Industry Mourns the Passing of Islamic Banking Pioneer Hajj Saeed bin Ahmed Al Lootah, Founder of Dubai Islamic Bank, the Oldest Islamic Commercial Bank, at the Age of 97

The Islamic finance industry lost another of its contemporary pioneers, Hajj Saeed bin Ahmed Al Lootah, the founder and Chairman for many years of Dubai Islamic Bank (DIB), the oldest commercial Islamic bank in the world. The 97-year-old Saeed Al Lootah, known for his modesty, frugality, philanthropy and unwavering interest and support for education, passed away on Sunday 28 June 2020 in Dubai.

The respect and esteem with which he was held by ruler to layman has been underlined by the numerous messages of condolences and tributes especially on social media. 

“Today, Hajj Saeed Ahmed Al Lootah passed away. He was a self-made businessman who has had his imprints on Dubai’s economy, and is best known for his philanthropic work and as a father of many orphans. He established the first Islamic bank in the world, Dubai Islamic Bank, in 1975. I knew him as a smart, peaceful and wise man. We express our profound sorrow and solace to the family of Saeed Al Lootah. May Allah the Almighty rest his soul in peace and accept his deeds, and grant his family patience and solace,” posted Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President & Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, on his personal Twitter account.

Similarly, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, paid tribute to Saeed Al Lootah expressing his condolences to his family and calling him “a visionary man who dedicated his life to charitable, cultural and educational initiatives. May he rest in peace.”

DIB’s announcement on its Twitter account was to the point: “We are deeply saddened on the passing of Hajj Saeed Bin Ahmed Al Lootah, the founder of Dubai Islamic Bank. Our success and legacy of being the first Islamic Bank became a reality due to his vision and dedication.”

Saeed Al Lootah’s passing comes a few weeks after the death of another pioneer of the Islamic finance movement, Sheikh Salah Abdullah Kamel, Chairman of Dallah Albaraka Group, in May 2020, and some three years after the death of the third pioneer, Prince Muhammed Al-Faisal, Chairman of Dar Al Maal Al Islamic (DMI) Group in 2017.

Hajj Saeed Bin Ahmed Al-Lootah was born in 1923 into a family whose ancestors had lived in Dubai and Ajman for some two centuries, always near the sea where his father and uncles were in the pearl trading business. The family originally hailed from the Abu Humeir tribe, which moved from Abu Dhabi to the Al Mamzar area in Dubai, where his grandfather was married to the daughter of the local chieftain.

As a child and teenager, he already had that peripatetic spirit working on a dhow at the age of seven and later travelling to India and Basra in Iraq as a 13-year old boy with ‘Uncle’ Saif Al Ghurair. His early education was with the Mutawwa (religious teachers) from whom he learnt reading, writing, the Holy Quran and arithmetic. But his real-life schooling was centred around mastering the complicated pearl trade calculations.

The young Saeed and his older brother Sultan persuaded their father to abandon pearl diving for the more lucrative real economy activity of construction and contracting. As such they set up the joint venture, SS Lootah Contracting Company in late 1956, the first construction company in the UAE, which contributed significantly towards building enclaves such as Jumeirah, Rashidia and Garhoud.

The contracting company was part of the family-owned S.S. Lootah Group, which has since then evolved into a diversified business house with ventures across key industries from construction, real estate, energy, food and hospitality to financial services, applied research, ICT, education and healthcare among others along with a remarkable portfolio of not-for-profit educational institutions.

“From the first contracting company and first medical college in the UAE to the first Islamic bank in the world, the entrepreneurial spirit of S.S. Lootah Group has been the catalyst that has brought home-grown business and community ventures to the global stage,” said the Group in a tribute.  

His interest and association with Islamic banking started after a conversation with the late ruler of Dubai Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum. “Sheikh Rashid told me he never took interest on his money from banks. So, I started pondering over the establishment of an Islamic bank. I got back to him with the idea and he told me to work on it confidentially,” he revealed in an interview with Khaleej Times in 2002.

He was a self-made and self-taught man who had a special affinity for empowerment and self-improvement through education – whether the individual, society or the economy. To him banks should serve the economy and society and not the other way around, and that “business exists fundamentally to serve people”.

His insights into the challenges of establishing Dubai Islamic Bank (DIB), the oldest commercial Islamic bank, a few months after the establishment of the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) is fascinating. There was no template, no enabling legislation or regulatory framework at the time. DIB was established by royal decree with an initial capital of AED50 million. It was a steep learning curve effectively developing the bank, its organization and products on the job.

At that time Fiqh Al Muamalat (Islamic Law relating to Financial Transactions) was hardly an established discipline. The challenges which those early pioneers faced was eloquently articulated by Saeed Al Lootah in an interview with Emmy Abdul Alim in 2013 for her book on Islamic Banking: “I spoke to the (Shariah) scholars and realised they didn’t know anything about banking or economics. So, I went to the bankers and economists, and they didn’t know anything about religion,” stressed Saeed Al Lootah. That only increased his resolve to ensure the future development and evolution of DIB.

DIB has since grown from strength to strength and in January 2020 completed its acquisition of Al Noor Bank, in a deal that will create one of the largest Islamic banks in the world, with total assets of more than AED275 billion.

Saeed Al Lootah believed that the economy and education are the two most important areas that need to be developed in a person’s life. And from his perspective, Islam was the system of values and practices informing both. “It was this belief that guided and drove Hajj Saeed to set up not only Dubai Islamic Bank in 1975 but also other Islamic values-based businesses. In this regard, he was a pioneer of the Islamic economy long before the phrase became de rigueur in the last decade,” observed Abdul Alim.

Not surprisingly he was encouraged by Dubai’s vision to become the world’s capital of the Islamic economy, which Sheikh Mohammed Al Rashid Al Maktoum announced in January 2013. But he stressed the need to get the foundations right.

“Education should be from the birth to death. It has no limit. I believe that education is the foundation to develop individuals and the nation. We should have educational systems based on well-studied plans to achieve development,” he emphasized in a rare interview. This prompted the establishment of several not-for-profit initiatives including the Dubai Consumer Cooperative in the early 1970s, the Islamic Education School in 1983, the Dubai Medical College for Girls in 1986 – the first of its kind in the UAE, an orphanage and an online university for distance learning, aimed at housewives or men at work of any age.

In 1992, Saeed Al Lootah established the first College of Pharmacology in Dubai. Later he launched the Dubai Centre for Environmental Research, the Dubai Specialised Medical Centre, and the Medical Research Labs for Health Control and Research into Medicinal Herbs and Islamic (Nabawi) Medicine.  

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