The entrepreneurial achievements of Iraqi born, Dr Ahmed Samerai are well recorded. He is the Head of the hugely successful Dubai-based SAHARA Group, which has interests in public relations, real estate, and top flight hospitality. Less well known and recorded however, are Dr Samerai’s philanthropic achievements.
As head of the The Samerai Foundation, a private charitable arm of the SAHARA Group, Dr Samerai has been behind a host of initiatives to improve the lives and increase the opportunities of children of the international community The foundation works largely within the areas of health, sport and education. To date it has benefitted more than 50 charitable organisations and countless young people around the globe. But there is still work to be done, as Dr Samerai explained in this recent interview with The Middle East.
How do you see philanthropy developing in the region?
Unfortunately, rather than it growing or developing, I see its direction becoming ever more confusing. I am seeing programmes with charitable aims focused on helping the lives of people in this region who shouldn’t be requiring help in the first place.
We have to help refugees of course, but they are refugees from conflicts that were utterly unavoidable. The more you think, the more frustrating questions arise. You realise that the best thing is to not try to pick apart the underlying causes and conflicts, instead, you just help those who cannot help themselves. And hope that perhaps one day the bigger issues may be resolved.
Why do people in parts of the region still face simple life challenges despite the massive amount of wealth in the area?
The dramatic political changes and regime shake- outs in certain Arab countries caused widespread turbulence at a time when the understanding of their citizens, on issues such as democracy, freedom of speech and pluralism, was not sufficiently mature. These people had been quashed by autocracy for so long it was inevitable that, in the emergent climate, sectarianism and old feuds would re-emerge.
In practice, this has meant the use of weapons as an alternative to discussions. Discussion is difficult but even heated, angry discussion, doesn’t cause orphans, or lead to women and children stranded on mountaintops in the baking heat, or car bombs ripping markets apart.
Debate about how to share the wealth of the region for the benefit of all its people, investing in the future, catching up with new technology and achieving progress alongside other parts of the world would mean we wouldn’t need to see heads chopped off, masked thugs running rampant, or mosques destroyed.
The Middle East is rich in resources and its people deserve so much better than they have had for so long. It is a tragedy that a region and a people who once innovated, invented and taught the world complex concepts, is reduced to internecine grudges, torpor and sectarianism. History has taught us that when people get a fair quality of life, with opportunities and rewards for those who work hard, people are more inclined to lay down guns and knives, and live together peaceably.
In the 1950s, most Arab countries had a higher GDP per capita than South Korea. And now look: South Koreans live in a technological age, exporting high value products around the world from a vibrant private sector. They build most of the world’s LED TVs and smartphones.
You support several initiatives and programmess in Africa and America while, as some have commented, there is plenty to do on your own doorstep. How do you explain this?
My aim is to help human beings, regardless of where in the world they live. I think it’s dangerous to give your time and energies to help people based on how similar they are to you, in race, religion or region.
What are the major difficulties you face when raising funds?
We don’t do fundraising; we work hard every day to earn our living and put aside a certain amount for charity. Of course, I have an advisory board, which helps me identify causes I can help. These are not always immediately obvious methods of assistance and may include things such as advising on how to overcome bureaucratic, legal or logistical hurdles that are hindering development.
What is the criteria your foundation follows when selecting a programme to support?
The criteria is not complicated, but at the same time not very flexible. I don’t want my support to fall into the wrong hands; to risk exacerbating a problem by funding those who have a vested interest in maintaining conflict. I don’t want simply to hand out money without my foundation being involved – and regularly updated – on the progress of a programme.
What is the category of philanthropy you most enjoy?
Children’s programmes are something I especially enjoy working on, in perhaps education or sport. Children are our only hope of making this world a better place and those who have no hope in childhood tend to be the ones riven with hatred when they grow up. To have hope and opportunity can- not be over estimated, they mean everything.
You have started creating documentaries for some of your programmess. This step comes eight years since your involvement began. Isn’t it a bit late?
It was late, yes, but better late than never. These documentaries are aimed at inspiring people to give; not necessarily money, but perhaps some of their time, ideas or skills. If they can share a successful story, or highlight a community issue, all this is considered philanthropy. Ordinary people can ultimately make a bigger change than governmental aid.
Various viral trends in social media have demonstrated the massive capacity of people to mobilise when they are motivated to change something. They can enable the change of mindset, while government money can make a change in infrastructure. Both are important, but I believe improving and supporting the life of one family is just as important as building schools and roads. People have to understand that everything counts, and if they start believing in giving, we will see faster and better results for everyone.