everyone called the Ruler by his first name, that is Rashid only. He then understood that it is not a matter of position, but how to deal with people without any barriers.

What about your memories of other Rulers?

I met Sheikh Shakhbout, Sheikh Zayed's brother, many times when he was Ruler of Abu Dhabi. I talked to him and found that he was a knowledgeable man. I remember that he loved Sheikh Rashid's sons because their mother, Sheikha Lateefa, is his cousin.

Once, he wanted to give a present to Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Deputy Ruler of Dubai and Minister of Finance and Industry, who was between eight and 10 years old then.

My brothers and I loved Jamal Abdul Nasser (the late Egyptian president) and when he began buying weapons from the then Czechoslovakia, we went there and bought a car just because Abdul Nasser loved their products.

When we brought the car back with us, Sheikh Shakhbout enquired where we had got it from. We told him and he said it was a good car because the Czechs and Slovenians are of German origin and the Germans are good in the industrial field.

He bought the car and gave it to Sheikh Hamdan. Sheikh Shakhbout, was a difficult person, but a wise and brave man. He loved us and always talked to us. He had said to us that the British wanted our oil and that was why he kept oil money with him.

The Al Ghurair family laid the foundation of their business in the 1960s, and the group set up the first shopping mall in Dubai which is known as Al Ghurair Centre.

The Al Ghurair Private Company was established in 1994 and its business portfolio includes retailing, manufacturing, shipping, real estate and finance. The company controls BurJuman Centre, which received the Maxi Award for architectural excellence. Another division of Al Ghurair Private Company is a packaging firm which was set up in 1982.

It is the only company in the region with an inhouse cylinder manufacturing facility using the latest electromechanical engraving technology. The factory is ISO 9002 certified. The first refinery in the Gulf, Al Khaleej Sugar Refinery, was established in 1995, and it is also ISO 9002 certified. Gulf Extrusions Co., which has been producing aluminium for the past 20 years, is another division.

The group also includes the Al Ghurair Real Estate and Orient Transport Co. LLC, which is part of a worldwide network, specialising in land, sea and air handling specialisations.

What do you read?

I have a lot of books, but now I read less... newspapers take much of my time so do my friends. As far as literature is concerned, it is the fountain of knowledge – through it, we learn ethics and conduct.

You always participate in poetry and cultural events, is it a hobby?

It is an old practice – my father's majlis always hosted scholars and intellectuals such as Ahmed bin Souqat and others. We used to receive old books including poems by the famous Arab poet Abu Al Tayyib Al Mutanabi and Jareer. We also bought many Arabic books from India. We used to enjoy these books during our travels in the past. The UAE people preferred India as a commercial, medical and social centre.

Do you remember when you started reading?

When I was studying with the Mutawwa. He was a pious man who used to gather children and teach them at a house. My first teacher was a Nubian Mutawwa and I then moved to Al Ahmediya school, where teachers from Zubair in Iraq were teaching. I remember the school was suffering from a shortage of funds and could not pay the teachers. It then collected some money from the pupils, but it still could not tackle the problem. It then relied on local teachers from around 1940.

Where do you like to travel to?

I used to travel frequently but now I rarely travel... my life is full of traveling

because it provided us with our livelihood. The first country I saw was India and then Basra in Iraq. Our travels were not for entertainment but business...it was a difficult life as we used to sleep in a small ship... we literally lived on that ship.

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Above: Saif Al Ghurair seen with Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed. Also seen is Majid Al Futtaim (left). Image Credit: DCCI

Back to poetry... what does it mean to you?

I love poetry and I possessed a strong ability to memorise poetry. I prefer classical poetry over Nabati * because it is more powerful and rich. When asked about this, the famous Egyptian writer Taha Hussein said classical poetry is like someone who places his money in a steel safe, but Nabati is a safe made of pottery, which if broken, everything will be lost. I don't mean that Nabati verse is not good, but it is for the desert and the Bedouin.
*Nabati poetry is verse in the local dialect

How many children do you have?

Five – they all have chosen their own path, but in some ways, they are like me.

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The BurJuman Centre Image Credit: Gulf News archives

Which is a better investment in you opinion, industry or real estate?

You cannot give an absolute judgement... for example, industry is very advanced in Europe but in developing countries, there is a shortage in many fields. So you cannot say this field is better than that.

But there are fears about investment in real estate because of unstable prices? That applies to industry as well.

Can you talk about your banking experience?

It was a short experience with my brothers Abdullah and Majid. We all were enthusiastic about nationalism at that time and decided to subscribe to Arab banks. For this purpose my brothers went to Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, but the trip was not successful.

In 1945, Midland Bank* (previously called the Ottoman Bank) offered to participate with us and the agreement provided for a 10 per cent shareholding.

We all were enthusiastic about nationalism at that time and decided to subscribe to Arab banks.

- Saif Al Ghurair

Some friends also decided to subscribe to the bank, which was called the Bank of Oman because the area was then called Oman coast of the Trucial states. It was launched then, but the first bank to operate in Dubai was the National Bank of Dubai.
*Midland Bank was recently bought by HSBC

What about the Ottoman Bank, was it there when you thought about your bank?

The Ottoman Bank at one point was bought by British Midland Bank, which ‘We all were enthusiastic about nationalism at that time and decided to subscribe to Arab banks.’ later sold us its share in the Bank of Oman – now Mashreq Bank.

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Left: General Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and UAE Defence Minister, Saif Al Ghurair and Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, President of Dubai Department of Civil Aviation and Chairman of Emirates, after the inauguration of Gitex 2001 at World Trade Centre, Dubai. Image Credit: Gulf News archives

How did Sheikh Rashid conduct his majlis?

Sheikh Rashid used to raise issues for discussion in his majlis – he liked to listen to everyone.

What is your wish for the future?

I wish the Arab situation gets better, but Arab leaders should work to achieve that goal. Here in the UAE, we are satisfied. I believe Arab countries have enough resources, but there is mismanagement, shortsightedness and miscalculation. Some leaders want to impose their views by force, which is unacceptable. In the Arab world, I don't think you will find leaders like Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid because they always listened.

Do you support calls for turning family companies into joint stock companies?

I think it is up to their owners, we live in a liberal economy which allows anyone to do what he wants.

Brief history

  • Born in 1924, Saif Al Ghurair was first educated by a Mutawwa. He later completed his education in Al Ahmediya School.
  • Al Ghurair followed his father's footsteps when he took up pearl diving and trading. He started diving when he was 14 years old and he first traded in pearls in the 1930s.
  • Business took him to many places. His first trips were to India, Basra and Africa.
  • He visited Basra several times. His first consignment of goods was dried fish worth Dh 1,000. From Basra, he bought dates, which was one of the main sources of food in the Gulf region.
  • With the collapse of pearl prices after World War I and the introduction of cultured pearls, Al Ghurair then traded in other items. For this purpose he travelled to India, Africa and Basra.
  • Today his business has diversified into real estate, industry and banking.
  • Al Ghurair’s three sons – Abdul Rahman, Majid and Mohammed – are also involved in the family business.