Bridging communities and bringing people of Dubai together through the arts, travel and discovery and in the process raising millions for charitable causes is what Brian Wilkie is best known for. Arriving in Dubai in 1976 as a 27-year-old to sell fire extinguishers, Brian ended up staying 42 years in the emirate, of which 17 were spent with Gulf for Good, a charity he co-founded in 2001 to get Gulf residents to challenge themselves to help others.
Over the years, Brian and his team has built clinics, hospitals, schools and dormitories, and donated ambulances and supplies for the welfare of children around the world. The charity (run under the patronage of Shaikh Ahmad Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, President of Dubai Civil Aviation Authority and Chairman and CEO of Emirates Group) has raised around $3.5million with its members setting foot in far flung corners of the world – from Peru to China, and Mongolia to Madagascar.
While this has fed into Brian’s love for expeditions, travel and adventure, his desire to get residents of Dubai, especially children, to read, perform and create led him to establish the Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre (Ductac) in 2006. Inaugurated by its then honorary patron, Princess Haya Bint Al Hussain, wife of His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, it remains as one of the most vibrant and frequented arts centres in the emirate.
This month, as the 69-year-old Brian steps down from his role of Gulf for Good’s chairman, passing the baton to Anne Edmonson, and as Ductac gets ready to close its doors at the Mall of Emirates where it was housed for the last 12 years and move to a new place over summer, he says: ‘Change is inevitable. I did not imagine both these initiatives would become so successful.’
It all began when Brian’s friend wanted to raise money to buy an ambulance in Namibia and they ended up climbing Mt Kilimanjaro and raising enough money for four ambulances. That’s how Gulf for Good was set up. ‘There was no theatre in Dubai for expats to perform or go watch a play and I decided to set up a small theatre. And look at what Ductac has become today. Dubai is like that, if you can have an idea and you make it fun for people, there will be no dearth of support.’
Brian, who was born in India - his father served in the British army - has received the Member of the Order of the British Empire in 2008 for services to British commercial interests and charitable activities in Dubai.
‘I came to Dubai in August 1976 for a day, driving all the way from Abu Dhabi. I fell in love with the place almost immediately and decided to settle here,’ he recalls.
The emirate’s dynamism and vision was clear to him on his first visit. ‘To build a 30-storey trade centre in the middle of the desert was to make a huge statement. It was clear that Dubai would soon be the centre of trade in the region and I wanted to be a part of it.’
And, so began a life in the growing emirate, trying different things, taking risks and enjoying life. ‘You realised how small Dubai was when you saw the tarmac ending on Jumeirah Beach Road near the old Dubai zoo and after that there were only dirt tracks. The Abu Dhabi Road (or the Sheikh Zayed Road) was a lane or two lanes in each direction. There was a guard post at the Dubai-Abu Dhabi border, and a pretty adventurous drive that took you from one emirate to the other,’ remembers Brian.
Charity was not on his mind in those days. ‘It was all about setting up businesses, making money, losing money, having a good time, meeting my wife, Sami, and finally getting married.’
Charity happened by accident when he visited the Al Aseef School for special needs children (now Dubai Centre for Special Needs). Dressed as Santa, he was delivering chocolates to kids and the joy on the faces of the children flipped a switch within him. ‘It was a life-changing moment and it all started from there. I returned home and told my wife that we needed to do something for the less fortunate.’
In June 2000, the idea for Gulf for Good and Ductac took shape but the former took less time to get off the ground. ‘I had done a charity bike ride across Cuba to raise money for a British charity and came back with the thought that the idea of a charity bike ride or a charity trek was a great idea.’ However, he remembers feeling ‘weird cycling across a very poor country to raise money for a charity in a rich country’.
Around that time a friend wanted to raise money for an ambulance in Namibia and asked Brian if he had any ideas on how to go about it. ‘I said ‘why don’t we do something in Africa?’. For me it made more sense to do the challenges in a poor country to raise money for those countries. And that’s how we joined forces and 50 of us climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in 2001.’
In the years to follow Brian and the Gulf for Good team mobilised residents of various nationalities in Dubai to take on exciting expeditions in several countries around the world. He still recounts the Journey to the Centre of the Earth in Mongolia in 2006 where the group were on horseback in the desert like Genghis Khan. ‘We had never had any training in horse riding, and truth be told, two of us even fell off the horse but it was absolutely surreal galloping across the desert,’ says Brian.
‘Many of these charity challenges are like adventure expeditions where we go into unchartered territories and it has helped bring people closer to each other, fostering goodwill among different communities.’ Brian’s favourite though is the Mysore to Ooty Gulf for Good challenge 2004 where they climbed the Nilgiris, crossing tropical vegetable plantations, tea and coffee plantations, past beautiful streams and waterfalls.
‘I also enjoyed the Everest Base Camp challenge. Every year we have four public challenges – and try to mix biking, trekking, high altitude trekking and multi-activity challenges and lot of our participants are repeaters, who come back to do three, four, six or eight challenges.’
Brian owes a lot of his success with Gulf for Good to his wife Sami, a singer and an entertainer. ‘To run a charity you need a warm heart and a cool head. I think Sami’s was that cool head.’ It was also after meeting Sami that Brian got introduced to the arts. ‘Sami performed in a drama group at the British Council in the late eighties. I used to go with her and help with the sets and props. We went on to act in Robin Hood – I was the Sheriff of Nottingham and she was Robin Hood.’
In those days it was mostly amateur theatre and Dubai didn’t have too many places for people to stage plays. ‘One evening at home with friends we were lamenting the dearth of proper theatres and I said why don’t we have our own theatre?’
The idea grew after they contacted Majid Al Futtaim who agreed to offer space in Mall of Emirates. ‘Dubai was spreading southwards, this had the promise to be the beating heart of Dubai’s culture.’
Ductac opened its doors in 2006. With the 540-seat Centrepoint theatre, the 200-seater Kilachand studio theatre, the Manu Chhabria Art Centre sponsored by the Jumbo Group, Ductac soon became a cultural hub in Dubai.
Architect John R Harris (who had designed the Dubai World Trade Centre), and the Theatre Projects Consultants (TPC) from London designed and brought Ductac to life. ‘The learning curve has been enormous for me. I never imagined building anything like this. I think it was a matter of being at the right place at the right time to do the right thing.’
Brian still remembers the opening day at Ductac that attracted 1,500 people. ‘Sami and I went home with shiny eyes.’
‘Majid Al Futtaim allowed us to build Ductac for two reasons. It would be a huge attraction for the MOE and he wanted to have something that would serve the community. At that time when we were designing the place, the building boom was on and we went way over the budget. But Majid Al Futtaim never flinched and all he said was ‘do it properly’.’
In many ways it feels strange that having done it properly, Ductac is now moving from the MOE, he says.
‘Dubai is a place where people care for each other. There is lot of talent here and I hope I have helped to light that spark of culture, to help people live their dreams.’