Raja Easa Al Gurg is one of those Dubai business figures that needs no introduction.
Having started her career as a schoolteacher, she now leads family business Easa Saleh Al Gurg Group as managing director with a CV that would make most global executives envious.
Her other positions include president of Dubai Business Women Council, vice chairperson of the Dubai Healthcare City Authority and board roles at Dubai Chamber Of Commerce and Industry (DCCI), Dubai Women’s Association, HSBC Middle East, Coutts and various UAE universities.
No surprise then that when it came to launching her own autobiography the UAE government sent one of its top officials.
“Dr Raja Al Gurg has a great story to tell and she tells it in a compelling fashion. Her story is in many ways the story of the United Arab Emirates,” said minister of tolerance Sheikh Nahayan Mabarak Al Nahayan.
Gulf Business secured a slot in the Emirati businesswoman’s packed schedule to discuss her surprising career path, new opportunities for Emirati women, the family business and what advice she would give to the next generation.
What made you want to tell your story?
“I have been through so many experiences and challenges in life, whether it was in the education sector, business or then philanthropy and medical, and I thought it would be a very good idea to pass all these experiences to the younger generation. I also wanted to leave a legacy behind for my children and grandchildren and family, showing them that even if I am called a grandmother one day then my grandchildren will not feel that I did not work hard or was not educated. So I thought that this would be the right way to attract the attention of the younger generation and my own children and grandchildren.”
You mentioned in the book you didn’t always want to get into business, what changed your mind?
“This is of course because the chairman [her father Easa Saleh Al Gurg] encouraged me. In the beginning of course, as I mentioned in my book, I wanted to study business and politics but I didn’t get the chance to because the university classes were full. Instead, I studied English and decided to become a teacher and later a school principal. I stayed there for 13-14 years but then the chairman encouraged me to consider business because he saw so much potential. We were talking about it for a few years, it was not an overnight decision, then I came to the conclusion ‘yes, why shouldn’t I?’ If my father sees I have that potential and I can drive the success of the family business then why not? Then I started thinking seriously about it and came into the business in 1989.”
What are some of the key lessons you would like people to take from your career?
“Dedication, transparency, time management and keeping a good relationship with people whether you intend to see them again or not because I believe that one day you will need them for something. I’ve never even cut my relationships with all the teachers and students at my school and also my colleagues – the Emirati girls who were working with me. We are together and we sit on boards together and that makes me very proud.”
The UAE government has recently announced plans for 50 per cent of the seats at the Federal National Council to be occupied by Emirati women and a series of policies to increase female representation in the judiciary, diplomacy and business. Has there been a better time to be a woman in this country?
“Our leadership has taken care of all of these issues right from the beginning and groomed us as women to take part in society. Women have proven themselves to be successful in this country whether they are put in ministries or embassies or any other governmental job. Announcing that 50 per cent of the FNC would be women is not something that surprised us as women – let me be very clear. We knew that our leaders appreciated the role of women and the empowerment of women in society. I believe that women in our part of the world, especially the UAE, have occupied positions from A to Z – from caring to empowering, working and taking her place in society. It was not a shock for us, it was a belief that it would come one day and it came.”
In some other countries there is legislation mandating half of company board members need to be female. Would you support a similar move in the UAE?
“Well we are on boards, I myself sit on two boards of international banks, HSBC and Coutts, besides the boards of three universities. I support women wherever they have potential and can contribute.
“It’s not only putting the name on the board, the most important thing is whether she is able to give back in that sector or not. If she can, then she is fit and if she cannot then it’s the wrong decision. Today I can see that so many girls are sitting on boards. Society is happy about it and the women are happy within themselves to give more and produce more to prove to their leaders that they are the right people for the job.”
Moving on to the family business, how has 2018 been for Easa Saleh Al Gurg Group?
“Well it’s been good. The whole market of course goes with the flow of the economy and we cannot complain about that – I think that 2019 is going to be more rosy than 2018. Last year was the first year of excise tax and value added tax and that made businesses more cautious because they didn’t know if it would be successful or not. Now January is here, it’s 12 months since VAT was implemented, and people have seen that the change will be to the benefit of the country. I believe 2019 is going to give us much better results as 2020 is coming. There are more projects on the horizon and there is greater flexibility in the market.”
Speaking of 2020 and Dubai’s hosting of the World Expo, do you see opportunities around the event for the company?
“Well we are agents for Siemens, they are opening a headquarters in 2020. We are looking into the possibility of how to be part of that because this is a big six-month event. Definitely we as a company and diversified businesses in general should benefit from Expo 2020 and we are looking into how to be part of it.”
Does the company have any expansion plans for its different units?
“Of course, we are in Oman and expanding in Saudi Arabia and we are looking forward to enriching this business. A big part of our plans includes investing in real estate in the United Kingdom and that gives the company a very good backbone.”
You mentioned previously how you are on the boards of banks and universities while also helping to lead your own company and the Dubai Business Women Council. Is it difficult juggling all those responsibilities?
“I would say when you grow with things you don’t feel they are a burden on you. If all these responsibilities came overnight I wouldn’t be able to do it. But because it grew with me – one year it was one bank and then after three years another bank came and then Dubai Business Women Council and so on – it was moving with me as I grew into business. Everything was moving in a positive way and I took it as a normal part of my daily lifestyle.”
Is it different working with members of your family rather than just work colleagues?
“One thing I would like to say about our company is we don’t work as colleagues and employers and employees. We feel that we are in a family atmosphere and are there for the managers, the sales people and even for the tea boy who brings tea for us. We work as one family and we have that connection that makes me so proud. People are not just working to get their salary at the end of the month, they devote and dedicate themselves to the work and that proves the human relationship between people, whether it is in a company, a family or society, has to attract both sides’ attention. I care for my people and my people care for me even more.”
What advice would you give to young women considering a move into business?
“The young generation have to know exactly what they want and target what they want. They also have to know the ways to move towards that target. The most important thing is to love their career. If they do love their work they will be the most productive people in that office – they will be amazing. If they just work because they have to, with no aims, then that is the most boring job in the world.”
Is there anything you would like to add?
“I want the younger generation to take their part in society. The future of the United Arab Emirates depends on the dedication of the youth because this country has given them a lot. We have to give back whether we are young or old. It’s also important not to forget young people can take a lot of experience in work and society from the older generation so they can keep the momentum up.
“If they are young they are still newcomers to life and should speak to people with experience, as we did in my generation, that’s what makes you really successful. If you are young you can’t do everything or not care for the rest of society. The relationship should be there so that the younger generation gain a lot of experience and maybe they don’t need to spend two or three years on one idea but can learn from sitting with someone who has that experience. They can take a different kind of approach that will help them reach their goal.”