From Desert Storm to disruptive banker: the life-changing events behind Fahed Boodai's success

The Kuwaiti-born chairman of the Sharia-compliant Gatehouse Bank in London talks about metamorphic moments that began with the invasion of his homeland

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Fahed Boodai was just another carefree 17-year-old in Spain, enjoying his first holiday with friends, when he heard the news that Saddam Hussein had invaded his homeland.

It was a moment that Mr Boodai looks back on as one of several turning points, or “wake-up calls”, to have punctuated his life.

The Gulf War that ensued and the part he would play in it shaped his psyche and career path in a fundamental way, not least because he had only $400 left in his wallet that August morning in 1990.

Lacking the financial means to go back to the Gulf, to be closer to Kuwait, had a profound effect on him in the uncertain weeks that followed.

"People were caught off-guard," Mr Boodai tells The National. "For a lot of Kuwaitis, whether wealthy or whatever, the invasion was a shock. You wake up, no country, no nothing."

That was when he started thinking of the tools required to survive, no matter the circumstances.

The idea of the unlimited possibilities offered by the international business community to those with the talent and intention to succeed became embedded in his mind.

KUWAIT CITY, KUWAIT - AUGUST 02:  Iraqi tanks rolling through broad boulevard during invasion of Kuwait City, Kuwait.  (Photo by Time Life Pictures/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images)

It eventually led to his current role as chairman of Gatehouse Bank, a Sharia-compliant financial body he founded in London in 2008.

The “challenger bank” is part of the Gatehouse Financial Group, offering products underserved by the big four high street names in the UK.

Thirty years on, Mr Boodai’s early insight into the importance of diversification has enabled the company to manage more than $3 billion of transactions in the real estate industry from investments across all sectors.

Back then, though, he was pooling together what little cash he had with his travelling companions while they tried to figure out what to do next.

Despite his own plight, it was clear that those still trapped in Kuwait were experiencing the real hardship.

His parents and siblings had managed to leave within three months of the initial attack by the Iraqi National Guard, by which time Mr Boodai, pretending to be 18, had joined the Kuwait armed forces in exile.

He underwent some basic training but soon realised that he was best able to serve his country through his fluency in English and Arabic.

“The US guys came in and they said, ‘We are really in desperate need of translators', Mr Boodai says.

"So I went to see them. They said, ‘Yeah, you're perfect, great. But you look very young'.”

He admitted to being 17 and had to call a relative in military service in Bahrain to act as a temporary guardian before being recruited.

“I said to my uncle, 'Please approve,” Mr Boodai recalls. “And he did.”

His posting was to military intelligence with the 18th Airborne Corps operating on the northern border of Saudi Arabia.

“I learnt a lot,” he says. “My country had been invaded and I wanted to do something. I felt that I was being productive in what I was doing and that mattered to me.”

The job of interpreter, an important role in Operation Desert Storm, at least kept him away from the battlefield.

Fahad Boodai's Twitter profile - 'Husband, Entrepreneur, Global Nomad. Passionate about real estate, technology and disruption” - offers a good insight into his personality and motivations in turning Gatehouse into a challenger bank. Courtesy Gatehouse Bank

Kuwait was liberated by US-led coalition forces and the resistance movement in March 1991, but Mr Boodai’s final year of college was not due to begin until September.

In the intervening time, he was given the honorary rank of an officer while helping the US Army’s host nation affairs unit foster relations with the Kuwaiti population.

He talks about the day he guided a young woman around the military camp, his first lieutenant’s uniform eliciting crisp salutes from the lower ranks.

The tour was a memorable one not just because the woman, Sheikha Al Zain Sabah Al Naser Al Sabah, would in time become his wife, but it also arguably marked the start of adult life.

Now, with three teenage children of his own, Mr Boodai recounts the story with a smile.

“I was 17 years old, people saluting me, like, what do you do?” he asks. “That was an interesting time. Then I went back to high school, finished up and then went back to the States.”

Fahed Boodai has in the past described his wife, Sheikha Al-Zain Sabah Al-Naser Al-Sabah, pictured above at an event in Dubai, as his rock for the important role she plays in much that he does. 'She's a powerful woman,' he says, 'and I've learnt a lot from her.' Sarah Dea / The National

Many of his formative years had already been spent in America.

His father, Faisal Boodai, was studying in the 1970s in North Carolina, where the young Fahed went to primary school not far from Fort Bragg, the home of the 18th Airborne Corps that he would grow up to serve with.

The western influences were cultural as well as educational, featuring music from The Beatles and country singer Kenny Rogers, so much so that when the family moved to Kuwait in 1981, Mr Boodai needed to acclimatise, with Arabic tutoring a priority.

After his stint as an interpreter, he considered rejoining the military as an air force pilot but was quickly disabused by his father.

Mr Boodai Sr had trained to fly but, to one of the first Kuwaitis to ever attend a British university, learning was paramount.

Although from a family very well off in business, the way that Faisal built his career at the Kuwait National Oil Company by heavily investing in education greatly influenced his son.

But Mr Boodai concedes that a good deal of partying was done in his own first year of studying international business in San Diego, until tragedy hit with his father’s untimely death.

When my father passed away, I think that changed everything.

The enormity of the loss and of suddenly becoming the oldest in the family was the second big wake-up call.

“When my father passed away, I think that changed everything,” he says.

After graduating in 1996, he returned to his birthplace to take up a job in corporate finance at the National Bank of Kuwait.

Instead, a chance encounter with a cousin at a family gathering steered him at the last minute towards the building across the street from that financial institution.

He began at the Securities House as investment director of the fund management department and worked his way up to the positions of vice chairman and chief executive, which he still holds today.

By the late 1990s, after an MBA at Loyola Marymount University, Mr Boodai set about establishing his first small portfolio.

In San Francisco, he watched the internet bubble grow and then burst, followed not long afterwards by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

The result was a decision to move from equity markets into real estate. To cut a long story short, Mr Boodai was invited to set up Gatehouse Bank, first as vice chairman and then chairman.

Initially, he was warned that operating from the City of London would be expensive and difficult, given its tight financial regulations.

A proponent of the rule of law, he maintained that such a base could only enhance the bank’s standing.

Initially, Fahed Boodai was warned that operating from the City of London would be expensive and difficult given its tight financial regulations, but he maintained that such a base could only enhance the standing of Gatehouse Bank. Courtesy Gatehouse Bank. 

Offering financial products compliant with the principles of Islam is growing In popularity and is valued at close to $2 trillion worldwide.

The products are available to Muslims and non-Muslims, with the banking scandals of the 2008 financial crisis adding to their general appeal.

London has established itself as a leading centre for such services, with the UK government recently becoming the first non-Islamic country to issue a sukuk, the equivalent of a bond.

As well as savings and Sharia-compliant investments such as commercial real estate, Gatehouse specialises in providing mortgages for prospective homeowners who might otherwise struggle with financing.

This had been Mr Boodai’s own experience when, as a non-resident, he found it difficult to raise the finance for a property some years ago. It was then that he saw a business opportunity.

“The most important thing for people is houses,” he says. “That's the first thing they pay, whether it's in the rental market or the mortgage market.”

I am an early joiner of all these technologies. I like them. It's a hobby of mine.

Asked for his role models, he mentions the great American industrialists J P Morgan and John D Rockefeller.

Apple’s Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos of Amazon get a mention, but also Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate from Bangladesh who was behind the idea of micro-financing for poorer communities.

The late George H W Bush, of course, occupies a special place. Among the tweets in Mr Boodai’s feed is an old birthday message to the former US president, thanking him for liberating Kuwait.

That aside, though, he monitors but is “not into politics”, and is adamant that he is not a politician.

What the 47-year-old in fact is might best be gleaned from the description in his Twitter profile: “Father, husband, entrepreneur, global nomad. Passionate about real estate, technology and disruption.”

It explains much about Mr Boodai and also why he changed the vision of Gatehouse, adopting modern financial practices to turn it into a challenger bank.

The pandemic, he says, has shown the strength of the business model. All of his 150 employees have kept their jobs, while the bank’s digital-first operation meant it was business as usual even with staff working from home.

He has not carried physical money since 2017.

“I said, 'I'm not going to do any more cash'. I do everything online. I'm an early joiner of all these technologies. I like them. It's a hobby of mine.”

Fahed Boodai, pictured above during the Aspen Institute Action Forum in 2019, loves the outdoors, counting among his hobbies fishing, scuba diving, hiking, camping and being close to the sea 'as a must'. Courtesy Fahed Boodai

Gender equality is another priority for Gatehouse, Mr Boodai says, mentioning Stella Cox, an expert on Islamic finance, who has been appointed to the board.

“My wife plays a very important role in supporting because she's a powerful woman,” he says. “I've learnt a lot from her.”

Sheikha Al Zain served in the Kuwait government as under-secretary of state for the Ministry of Youth Affairs.

She is known as a philanthropist as well as a producer of films, such as the critically acclaimed 2009 official Sundance festival selection Amreeka.

The couple have three children, with whom Mr Boodai likes to indulge as much as he can of his hobbies, from fishing and scuba diving to hiking, but "being close to the sea is a must".

The daughter and youngest son are still at school in Kuwait but the older boy wanted to follow in his mother’s footsteps by studying film at university in California.

Mr Boodai persuaded him to make finance his major, perhaps in an echo of that distant conversation with his own father.

After all, the paternal intervention worked for him, proven many times over by his inclusion on the likes of the Real Estate Forum’s “40 Under 40” list some years ago, and a more recent prestigious accolade in the Arabian Business London Awards.

Much of his success appears to have been pre-ordained. During his postgraduate course, he was taught by Fred Kiesner, a renowned professor of entrepreneurship.

On the first day of class, the students were asked to consider what their death notices might say far off in the future.

“Writing my obituary was probably a wake-up call,” Mr Boodai says. “I wrote my destiny ... It was very, very powerful.

“I read it about a year ago, that paper that I did 25 years ago, and I would say 90 per cent of what I wrote in there happened.”