Helping disabled children get back on their feet the Al Jalila way

Abdulkareem Sultan Al Olama, the chief executive of Al Jalila Foundation, wants to help young people with mental or physical disability to lead full lives as part of the community.

Abdulkareem Sultan Al Olama, the chief executive of the Al Jalila Foundation, wants to help young people with mental or physical disability to lead full lives as part of the community. Lee Hoagland / The National
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The interface between medicine and finance is complex. Public health care spending is one of the biggest items in any government’s budget, and disagreements over medical provision has the power to halt countries, as America recently experienced.

The potential role of charitable donation further complicates the relationship between medicine, money and public policy.

But Abdulkareem Sultan Al Olama has a simple aim: “I just want to put children back on their feet,” he says. And in many cases, he means that literally.

As the chief executive of the Al Jalila Foundation, he wants to help young people with mental or physical disability to lead full lives as part of the community. He also wants their parents, and the public at large, to better understand the issues of disability so that it is no longer stigmatised in the UAE, nor indeed in the world.

And he wants to do all this in a business-efficient way that maximises financial contributions and optimises the use of charitable donations. It is an ambitious undertaking.

The foundation was set up this year by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, and it was named after his young daughter Jalila.

It really hit the headlines last month, when Prince Harry, the grandson ofQueen Elizabeth II, topped the bill at a star-studded gala dinner in Dubai. There, Al Jalila announced its first major international initiative: a fund-raising alliance with the prince’s Sentebale charity, which helps HIV-infected children in Lesotho, Africa.

That propelled the foundation into the global spotlight, but at the Al Jalila headquarters in Dubai’s Healthcare City (DHCC), Dr Al Olama is getting on with the more mundane, but essential task of running a start-up medical charity.

“Dubai is famous for airlines, hotels and tourism. We want to make it just as famous for medical research and development,” he says.

Dr Al Olama is a qualified doctor who has developed expertise in healthcare management. He found himself playing a key role in the setting up of DHCC as the world’s first dedicated healthcare free zone.

Before his appointment to the foundation, he was also an executive of the Dubai Harvard Foundation for Medical Research, an organisation aimed at reviving scientific discovery in the Middle East.

One of his early tasks at Al Jalila has been to give the organisation a proper business structure. A board of trustees under Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the chairman of the Emirates Airline group, supervises the work of the executive board, under the chairwoman Raja Easa Al Gurg, and will publish accounts audited by international firm Deloitte.

One of the criticisms aimed at big charitable institutions is that too much of donors’ money gets spent on administration, but that will not be the case with Al Jalila. The foundation’s six full-time staff are on the Dubai Government’s payroll, so all outside contributions will get to those who need them: disabled people, their parents and carers.

Contributions range from big-time corporates (the Al Rostamani family weighed in with a Dh10 million cheque) to a host of smaller and often anonymous donors. The initial aim was to raise Dh100m, and Dr Al Olama says the foundation is “very close” to hitting that.

The money is already being well spent. Some Dh3m is set aside to provide a scholarship programme for young UAE nationals who want to study medicine, while a further slug has been set aside for the flagship Ta’alouf (Arabic for harmony) programme for parents of children with special needs.

“It’s a very important part of the foundation’s work. We have 50 parents on the programme initially, but there is such demand we could easily have 800,” says Dr Al Olama.

“In this region, we are not used to seeing children with special needs or disability. Sometimes, parents were hiding them. Ta’alouf is helping them to integrate their children in society, and it is all-inclusive, not just for Emiratis.”

Centres in Dubai now provide care, education and treatment for special needs and disabled children with the aim of integrating them fully into community life. The programme was recently given the special endorsement of Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, the Crown Prince of Dubai, in his “My Community” initiative.

The next big event on the Al Jalila calendar will be the “7 Emirates Run” this month, in which a group of professional runners, ledby the German record-setting marathon runner Wendelin Lauxen, will cover 575 kilometres across the UAE in 12 days.

The money raised from sponsorship will be used for life-changing surgery for an 18-month-old boy from Sharjah, Mohammed Ayoub, who suffers from leg deformities.

Beyond these kind of events, specific to one case, the foundation’s long-term goal is to build a permanent infrastructure of medical research, based in Dubai with a chain of international alliances.

“The UAE is a very philanthropic country, and we have traditionally been very good at giving money for specific causes, like diabetes. But the priority is donation for research that has the power to transform people’s lives around the world,” Dr Al Olama says.