- At the tender age of 8, he started to accompany his father on pearl-diving trips
- He served refreshments to pearl divers on the boat for a few rupees
- Today, he has built a business empire based in Dubai involved in trading, construction, investments that cover about 40 companies
- He is also known for his cultural, heritage and philantophic works
- On Tuesday, he was honoured as the Islamic personality of the year, in recognition of his service to Islam and charitable activities.
Dubai: Juma Al Majid, 89, does not have a primary education certificate. Yet he was an active member of Harvard University's Centre for The Middle Eastern Studies until recently.
He grew up poor, a son of a pearl diver — the hardest career then. That was before the Gulf's pearling industry itself was utterly crushed by imported cultured pearls.
Yet he emerged victorious.
He has built a business empire, the phenomenal rise of which is almost synonymous with Dubai's.
Juma Al Majid epitomises not just survival — but victory over great odds. He is a brilliant trader, seeing opportunities amidst difficulties, and grabbing them, yet never losing his heart.
Today, he is a leading Emirati businessman and also a renowned philanthropist. Despite his lack of a formal school certificate, he spent a good part of his life providing readers and researchers with books.
On Tuesday, he was honoured as the Islamic personality of the year, in recognition of his service to Islam and charitable activities. The recognition was conferred by the Dubai International Holy Quran Award (DIQHA).
Juma Al Majid, one of Dubai's legendary businessmen, was born in Al Shindagha, Dubai in 1930.
He was shaped by tough times — before reliable electricity and air-conditioners came.
At age 8, young Juma used to accompany his father, who owned two boats, on pearl-diving trips. He served refreshments to the divers on the boats for a few rupees, the currency in use in Dubai then.
This was before cultured pearls decimated Dubai’s pearling industry.
• More than 90 contestants from across the world are participating this year.
What the sea taught him
What the sea taught him was patience.
"It was the most difficult work I have ever had in my life. But I learnt from the sea patience and tolerance," he said.
As the local pearl-diving industry faced intense competition from cultured pearls, young Juma kept sailing with his father. For six years, they shipped goods to Iran, Bahrain and Oman, among other places.
Showing off doesn't add anything to your name, fame and reputation. Only weak and shaky people need to boast.
When he turned 15, his uncle, Ahmad Majid Al Ghurair, asked Juma Al Majid to help at his shop in Deira, which dealt in wholesale fabrics, rice and other commodities.
Al Ghurair spotted his nephew's business acumen and decided to open a small shop for Al Majid to run on his own.
At 17, he started selling fabric, with an initial capital of 700 rupees (the currency in use in the Trucial States, which preceded the UAE, then).
"They gave me fabric with some assorted goods to sell. I was not happy because it was a heavy duty and responsibility for a 17-year-old boy, who did not have enough experience to handle such a business."
Rs700capital Juma Al Majid started with, at age 17, selling fabric with some assorted goods.
"However, I couldn't refuse this offer — as we used to obey the elderly, whatever their decision," Al Majid recalls.
Selling ACs — when power was unreliable
In the 1960s, he bought 200 air conditioners directly from the GE dealer in Lebanon at a discounted price — the order he placed was quite a substantial in those times. He found the dealer's contact from a brochure during a trip to Bahrain.
It took him two years to sell all the 200 units — as there was no regular power supply then in the UAE to run the ACs.
By the 1970s, his company was the second-largest in terms of sales of GE products, including up to 700,000 air-conditioners a year.
Along with Al Owais, Al Ghurair, Al Futtaim and Al Mulla families — he was one of the Emirati businessmen who formed the core of gold trade between the UK, Switzerland and India.
For Al Majid, trust and reputation form the basis of any trade relationship. These, he said, are the factors behind the success of the UAE as a trading hub.
Because of trust and reputation UAE traders in enjoyed, banks in Switzerland and UK would entrust them with up to 1,000 kilogrammes of gold without any guarantees or letters of credit.
"We used to sell to the prices they gave and send them the money back. They never lost a dirham," Al Majid said.
Today, Juma Al Majid has built a business empire based in Dubai, spanning 40 companies involved in engineering, construction, trading, services, automotive and investments, with operations across the world.
His dealerships include a wide range of products, including Hyundai, Kia, Samsung, Hitachi and several others.
Our religion says that excessive spenders are the brothers of the devil.
"Our religion says that excessive spenders are the brothers of the devil," Al Majid told Gulf News. "Showing off doesn't add anything to your name, fame and reputation. Only weak and shaky people need to boast."
Charity work, from the 1950s
In the early 1950s, Al Majid joined his colleagues from the business community — Humaid Al Tayer, Abdullah Al Ghurair, Nasir Rashed Loutah and, with the consent of the late Shaikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum — to establish the first charitable society to help the needy of Dubai.
They built two secondary schools: one for boys in Bur Dubai, called Jamal Abdul Nasser Secondary School, the second for girls in Deira, called Amna Secondary Schools.
Juma Al Majid runs several charity foundations and schools. The Juma Al Majid Centre for Culture and Heritage has also played a key role in sourcing and protecting historic Islamic manuscripts from across the world.
In 1974, Al Gaz and Al Majid began work on establishing a Pepsi factory in Dubai, the National Cement Company, and the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
After the UAE Federation was formed, Al Majid left the gold business as the trade and development projects the country offered greater opportunities. He even diversified into the carpentry and décor business. The group has later diversified further into transport and logistics, construction, food and advertising. He also established an international investment company, Al Majid Investment.
In 1987, Juma Al Majid established the Islamic and Arabic Studies College in Dubai.
In 1990, Al Majid, along with his former business partner Mohammad Al Gaz, and other local philanthropists, established the Beit Al Khair Society, a charitable organisation that aims to aid the poor citizens, needy students. It also offers cash or commodities to the victims of disasters.
A life of service
Despite his business achievements, Juma Al Majid lives a rather modest life. His modest habits come from his family values and the teachings of Islam.
"Our religion says that excessive spenders are the brothers of the devil," Al Majid told Gulf News.
"Showing off doesn't add anything to your name, fame and reputation. Only weak and shaky people need to boast."
I had the privilege of and inteviewing Juma Al Majid while doing a story about the preservation of rare manuscripts. It was at the Juma Al Majid Center for Culture and Heritage, off Sallahuddin Road, in Deira, during which a US diplomat was also visiting.
The painstaking work done by the centre's staff in preserving rare, old manuscripts — not only on Islam but also on other faiths as well — is fascinating.
I didn't know at that time that Juma Al Majid, this man who loves letters and learning, didn't have the chance to earn a school certificate while growing up in Dubai in the early 1930s, a fact he later revealed in an extensive interview.
"He's a holy man," an Arab friend of mine who knew Juma Al Majid told me. I was taken aback, pondered on those words. I found myself agreeing.
"So it's possible to be an extremely successful businessman and be in a state of blessedness, at the same time?" I asked myself in retrospect.
And we see it not just in the words but, moreso, in the works of Juma Al Majid himself.
We see it in the thriving businesses he built. The pupils he helped put to affordable, charity schools. The countless families aided by the charities he helped set up.
We see in the lives completely changed for the better while working for his numerous companies.
People found their dignity in working for Juma Al Majid. They found it through the help he extended, and the institutions of care and learning he helped establish.
And that, I think, is the hallmark of a life lived well.