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The author talks about a Saudi businessman and philanthropist named Mohammad Ali Zainal who made great contributions to the field of education in the Arabian Peninsula.
Artwork by Aalaa Albastaki (Instagram:@lalaa_albastaki, Twitter: @AalaaAlbastaki)
In the past few decades, the Arabian Peninsula has gone through countless changes and developments in the field of education. Today, it hosts several world-class universities and schools that are graduating future leaders. However, with the multitude of developments that the educational field has witnessed in the region, people seem to have forgotten about the earlier pioneers who have contributed to the educational sector in the Gulf.
One of the greatest names in education within the region is Mohammad Ali Zainal. Zainal, one of the wealthiest businessmen in the Peninsula in the early 1900s. He is credited for founding Al Falah chain of schools, the precursor of today’s modern schools in the region. Although his life was more of a roller coaster, Zainal successfully achieved what he had aimed for since his early days.
Zainal, born in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in 1884, was known for his passion for knowledge and education since childhood. It is said that he would roam the streets with a bag filled with silver coins, giving them out to children in order to encourage them to attend school. As a teenager, he had a dream of becoming an educator, contrary to his brothers who were businessmen following in their father’s footsteps.
Zainal was sent to India by his father to join his brothers in doing business, but he found it hard to pursue something he did not love. Eventually, Zainal escaped from India in 1901, at the age of 17, in order to follow his dreams of becoming a teacher. He voyaged to Cairo in hopes of continuing his studies at Al Azhar University and ultimately becoming a teacher in Fiqh and Shari’ah. However, things took a turn when his father fortuitously saw him in Cairo and made his son an offer.
Zainal’s father offered to provide him with enough capital to open his own school, which could graduate hundreds of teachers rather than staying in Cairo and creating one teacher, which would be him. Zainal accepted his father’s offer and decided to go back to Jeddah.
In 1905, Zainal opened his first school in Jeddah, which was named Al Falah and had no tuition fees. Six years later, a branch of Al Falah was opened in Mecca. Ultimately, Zainal opened several other branches of Al Falah in Bahrain, UAE, India, and Yemen.
As time went on, Zainal realized that he needed a stable source of income rather than relying completely on his family for capital, so he made a choice that proved to be a pivotal one in his life. He went back to India with the goal of entering the pearling business, which was a lucrative market for the Gulf’s residents at the time. Consequently, by entering the pearling industry, Zainal was able to become one of the wealthiest businessmen from the Arabian Peninsula. He became known for spending most of his wealth on charity, education, orphanages, and scholarships.
In 1920, not only did Zainal visit Paris for the first time ever, but he also opened an office in it, expanding his pearling business operations to other European countries such as the United Kingdom. Additionally, he bought a house in the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, making him the first person from the Arabian Gulf to own property in Paris. He would later become globally known as the “King of Pearl”.
Zainal was known to have had a close relationship with the ruling family of Dubai, Al Maktoum. The late ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, was known to order a 21-gun salute for Zainal whenever he visited Dubai, which is a salute that is usually performed for world leaders. Moreover, when Zainal wanted to create a newer and larger Al Falah School in Dubai, Sheikh Rashid’s father, Sheikh Saeed bin Maktoum Al Maktoum, provided him with a sizeable piece of land in Bur Dubai close to the old Al Falah School. Zainal planned to create a much larger branch of Al Falah on the land, one that would be much more akin to the branch in Jeddah.
Unfortunately, Zainal lost the majority of his wealth in the early 1930s as the pearling industry collapsed due to the introduction of the Japanese cultured pearls in the market. Because of this, a newer and bigger Al Falah School was never built in Dubai. Although Zainal had lost most of his wealth, he decided not to publicize it, but rather to take loans in order to keep funding the scholarships that he had given out as well as the orphanages he supported and many of his other humanitarian endeavors.
Zainal passed away in 1969, at the age of 85, in Mumbai, a city he dearly loved and had lived in for years. Although he passed away before the Union in the UAE, his work paved the way for modern education in the UAE as well as other Gulf countries. He was a beacon of hope at a time when people in the region did not have direct access to education. Mohammad Ali Zainal shall be remembered for years to come for dedicating his life to empowering education in the region and for all of his honorable deeds.