Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 21 September 2019

Tributes pour in after Saif Al Ghurair, pioneering Dubai businessman, dies

Al Ghurair was central to Dubai's ascent as a global trade hub

Saif Al Ghurair (left) with Michael Sandberg, chairman of HSBC, during the opening reception of the Bank of Oman's representative office in Hong Kong on September 20, 1978. Getty
Saif Al Ghurair (left) with Michael Sandberg, chairman of HSBC, during the opening reception of the Bank of Oman's representative office in Hong Kong on September 20, 1978. Getty

One of Dubai's most prominent businessmen, Saif Al Ghurair, has died at the age of 95.

Born on the shores of Dubai Creek in the 1920s, the billionaire's life mirrors the dizzying expansion of the city from pearl-diving centre to global metropolis.

He founded Al Ghurair Group in 1960 and its collection of interests across manufacturing, retail and real estate was central to Dubai's ascent as a world centre of trade.

Most people will be familiar with his company's Al Ghurair Centre - the city's first major shopping mall that opened in 1981 and was much loved. It is still going strong today.

His company also established the water-bottling plant in Masafi, a cement factory and a sugar refinery in Jebel Ali.

On Tuesday, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, and Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi, Ruler of Ras Al Khaimah, visited the Al Ghurair family to offer their condolences. They were accompanied by Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, Crown Prince of Dubai.

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, led tributes to the tycoon online, offering his "sincere condolences on the death of Saif bin Ahmed Al Ghurair".

He described him as "a pioneer of entrepreneurs and economics" and praised him for his "long journey filled with struggles, ambition and success."

Dr Anwar Gargash, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, said "Bu Abdulrahman [father of Abdulrahman Al Ghurair] is from the generation of pioneers, stories of struggle, construction and lessons of life.

"We missed him during his illness and we miss him today," he said on Twitter.

Khalaf Al Habtoor, fellow businessman and founding chairman of Al Habtoor Group, offered his condolences to Al Ghurair's family "on the death of this good man".

He described Al Ghurair as "one of the pillars of Dubai's economy, the Arab Rockefeller".

Al Ghurair was born in Deira in 1924 and soon began working in the family business - pearl diving. The eldest of five sons, he spent months at a time at sea during the tough summer pearl season with only fish, dates and rice for food.

Al Ghurair Centre was Dubai's first major shopping mall and was established by Saif Al Ghurair in 1981. Courtesy Al Ghurair Centre 
Al Ghurair Centre was Dubai's first major shopping mall and was established by Saif Al Ghurair in 1981. Courtesy Al Ghurair Centre 

But the industry began to falter by the late 1930s because of Japan's discovery of cultured pearls. This brought economic pain to the region and the Second World War compounded the fraught situation. The future looked uncertain.

The family swiftly moved into trade and its boats crisscrossed the Indian Ocean. They took dates to Africa and India and returned with precious hardwoods and gold. It was through this trade that Dubai became an important gold centre.

Al Ghurair was on these voyages as the owner's representative - the nokhada - tasked with safeguarding the precious materials. During one particularly stormy trip to India, he lost an eye after the saltwater lashed his face.

“When I got to India it was hurting so much I went to the doctor to stop the pain. He said he could stop the pain but that I would lose my eye. I told him to stop the pain. Thank God it was only one eye,” Al Ghurair said.

By 1958, Sheikh Rashid had become Ruler of Dubai, and he spearheaded the transformation of the emirate. Way before the discovery of oil, Sheikh Rashid ushered in a pro-business atmosphere that put the city on the path to success. And it was businessmen such as Al Ghurair that were central to Dubai's growth.

A landmark moment was the opening of Al Ghurair Centre in Deira in 1981. It was the city's first major shopping centre and Emiratis, along with the residents who streamed into the city and were hungry to be a part of its success, fondly remember it as the first port of call to buy supplies. It is still going strong today.

The group also opened Burjuman shopping centre in 1992 and today the group has assets in ranging from manufacturing to trade to banking and property. The group is also a major shareholder in Mashreq Bank, which was previously known as the Bank of Oman.

The company was closed on Tuesday as a mark of respect. Funeral prayers will be held at 4pm on Tuesday at Al Qusais graveyard.

Updated: August 28, 2019 11:33 AM

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