Giving up the Dubai lifestyle for kindness and happiness

Nawar al Daas is far happier now that he has given up financial success,a four-bedroom villa with a swimming pool and Italian cars for charitable work.

DUBAI // Nawar al Daas appeared to have it all: a successful career managing a portfolio of 12 businesses ranging from health care to events management and an enviable six-figure monthly salary that afforded him the famed "Dubai lifestyle". But in 2003, the 42-year-old Syrian, who grew up in Dubai, gave it all up to spread a little kindness. He launched the UAE branch of the World Kindness Movement (WKM), an international organisation that aims to "inspire individuals towards greater kindness and to connect nations to create a kinder world".

"I had been living the way I dreamed of living, but every week I was miserable for at least five days," he said. "Now it is the other way around. Now I have five days I enjoy living and two days, perhaps, where I feel like most human beings. "It is simply about priorities. Do you want to be happy most of the days? Now I am." It began in 1996 when Mr al Daas and several associates, from business directors to diplomats, began volunteering their time to support charities.

As the years progressed, their careers fell by the wayside. They found themselves increasingly supporting individuals who were in the hospital and could not afford plane tickets home, for example, or those imprisoned for small amounts of debt. By 2003, Mr al Daas's fellow co-founders returned to the corporate world, their hands forced by the continued rise in the cost of living, and Mr al Daas faced a difficult decision: to do likewise or to give up his job and dedicate his life, full-time, to charitable work.

He chose the latter and, along with three others, set about establishing the WKM locally as a non-profit company working from a donated office in Dubai. "We decided to focus on what was best for the wider community that we live in, so we can spread the culture of kindness," he said. Today, with the support of corporate sponsors, the UAE Kindness Movement helps government ministries, businesses, charities and small independent groups be it with a rescue operation, an aid or relief mission, or simply raising awareness for a cause.

Despite a modest monthly salary of Dh3,000 (US$817), which each employee receives because "there is no hierarchy", Mr Daas insists he has never been happier. He acknowledges, though, that the early years were a challenge. "The first period was not very easy, trying to adjust my living standards to my new income," he said. "When you are used to flying everywhere first class, living in a four-bedroom villa with a swimming pool and having driven Italian and German cars since the age of 18, and then you cannot afford any of it, it takes some time to get used to it."

Money is not an issue, he muses, until you do not have much of it. "There were hard times but it is all worth it now." The idea behind the WKM came about in Tokyo in 1997 when the Small Kindness Movement of Japan brought together like-minded movements from around the world. On November 18, 2000, the WKM was launched in Singapore and today it continues to encourage people around the world to set up branches.

"We believe it is a strength to know your rights and to fight for them," Mr al Daas said of the UAE Kindness Movement's goal. "Many people think being kind is being naive but that is not what we preach. Knowledge gives you strength." Since 2007, it has driven consumer protection and disabled access rights along with the ICE (In Case of Emergency) campaign a programme that encourages people to put an emergency contact into their mobile phone into the public eye.

"We decided to focus on what was best for the wider community that we live in, so we can spread the culture of kindness," he said. "Consumer rights is a very important issue. Nobody has covered it in the manner that we would like to see, so thought we would take the initiative." The group has published a book for the past three years entitled Consumer and Food Protection, free of charge, with tips about buying food and best practices for food safety and avoiding waste.

"It is something I feel very strongly about," Mr al Daas said. The group also successfully launched the ICE campaign with the Dubai Ambulance Service in June 2009 to promote the concept of storing a contact number for a next of kin under the name ICE in a mobile phone for emergency services personnel. Talks are under way with other emirates to launch similar campaigns. "More than 82 per cent of people leave their wallets or any form of ID in their cars, according to a small internal survey we conducted with 273 people, but 99 per cent said they carry their mobile phones," Mr al Daas said.

He hopes 2010 will see the UAE Kindness Movement work more closely with young people and expand its support. Long-term, he hopes it will be easier for others who want to help their communities to be able to do so. "I know a lot of people with good intentions and who want to change their community but are not able to for mainly financial issues."