In a large room on the 16th floor of the Easa Saleh Al Gurg Group head offices in Dubai, where I am meeting managing director Raja Al Gurg to discuss her autobiography, there are a number of photographs in silver frames perched on shelves and tables. In one of them, Al Gurg leans in to hear what German Chancellor Angela Merkel is saying. In another, Al Gurg and Prince Harry share a private joke over dinner.
There is nothing ostentatious about the way these images have been displayed – they sit alongside books and other pieces of dust-catching paraphernalia – but they nevertheless serve as reminders of Al Gurg's far-reaching influence as a business leader (last year, she was included in Forbes magazine's list of the World's 100 Most Powerful Women) and women's rights advocate.
We will get on to all of that, but first things first, what was it like to have dinner with Prince Harry? "It was great," she says. "He is such a charming young man and he likes to joke. He's very fresh and people really get along with him. I follow him on Instagram, so I am not old-fashioned." Al Gurg lets out one of many hearty laughs that punctuate the conversation. "And also let me say that the Prince of Wales is a very interesting character," she continues. "He stood there and listened to me. It wasn't just 'hello' and go."
In truth, it would take a brave man not to listen to Al Gurg when she is addressing you. She is a formidable presence who speaks deliberately, all the while fixing you with a steely stare. When I momentarily interrupt her to check that my recording device is working, I feel like a naughty schoolboy, risking the wrath of the headmistress. It is not at all surprising to discover that Al Gurg was the principal of Zabeel Secondary School for Girls during the 1980s.
Al Gurg’s story, elegantly told in this new book, is a remarkable one. Her own journey – her swift ascent to prominence on the global stage – in many ways mirrors that of the UAE. “I reached adulthood at the same time as my beloved UAE was formed,” she writes. “I had just turned 16 when the founding fathers signed the Treaty of Friendship … in Dubai on December 2, 1971, and a country was born.” Their fates have been intertwined ever since.
'I studied it because I wanted a degree'
Al Gurg was born on November 5, 1955. She grew up in Bur Dubai when the area, with low-rise buildings and traditional markets, was unrecognisable from the sprawling modern city we know today. Al Gurg's Emirati father worked at the British Bank of the Middle East; her mother was from Kuwait. In 1960, Al Gurg's father founded the Easa Saleh Al Gurg Group with the acquisition of Grundig electronics. Today, ESAG has a portfolio of 370 brands, including Siemens, Dunlop and Armitage Shanks.
Al Gurg enjoyed a happy childhood, and the book is full of vivid memories of her and her siblings getting up to mischief. Her younger sister, Maryam, was born when she was nine years old, and Al Gurg remembers wolfing down the puree her infant sister couldn’t manage. “My mother would turn from the stove and congratulate [Maryam] on finishing all her food,” she writes.
In 1973, at the age of 17, Al Gurg became the first member of her family to attend university. She had hoped to study business or politics at Kuwait University, but when she arrived, she discovered that both courses were full. There was, however, one available space on the English literature course. “They told me: ‘Take it or leave it. [You can] go back to your country’,” says Al Gurg. “Going back would have meant showing your people that you are a failure.”
So English literature it was, and although Al Gurg returned to the UAE in 1977 with a degree, she found no great love for the subject. "It was Macbeth and King Lear, but I never liked it," she tells me. "I'm sorry, but that is the fact. I studied it because I wanted a degree." She lets out another burst of laughter.
Al Gurg had more fun away from the lecture hall, where she enjoyed cooking with friends, occasionally stealing the best morsels. “I would sneakily munch on the heart of the lettuce, the juiciest part, while I was slicing and dicing,” she writes. “When [my friends] had given up looking, I would triumphantly announce: ‘I know where it is. It’s in my stomach.’ That became a ritual we went through at every mealtime.”
Al Gurg then became a teacher, quickly progressing up the educational ladder, winning the admiration of both the pupils and her peers. Many former students came to support her recent book launch, and she regularly receives messages from women, once schoolgirls in her care, who are now engineers, doctors and lawyers. "They haven't isolated themselves from the past," she says. "They appreciate their new leaders, but they feel that I was the base for them."
'Be very dedicated, believe in yourselves as women'
In 1989, however, Al Gurg decided to change career, joining the board of directors at ESAG at a time when the business was booming, as Dubai rapidly expanded. "My background was in education and I was racked with doubt and worry," she writes. "Had I made the right move? Would I do well? And how would I be treated as the owner's daughter?" Within 10 years, Al Gurg was made managing director of what is now one of the biggest conglomerates in the Middle East. She still holds the role today, was the first Emirati woman to sit on the board of HSBC Bank Middle East, and is deputy chairperson of the Dubai Healthcare City Authority.
The impact of Al Gurg's success, combined with her commitment to championing women's rights through the Dubai Business Women Council, of which she is president, cannot be overestimated. When Al Gurg became managing director of ESAG, there were, she says, "few women in prominent roles in business". By 2003, there were about 10,000 businesswomen in the UAE. Last year, "23,000 Emirati businesswomen were running companies worth more than US$13.6 billion" (Dh49.95bn). Al Gurg has been at the forefront of this revolution.
She also believes that the UAE has taken significant steps towards achieving gender equality, and supports President Sheikh Khalifa's plans to make 50 per cent of the cabinet women. "Our elders believe that women can make it," she says. "That makes us proud."
And what advice would she give to a young woman, perhaps with a family, who wants to pursue a career in business? “Even the young generation have to realise that family comes first,” says Al Gurg, who has four children, three of whom work at ESAG.
“I always tell the young generation: ‘Be very dedicated, believe in yourselves as women, work towards your targets, but never, ever give up your family life.’”
Al Gurg goes further in the book. “If I had felt at any stage that my job was affecting my ability to look after my family, I would have quit,” she writes. “Success in the workplace would have meant nothing to me if I was a failure at home.”
Writing an autobiography is, inevitably, a time for reflection, and Al Gurg found the process humbling. "It was good to go back to my past and see that it is really part of my living now," she says. "These experiences entered my system. I did not forget them."
She also speaks fondly about the Dubai she remembers from her youth and describes her generation as "lucky" because they experienced the changing face of the country.
Pragmatic as ever, Al Gurg doesn't allow nostalgia to linger for long, though. "I am happy with my achievements, and I'm looking forward to different opportunities," she says. "I will maybe exceed my successes. There is always the scope to improve and learn."
So no chance of her slowing down, then? “No, no, no,” she says. “Not until I die.”
Raja Al Gurg: An Autobiography is out now, published by Motivate