From my office window in Deira, I can see dhows clustered in the port, loading and unloading their wares, much as they did back when I was growing up across the creek. [Excerpt from Raja Al Gurg]
Looking out the 15th floor office window of the Easa Saleh Al Gurg towers in Deira, it is easy to share Raja Easa Al Gurg’s point of view, which is also the opening lines of her recently launched autobiography that has her name as the title. The spectacular panoramic vista offers a bird’s eye view of part of the emirate stretching past the Dubai Frame and the towering Burj Khalifa — a picture-perfect portrait of the old and the new city in one frame.
‘The creek, the dhows, the workers loading and unloading stuff, the bustling area… these are my first memories as I was growing up in Bur Dubai,’ says Raja, managing director of the well-known Easa Saleh Al Gurg Group, one of the largest business conglomerates in the region, looking out of the window once again before sitting down for an exclusive interview with Friday. ‘I felt my [autobiography] would not be complete if I left out references to the creek and its surrounds.’
Raja, who holds a string of titles — president of Dubai Business Women Council, chairperson of the Board of Directors of Al Jalila Foundation, board member of Dubai Chamber Of Commerce and Industry and vice-chairperson of the board of directors, Dubai Healthcare City Authority, among others — goes down memory lane recollecting her growing years. ‘We lived in Bur Dubai until I was 17-years-old when I left to go to university in Kuwait,’ she says. ‘I remember running around and playing with my brother Saleh in the area where the British Bank of the Middle East (now HSBC) stands.’
She also remembers spending a lot of time on her bicycle and a toy car ‘wheeling in the sand or playing with my brother and friends running through the textile souq’. And one place they would often stop by was a little shop in a back alley of the souq where a man would be selling fresh, crispy, flavourful samosas. ‘I still remember the place where the shop stood in the souq. Those samosas were delicious. It was such fun,’ says the 64-year-old Raja, eyes lighting up at the memory.
Our education started early in life and was not limited to the classroom.
Life was not all play, though, for the second child of the Al Gurg family. ‘Education started for me even before I went to school,’ she says. ‘We — the young boys and girls in the neighbourhood — used to go to the Maktab where we memorised the Quran. Today, I feel so happy when I see some of my friends who are CEOs and business leaders doing well in their lives and careers. I remember those days when we used to all play together on the roads and in the souqs.’
Raja credits her father, Easa Saleh Al Gurg, for teaching her to be ‘driven and successful. He didn’t treat me or my sisters differently from my brothers,’ she says. Education was paramount and although he himself did not go to university, he was a prolific reader; he would go on to become the Ambassador to the UK and Ireland and be awarded a CBE (Commander in the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire).
Keen to inculcate the habit of reading in his children, he would hand her the newspaper every day insisting Raja read certain articles related to politics and business that he had flagged up. ‘Believe me, I never understood a lot of it because I was only 10 or 12-years-old at the time and politics was not something I enjoyed reading. But once I grew up and came into business, that habit [of reading newspapers] has helped me a lot. Incidentally, even today, he unfailingly highlights articles in papers and gives them to me to read,’ she says, a hint of pride underlying her words.
Gingerly, I picked up my steak knife and watched closely as my father held it delicately in his right hand and sliced through his steak, urging me to copy him.
The three Rs were not the only thing Easa Saleh insisted that his children pick up. Hailing from a pearling background, the patriarch of the group who would go on to lay the foundation of a business empire that would grow to 27 companies with interests in retail, construction and metals, would often take his kids to fine-dining restaurants in Dubai keen to teach them the finer points of table etiquette.
‘At that time not many people would think about these small issues. But my father being with the European community and growing up in that area, felt that part of his duties included showing us [Western table etiquette] so that in case he takes us out with him for a meal we would not create a mess.
‘But the most important thing was that we used to get to have steak; that was the best part. Steak was the most delicious thing for us at that time and we used to look forward to those evenings,’ she says with a laugh.
What Raja also looked forward to was pursuing a degree in business and politics at university in Kuwait. However, sadly for her, by the time she applied, she found all seats were already taken for that course. ‘I was told I could either opt for another course or return to the UAE.’
Not wanting to return home and be labelled ‘a failure for not finding a course’, she opted to pursue English. ‘I felt it would be useful to me someday, and it has.’ After graduating in English, Raja returned to the UAE to become a teacher and then principal of a school where she spent 13 years shaping the lives of secondary school students. ‘I still have lovely memories of the time I was principal. In fact, I still meet women who were once my students.’
Friday lunch had been served. After we had eaten… father spoke… He [said he] needed someone to take over from him at the helm of the family firm.
What made you shift from education to business? I ask her.
‘My father saw a lot of potential in me,’ she says, leaning forward intently. ‘One day he asked me, “What are you gaining in your job at school?” That question made me pause and rethink my situation.
‘After much thought, I realised that while I used to learn something in the beginning of the year, it had soon become a routine — going to school, meeting teachers, doing some admin work, visiting classrooms, checking on students’ progress… There was little that allowed me to expand my mind and exercise my brain.’ She felt his question was apt. She needed to move in a different direction so she could ‘do — and give — more to the people, community and society’.
However, a tad hesitant to give up a stable career in education, Raja admits she was ‘scared’ to move into a new area. ‘I thought maybe it would be too huge a risk to take; that I might not be able to do well in that area; I feared I might not be a success.’ But reluctant to let slip an opportunity for growth, Raja suggested her father give her a chance to check out the field during the three-month school summer holidays. ‘This way I would not have to leave my job,’ she says.
Quite like an intern, Raja began attending official meetings with him — studying the business up close. In less than three months she realised business was her true calling. ‘I found life here is of a different kind. I felt I could upgrade my skills, my thinking… even my personality.’
To start with Raja chose to manage the interiors division in the company ‘because it was the ’90s and I felt that it was something most women would enjoy at that time’.
Apart from managing operations, she was involved in choosing products, going to expos, identifying areas to expand. Very quickly Raja managed to cement Interiors as one of the top décor firms in the country offering furniture, accessories and textiles from renowned global brands.
From there it was not long before she became managing director of the Easa Saleh Al Gurg group.
‘When I took on the role in my father’s company, I had to prove I could be successful as a woman who my father chose. It’s crucial that women push their own boundaries and have the will to succeed,’ says Raja, who in 2017 was named the most powerful Emirati businesswoman by Forbes Middle East.
If New York is the city that never sleeps, Dubai is the city that never stands still.
With her father, herself and the group having played a major role in the development of the country, I ask her what she is most proud about in Dubai’s evolution.
Raja smiles for a moment. ‘[The fact that it moved] from sand to silicon so quickly,’ she says.
‘I consider myself and my generation to be very lucky to be living in this country. We lived and tasted the hardness of the past, are enjoying the luxury of the present and are building for the future — for the new generation. We have seen the country develop… when the Al Maktoum bridge was the only link between Deira and Dubai; when major roads were only being built… to what it is now — a bustling metropolis with so many wonderful structures, major advances in education and health care, and offering a high quality of life.’
She is proud that her family business is firmly rooted in the country’s development, shining a beacon in the path of progress. From Dubai’s first-ever traffic light, at the Deira Clock Tower roundabout, which was installed by ESAG in 1972, to the neon light display on Dubai Water Canal to even the Louvre Abu Dhabi among several other structures, the company has been involved in some way or the other with the country’s evolution.
‘It was the revolutionary vision of the Rulers to upgrade the city. The Dubai Canal, for instance, was such a revolutionary idea. A miracle. The Ruler had the vision which became a reality.
‘When the modern generation used to grumble that they are finding it difficult to move around because of road diversions, etc, I’d tell them ‘just wait and see, all these things are going to change for the better in a very short time. It’ll be very much worth it. And it is.’
The first Emirati businesswoman to write an autobiography, Raja makes it clear that while having a vision is important, ‘it’s more important to work hard to make your dream a reality. We all can have dreams and many of us just lie back and say, “yes I have a dream”. But the proof of the pudding is in its taste,’ she says, with a smile.
Underscoring the fact that development has occurred in not just the nation’s infrastructure but also in other crucial areas such as health care and education, she says: ‘At one time, there were just two schools in Dubai. Now can you count the number? Same is the case with health care. We need to constantly keep improving, making things better and world class. We need to be innovating, getting up to date with different technologies, different kinds of education… even in tourism, which has also developed vastly.’
The last 16 years have been transformative. Businesswomen today are coming into a completely different environment from the one I first entered…
What lessons would you offer budding entrepreneurs, I ask the president of the Dubai Business Women Council, who is keen to improve female entrepreneurship in the country.
‘First, they should have patience,’ she says. ‘That’s so important. If your business does not take off overnight, don’t give up hope. Also, don’t think your business will do millions in just a few months after opening.’
Choosing the right business is her next tip. ‘Just because your friend opened a coffee shop, which is a success, doesn’t mean you should also immediately open one. Study the market, find a niche, then develop a plan and a project.’
She advises budding entrepreneurs the importance of believing in themselves and thinking big. ‘Even if you are opening just a cupcake business, think big. Maybe one day you’ll become a huge bakery with several branches producing tasty cupcakes. Aim for that.’
Lastly, she reminds them to seek the advice of people in the sector. ‘Don’t believe that you know everything; no one knows everything. Be willing to learn from people around you. Have mentors. It’s not a shame to think you don’t know something and seek help.’
So, what are the hallmarks of a good leader or manager?
Raja does not need to think long. ‘One who can understand people’s needs, educate people, show them their mistakes without criticising them too harshly or embarrassing them in front of others. They should build a team and importantly have a clear succession plan in place. Their responsibility is to create leaders behind them.’
You are the eyes that I see the world with. Raja, one day you will be something.
Raja’s eyes well up when she remembers her mother’s words. ‘Perhaps it was her conviction in my ability that inspired me to go on to achieve what I did,’ she says, softly dabbing her eyes.
Deeply into philanthropy, Raja carries on several charity initiatives that her mother had started during her lifetime. ‘A few days after my mother passed away 23 years ago, her driver told me, “I want to show you exactly what mama used to do with regard to charity”. He then took me to several places in Dubai and told me that my mother used to help people there. “If you want to continue her work, you can,” he told me, and I’ve been doing the same ever since,’ she says. She credits her mother for inculcating in her the quality to accept everyone as they are and to treat everyone equally.
What is your strength, I ask Raja.
Named one of the 100 most powerful woman in the world recently, Raja considers the question before looking at Alyza Beg, the group head corporate affairs of ESAG who says, ‘she’s a great listener.’
Raja smiles genially. ‘Yes, I guess I’m a good listener. I listen to all points of view.’
And your weakness? I ask.
‘I am very soft-hearted,’ she says, then throwing back her head she laughs and adds, ‘but I don’t show it. Actually, it’s not really a weakness. I think it’s a good thing.’
Having been on the business scene for more than four decades, Raja clearly has acquired a wealth of experience while picking up several life lessons along the way. What are the three top lessons, I ask her.
‘I firmly believe that there will always be light after darkness. There might be a few bad days in a person’s life. All you need to do is wait and think about how to move on. Then when you have beautiful days — and you will — you should not forget [or spoil] those moments by ruminating on the bad days,’ says Raja, counting off one on her fingers.
‘Point two: Don’t forget people who helped you in your time of need.
‘Three: Dedication to — and loving — your work. Respect your work and yourself in society. These are some important life-lessons.’
The scion of the Al Gurg family believes that her greatest achievements to date are ‘bringing up my children properly and running the family business, in that order’.
Raja recalls feeling overwhelmed after attending the graduation ceremony of her son in London last year. ‘After the ceremony which we, the entire family attended, I was overcome by emotion and rushed back to my hotel room from where I sent a Whatstapp message to my children on our family group. I said, “I’ve brought you up and today I can see that you all are on the right track. You are my prayers; you are the crown I wear on my head. I wish you all the success and happiness. Keep being kind and keep being understanding. Be clever and intelligent to know which way to take when you are in a dilemma”.
‘I was teary-eyed even as I was typing this out. Within seconds of receiving the message, my sons and daughters rushed into my room and hugged me. I think we all had tears in our eyes. My achievement is that my children are on the right track and today helping run the business.
‘My other achievement is the chairman [my father Easa Saleh Al Gurg] depending on me and giving me all these responsibilities.’