Also see: DMCC head talks commodities and Africa’s trading future with Dubai

Ahmed bin Sulayem lives in a world of commodities, but over the past two years he has also made it his personal mission to pursue give more to charity, sponsoring causes that have included the UAE Red Crescent, Al Jalila Foundation and the funding of a new mosque.

And for this year’s UAE Water Aid campaign, co-ordinated by the UAE Red Crescent and spearheaded by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai, Bin Sulayem also made a sizeable personal donation, committing 300,000 dirhams to the cause.

But this was not a pre-meditated plan for the DMCC chairman, who had already contributed significantly this year to Al Jalila Foundation in support of cancer research after he was inspired to shave his head by Shaikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE foreign minister, who shaved his head in solidarity with child cancer patients at Tawam Hospital in Al Ain.

Recalling the event, Bin Sulayem notes: “For a person like me who has his hair always cut short, it’s not a big deal, so I shaved my head and my beard with the classic cut-throat razor, and Al Jalila Foundation tweeted a picture of an empty salon chair with a message in Arabic and English, saying, ‘who’s next?’”

However, what clinched it for UAE Water Aid was when, he says, “I was minding my own business at work, after the DMCC put in 2,000,000 dirhams for the Water Aid initiative, when within a few days I received the SMS asking for 25 dirham, 75 dirham, and so on, and I thought, ‘why should I do it that way, when I have it in me to make another donation?’”

In all, the Water Aid campaign has raised $49m over just sixteen days during the Islamic month of Ramadan – enough to provide potable water to over seven million people and exceeding its initial goal of five million – rounded off on the last day by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed with a contribution $6.8m, a sum that alone is enough for one million people.

The funds are expected to help to finance drilling, pumping, and water purification methods, and the UAE Red Crescent has already started drilling work in Tanzania, Niger, Togo and Ghana, and work with refugees in Somalia and Sudan, on top of efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, as well as with Syrian refugee camps in Erbil, and other work in Indonesia.

Bin Sulayem notes: “Maybe people don’t know this, but His Highness is heavily invested in the Red Crescent, and I’ve seen it before – wherever there has been the choice between a good cause that might delay a commercial matter, or the option to stay the course, then he will always opt for the former and focus on the good cause – it’s in his nature to do that.

“Water Aid addresses the unacceptable reality of those in poverty having to walk dozens of kilometres to find not even necessarily clean water – that’s what the UAE Red Crescent is all about – giving to the most vulnerable among us what they simply do not have access to.

“With the UAE initiative the target was to reach 5 million people, and within three days they had already passed half that, and if I were to take to guess I think that most of it would be going to Africa, but it is humanitarian – it is about going wherever the need is greatest.”

Gearing toward giving

These successes aside, Ahmed Bin Sulayem believes that there is still more that could be done to both promote and remove obstacles to charitable giving in the UAE – an opinion that is coloured by an experience that he went through in early 2012 when he approached Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Humanitarian & Charity Foundation with a proposal.

“This started when I called Ibrahim Bumelha, and the concept was that in each Islamic year, if you have money for one year which you don’t use then 2.5% of it goes to a charity, and I wanted to put that in our employment contract, and he was very supportive of it.

“I also had a legal counsel to make sure that the legal and HR parts of it were sound, but most people were shocked off their feet at the concept – there is no organisation that has that, but if the 10 dirham ‘knowledge fee’ is acceptable in the UAE, why can’t this be?

“We’re talking 2.5% – and not money that you’re using or are leveraged on: that’s not charity; it’s just digging a hole for yourself – so just on the money that you’re not actually using. But when my team went to sign and solidify, it disappointingly didn’t come together.”

This setback prompted Bin Sulayem to take thing into his own hands, and in October 2012 he donated a million dirhams towards the activities of the UAE Red Crescent, before running a corporate campaign in 2013 to support the Dubai Cares ‘adopt a school’ initiative in Gaza.

A year after the first donation, he then made another personal donation of one million dirhams towards building a community mosque within Jumeirah Lakes Towers development, in association with Awqaf, the UAE’s General Authority of Islamic Affairs & Endowments.

“Awqaf is more religious: it’s about building communities and spreading awareness and the mosque will be named after the third caliph, Uthman bin Affan, and who was also known as Dhun Nurayn, because he was separately married to two of the prophet’s daughters.

“There’s also a nice story about a man that owned a well and was charging high prices for it, and when this situation came to the attention when Uthman bin Affan he announced that he would resolve it, and purchased the well for a hefty price before endowing it to the people of Madinah.

“And the Well of Uthman is still producing water to this today, and his account is still there – the Ottomans took care of it, the Abbasids took care of it and the Umayyad dynasty took care of it, and this is just one of the many examples we have of the stands he took on charity.

“Uthman bin Affan is also likely to have been, before and after Islam, the richest commodity trader in history, and he made one fatwa that related to both commodities and water, where he said that water cannot be a bargaining tool, but that it should have one fixed price, because it is such a vital commodity.”

Building from the bottom up

Moving forward Ahmed Bin Sulayem hasn’t given up on his perhaps radicle proposition to include charitable donations in the employment contracts at the DMCC, and though he admits that it is a challenge, he clearly intends to pursue the issue with an indefatigable fervour.

“I’m going to re-introduce it – perhaps I’ll just add a box where people who want their contract to be reviewed with the 2.5% clause can sign up – because going forward, if people don’t like it, then they’re not the right sort of individuals for the community here at DMCC.

“I might announce that people can shoot me an email for the 2.5% charity, and it won’t be taken unless it is cash they haven’t used. Frankly, it was done when there was no internet – it was implemented over 1,400 years ago – so why can’t it be done from 2014 onwards?

“As for my personal donations, I want to encourage people, my generation and older, to make similar or even bigger donations by having the public and businessmen, and not just the private sector and government sector involved – to encourage the entire community of the UAE get involved. People might say it’s a PR stunt, but it has become a trend for me.”

Bin Sulayem adds the UAE Red Crescent and Dubai Cares play complementary roles: one with emergency and basic assistance; the other with a focus on the next level of priorities.

“People may have different views on what is more important, but whichever it may be, as long as you are willing to put your two cents in, the options are there. The late founder of the UAE won many awards when it came to good causes, and the current president is taking the same steps as his father, while Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum is doing the same with UAE Water Aid – encouraging it and spreading the word.

“Dubai Cares started either before or after the credit crunch, but at around the time of the recession, and at the time there were some that made commitments and followed through and others that didn’t, but His Highness described it at the time as his best project ever.

“I hadn’t knows that Reem Al Hashemi was the head of it when I was trying to do the CSR work with DMCC and when I shared it with her, she was ecstatic about it and we generated some publicity – because it is not just about the good cause, but about spreading awareness.”

In the case of Water Aid he adds: “For this campaign, I know that a large amount of it will be going to Africa, as well as to camps related to the situation in Syria – though for all the issues and infighting that they are facing there right now, it is a very strong country.

As for Africa, he concludes: “I wish to be alive to see the day when going to Africa is no different than going to Europe in terms of their infrastructure and education and the sense of equality and lifestyle, and I believe it will happen – because so many major economies are now heavily invested in Africa – so I look forward to that.”

Also see: DMCC head talks commodities and Africa’s trading future with Dubai