Abdulla Al Ghurair may not have finished high school, but that never stopped the head of one of Dubai’s largest merchant families from dedicating his life to ensuring others did.
“My father was always attached to education and he felt that through education, we can transform our region,” his son, Abdulaziz Al Ghurair, says.
From setting up the UAE’s first private school in the mountain town of Masafi in the 1960s to giving scholarships to young people from the UAE and abroad, the founder and chairman of Mashreq Bank was already one of the country’s most generous philanthropists.
But those activities ramped up a gear in July last year, when the older Al Ghurair set aside a third of his wealth - $1.1bn – to create one of the world’s largest privately-funded education initiatives. The Abdullah Al Ghurair Foundation for Education’s long-term goal is to provide free university education for 15,000 disadvantaged students in the Arab world over a 10-year period.
But the real aim of the foundation will not be just to produce 15,000 graduates. It will be to build a generation of future leaders, who will be able to return home after their studies and give back to their own communities.
“It’s been brewing for a while,” says the younger Al Ghurair, the foundation’s chairman, of the decision to launch the initiative. “He [Abdulla] thought, ‘ok, the time has come to put a structure to these activities. Let’s make education a strategic initiative for the family’.”
In making education its focus, the foundation has deliberately put itself at the heart of the greatest challenge facing the Arab world today.
Last year, the International Labour Organization (ILO) put the youth unemployment rate in the Middle East and North Africa regions at 28.2 percent and 30.5 percent, respectively, making them the worst performers on the planet. The participation rate of young women in the Middle Eastern labour force in 2014, meanwhile, stood at a pitiful 13.8 percent – compared to a global average of 38.9 percent.
What is the solution? Well, according to the ILO, “education and training to ease the school-to-work transition and to prevent skills mismatches” is one of five key policy areas.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that the response to the foundation, from every part of the Arab world, has been phenomenal. Despite the fact that the recent applications process was only open between April and May this year, the foundation received 14,500 entries from not only the Gulf and Egypt, but also Morocco, Tunisia, Somalia and the Comoros Islands, in the Indian Ocean.
For Al Ghurair, a highly respected figure on the UAE political and business scene through his roles as CEO of Mashreq and sd former speaker of the Federal National Council, the results so far are welcome - even if a little unexpected.
“These are places that we thought our message had not reached,” Al Ghurair says. “But somehow, they got to know. And that’s really our goal – to ensure the access to our foundation is not just for people in the UAE.
“And through the power of the online application, not a single soul walked into our offices. That process has made it easy for a person living in Morocco to make these applications sitting back at home.”
Yet even this figure is just the tip of the iceberg, the chairman says, adding that if the online application process had remained open for longer, “we probably would have received 100,000” entries.
The challenge for the foundation now is to sift through those thousands of applications. Many will be weeded out fairly rapidly; for example, students wishing to take humanities degrees will be politely declined. The foundation is purely focusing on courses in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), in part to combat relatively low incidence of these degrees in the MENA region.
For the rest, the foundation has put in place a strict scoring system, based not only on academic merit and on non-cognitive skills, but the economic environment in which the student has been brought up. Candidates will be means-tested on their family income, and also graded according to the GDP per capita of the country in which they live, with the idea being to give only the brightest and most underprivileged applicants scholarships.
“So if you score highly on the academic side, but you have a well-to-do father, then you’re out,” Al Ghurair says. “But if you are a refugee, or your mother or father has passed away and there is no financial support, then you get a bonus.”
He cites the example of Hajer Ahmed Al Qutaifan, a Syrian student who only recently came to the UAE, and who got the top marks in the country for science earlier this month, as his model student.
“She only came a year ago from a refugee camp – I want people like her to be on my programme,” Al Ghurair says.
At some point in August, the sifting process will be complete, and the victorious scholars contacted. They will then go on to study at one of the foundation’s partner universities: Khalifa University, American University of Sharjah (both in the UAE), American University of Cairo or American University of Beirut.
“They’re overwhelmed with the number of applications and we’re negotiating with them as to whether they can take more,” Al Ghurair says, adding – with a smile – that the flood of applications expected when the process begins again next year makes him “scared”.
The foundation’s early success belies the effort that went into setting it up in the first place. As well as putting in place a board of trustees and a chief executive – the former head of Jordan’s Queen Rania Foundation, Maysa Jalbout – Al Ghurair says the way the foundation has been structured makes it unique to the region.
In addition, while speaking with other institutions inside the UAE, such as the Red Cross and Dubai Cares, the entity has also reached further afield, looking at the work of the MasterCard Foundation, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation and the SunTrust Foundation. Recently, the head of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s education arm spent two weeks with the team in Dubai.
“It really is run the way we run our other businesses – we give it similar or maybe more attention than our other businesses because we are also new to this,” he continues. “The way we’ve set it up, the way we’re running it, we’re almost touching new boundaries.”
When it comes to new boundaries, perhaps the toughest challenge the foundation is taking on – and what would probably rank as its greatest achievement – is the battle to garner greater recognition for online learning. Open learning courses aren’t generally accredited by universities or governments in the Middle East, but Al Ghurair is hoping that a new partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) will bring a sea-change to the region.
“The day we started, we said – ok, let’s pick a partner that will set the standard for us, the best,” he says. “MIT is cutting-edge when it comes to open learning, and it’s this concept that really intrigued us.
“This will change the world and it will, I think, revolutionise the way Arab students have access to high-quality courses.”
The collaboration with MIT will see the foundation offering the Al Ghurair Open Learning Scholars Program, which will feature two ‘MicroMasters’ programmes consisting of five 12-week online modules in STEM subjects. If candidates complete those courses, not only do they receive a MicroMasters degree from MIT, they also have the opportunity to finish the course at a standard university campus, potentially gaining a full MIT master’s degree.
“It’s been a great story for us,” Al Ghurair says. “The top universities in Europe and North America are now reaching out to us – they know that MIT will not just select any partner.
“Now we also have to find a French-speaking university next year as well, that will allow students from Morocco or Tunisia to study there.”
The chairman also says he needs local institutions and governments to start accrediting online courses, and to help with outreach.
While the response to this year’s intake request has been strong, the foundation is trying to reach communities as varied as Emiratis in remote parts of the UAE, Syrian refugees in Zaatari camp in Jordan, and Egyptians living in rural areas of the country – all parts of the region that are underserved in different ways. Part of that outreach programme is aided by the online application system, but the team is also using social media to target potential beneficiaries.
The foundation could potentially also be seen as a model for other wealthy families in the UAE and the wider Gulf to give back to their communities, especially in a part of the world where philanthropists tend to keep quiet about their activities.
“We - as Emiratis and as Muslims – have a tradition that what you give with your right hand, your left hand should not know about,” he says. “So whatever you do in terms of philanthropy, you should not talk about it. I think that’s great and it should continue.
“But when you turn philanthropy into an institution, when you want it to have a big impact on the country, then you can’t just keep it under the carpet. You have to bring it up, you have to run it and you have to promote it as a core business for the country.”
But despite the foundation’s deep pockets, Al Ghurair is also acutely aware that simply throwing money at the issue will not guarantee success, or create the large-scale and sustainable impact the family is looking for. The chairman says that the foundation is not simply about financing tuition fees, it’s about creating a network of potential opportunities for its scholars, via careers advice and internships, for example.
In particular, he says he is worried that even the brightest students may not have the language skills or the aptitude to go and live abroad.
“We can find people who are proud, intelligent, eager to learn and willing to commit,” Al Ghurair says. “But how do you prepare those people, make them university-ready and able to study abroad?
“What we don’t want to do is go through all this, send the students abroad and they fail because there’s culture shock. So we are worried that people may not yet be ready.
“Our goal is to have 100 percent of those who go to university to come back with a degree.”
Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.