Al Sharekh: An Arab pioneer who came into our homes without us ever meeting him

The Kuwaiti entrepreneur, who passed away last week, shaped Arabic as one of its modern fathers

Mohammed Al Sharekh, a Kuwaiti entrepreneur and author, passed away last Wednesday. Photo: Mohammed Al Sharekh's family archives
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In 1961, Kuwait finally gained independence from Britain. It was a process that was years in the making at a time of great uncertainty, as its northern neighbour Iraq refused to recognise its sovereignty.

Partly to counter such threats, the emirate embarked under the leadership of Sheikh Abdullah Al Salim Al Sabah, who ruled between 1950 and 1965, on an unprecedented cultural renaissance project the likes of which few cities in the region had witnessed. This project complemented Kuwait’s economic, diplomatic and political initiatives, but it was no less essential to the country’s survival and success.

In 1951, Kuwait launched its first radio channel; seven years later, it opened the ground-breaking Arabic publication Al Arabias well as its first public art exhibition; and in 1961, it started its first TV channel and laid the ground for its first National Museum.

It is in this environment that the entrepreneur and author Mohammed Al Sharekh came of age.

Al Sharekh, who died last Wednesday, was born in 1942 to a prominent family steeped in Arabic culture and for whom “the poetry of Al-Mutanabbi was ever present”. Al Sharekh had to leave school for a year to work but decided to return to his studies at Al Shuwaikh High School while also working at the Telegraph, Post and Telephone Department.

Al Sharekh's greatest service to the region was founding Sakhr Computers, the first Arabic computer language-enabled software

After his graduation in 1961, he attended Cairo University where he pursued a degree in economics. However, that wasn’t his first choice. In his first interview in 25 years, to the Bil Kuwaiti programme on Al Majlis TV in 2017, Al Sharekh said: “In general, a person’s life is determined by two factors: diligence and a degree of luck.”

Having seen Al Sharekh’s high grades, Abdallah Al Jarallah, the Kuwaiti cultural attache in Cairo who oversaw academic affairs, suggested that he switch from his preferred choices of philosophy, journalism or political science to a degree in economics. “You can study economics but still work in journalism,” he said. This encounter with the cultural attache shaped Al Sharekh’s career in the years to come.

Upon returning, Al Sharekh worked at the Kuwait Fund for Economic Development, the country’s state aid agency, assuming the role of deputy director in 1969 where his focus was economic development in the Arab world. That job led Al Sharekh to visit most Arab countries and learn about the challenges of development. “It was an enriching experience. Even though I was young, I met with state and government leaders,” he said in his interview to Al Majlis.

In the 1970s, he assumed the role of representative of the Arab states to the World Bank in Washington. Future emir Sheikh Jaber Al Ahmad Al Sabah later appointed him as founding chairman of Kuwait Industrial Bank to support industrial development in the emirate.

In 1982, Al Sharekh did what would be his greatest service to the region when he founded Sakhr Computers, the first Arabic computer language-enabled software that led an entire generation of young Arabs to use and master the computer. “During my time at the World Bank, the computer was introduced. I realised that there was a typewriter in Arabic, but the computer was different; it required technologies like random-access memory and vocalisation.”

Al Sharekh took this initiative upon himself because, in his view, “the Arabic language was orphaned”, as there were many Arab countries but few that assumed responsibility for it. Further, there were budgetary and financial considerations – “foreign companies weren’t going to invest in Arabisation”, he said – so Al Sharekh invested some of his personal wealth into the venture.

It turned out to be a rewarding decision. “I was so proud to see young Arabs in Kuwait, in Baghdad, in Khobar and Algiers, standing in line to purchase the computer.” In its first five years, Sakhr, which translates to “rock” (to represent a founding stone), sold 2 million devices each for 50 Kuwaiti dinars, the equivalent of $168 in 1985 (and $489 in today's money). This allowed young Arabs to deepen their mastery of their language through the use of an electronic dictionary, as well as learn Islamic studies and Quran, chemistry, physics and gaming.

Al Sharekh was also a prominent art collector, amassing over a period of fifty years a collection of the works of the great artists from the region, such as Algeria’s Baya Mahieddine, Jordan’s Mona Saudi, Palestine’s Naji Al Ali, Egypt’s Gazbia Sirry, Lebanon’s Helen Khal and Iraq’s Dia Azzawi. Included in his collection is a rare self-portrait by Emirati artist Abdul Qader Al Rais from 1970, which was sold at a Kuwait Arts Association exhibition in 1972. In 2021, Al Sharekh won the prestigious King Faisal International Prize that recognises services to the Arabic language, Islam and the sciences.

Al Sharekh was an extraordinary man. Few people have had the impact that he did on my generation. He touched our lives and came into our homes without us ever meeting him.

In Al Majlis TV interview, he said: “I believe that the future of the Arabic language, despite the challenges, is more promising than its past.” If that is indeed to be the case, Al Sharekh will no doubt have played an important role in shaping it as one of its modern fathers.

Published: March 11, 2024, 4:00 AM