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Haj Saeed Lootah 1923 – 2020: Beyond Dubai Islamic Bank, he was an overall Islamic economy pioneer

Saeed bin Ahmed Al Lootah, who was instrumental in the establishment of the world’s first commercial Islamic bank, has died.

His passing was confirmed by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai in a tweet on Sunday (June 28).


حط رحاله عند ربه اليوم الحاج سعيد أحمد آل لوتاه.. أنشأ أول بنك إسلامي في العالم، وكان تاجراً عصامياً له بصماته في اقتصاد دبي..له يد طولى في الخير.. وهو أب للكثير من الأيتام .. عرفت فيه عقلاً راجحاً وحكمة وسكينة.. رحمك الله.. وتقبل عملك .. وألهم أهلك الصبر والسلوان .. pic.twitter.com/SOKzXl9meq

— HH Sheikh Mohammed (@HHShkMohd) June 28, 2020


I had the privilege of interviewing Haj Saeed in 2013 for a book I was writing about Islamic finance. In that year, he was 90-years-old and had left the running of his diversified portfolio of businesses—which includes construction, real estate, finance, energy, and retail—to the younger generations but he was still involved in the educational and philanthropic institutions he set up.

We met at the Lootah Technical Institute, which sits next to the Dubai Medical College for women, the UAE’s first private college awarding degrees for medicine, that Haj Saeed set up in the mid-1980s. He spoke candidly about the challenges he faced with Dubai Islamic Bank from conception to establishment in 1975 to its difficulties in the 1990s.

“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,” he said about setting up Dubai Islamic Bank.

More so, Haj Saeed stressed 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 Haj 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. He is perhaps not more widely known globally because his focus was always Dubai and the UAE.

In the early 1970s Haj Saeed built the Dubai Cooperative Society that then spurred him to move from retail into food processing and distribution to safeguard the integrity of halal. This resulted in Al Islami Foods.

As his SS Lootah Group of companies thrived, Haj Saeed in the 1990s established the first College of Pharmacology in Dubai and later launched the Dubai Center for Environmental Research, the Dubai Specialized Medical Center, and the Medical Research Labs for health control and research into medicinal herbs and Islamic (Nabawi) medicine.

When I spoke with him in February 2013, he expressed his disappointment that most Muslims limit their piety to matters of ritual. “I thought the people who say they are Muslims know what Islam is. I have found out after so many years that people only know Islam for rituals like prayers and fasting,” he said.

Worship, he said, is not confined to the rituals of praying and fasting but embodies everything permissible that one performs in the pursuit of Allah’s blessings.

He added then that 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 again, he stressed the need to get the foundations right. A lot of wrongs and chaos in the world, he said, were caused by ineffective education systems. “If we don’t raise our children right, if we don’t teach them right, we create this chaos.”

To the Islamic banking fraternity, he said: “I pray every day that Islam returns to us. We are just starting to see the truth emerge now, bit by bit. But there is still much work to be done.”

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Emmy Abdul Alim