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Alumni Profile

Waleed Al-Ghafari

Waleed Al-Ghafari

BSc Computer Studies and Mathematics 1982

Waleed Al-Ghafari is a highly versatile businessman with a 28-year track record in diversified global markets, including telecommunications and software technology, hospitality and real estate. The Alumni Association was delighted to catch up with him and talk about his journey into business and Oscar nominated film production after studying at Sunderland.

“It’s been 33 years since I graduated from the University which is long enough to have multiple career journeys. During this time I have lived in different parts of the world and always positioned myself in the growing and emerging markets of the region, which allowed me to capitalize on and be part of such distinct fields. As a result, my professional path kept evolving and with time I feel I have accumulated such a vast and distinct experience.”

Waleed founded two companies in Canada in 1991, one that was offering consulting and business development services to Canadian high tech companies attempting to build their business outside the country (The Open Solutions), and another software company focusing on developing Electronic Document Management Systems (TIMS).  He went on to grow TIMS over a 7 year period before selling to Tronic AG in Switzerland in 1998 for a value of $100 million becoming president of the new company until 2000 when he relocated to Dubai. Since then he has been instrumental in various mergers and acquisitions activities and initial public offerings, including dealmaking work with Nokia Networks from 2005 to 2009.

In 2001, back in his home country, he took advantage of the Gulf boom and founded Dubai Pearl, a $3.3 billion real estate development of a self-contained city with a strong business and hospitality focus.  With his entrepreneurial acumen this gave him an undisputed edge. In partnership with Kingdom Hotels, he became Chairman of Dubai Pearl Hotel Company responsible for creating and developing the hospitality component within Dubai Pearl which contained 2,000 luxury residences, five grand luxury 5-star hotels, and a new  Technology Park.

Whilst his involvement continues he has also established Ares, a luxury goods company based in Italy that provides bespoke luxury craftsmanship and design to high end automobiles. He was also one of the founding members of the Dubai Film Board and helped bring Mission Impossible 4 to the Emirates. This really reflects his quick response to business opportunities and his belief in Dubai as a global centre for business and of course, world cinema. 

Most recently, Waleed was instrumental in brining the story of 'life under occupation in Palestine' to the big screen with esteemed writer-director Hany Abu-Assaden in the film Omar (2013), a heart wrenching love story which was nominated for an Oscar as the Best Foreign Language Film of the Year and won various accolades and prizes at international film festivals, including Cannes.

Waleed says: “It is an honour to be nominated and recognised by the Academy, and so, hearing of the Oscar nomination made me endlessly proud! I was already amazed when 'Omar' won the first Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and then when it went on to win the Asia Pacific Film of the Year. The fact that 'Omar' was able to attract such global recognition and acknowledgement, convinced me that we need to continue telling these relevant stories and show the world the realities of life that people endure in their own daily lives."

“Producing movies with such a powerful and relevant message is the path that I intend to continue in this phase of my career journey. Like all my other businesses, I am now determined to take the producer role to the next level, and make sure the next movie I produce not only earns an Oscar nomination, but the Academy Award!”

Waleed's determination and negotiating skills have been crucial in the success of his business over the years. He explains: “Understanding and reading people’s needs and biases, in terms of both what they say and especially what they don’t, is a key factor to success. The secret of sustainable success is to have a highly skilled team, with full integrity and to be able to prioritise the client’s agenda over any other thing.” Enduring success is a continual challenge itself, as he explains:  “I ask myself each day: is my business still good enough to attract and keep highly skilled people with integrity?”

From a personal perspective, his main challenge to date was in 1990 when he was in Canada on holidays with his family, and Kuwait was invaded, and literally shut down.  Waleed describes: “Over night, I found myself and my young family stranded, with no access to our belongings and assets back home, forced to start a new life in a foreign country, and a freezing one no less! If you can imagine a ‘start-up’ in such a situation, you can understand that after such an experience, the corporate start-ups I dealt with were rather uncomplicated.”

Sunderland has, of course, changed hugely since Waleed's student days but he recognises how his degree helped him to get where he is now: “The influence of the Computer Studies course at that time were indeed a big eye opener for me, as I realised the opportunities and potential of computers in the world.

“Today, that sounds out-dated and irrelevant, but 30 years ago, it was new and almost unchartered territory for most people. Also, the professors, each one in their own way, influenced me and managed to elevate my character and skills to much higher levels, than when I started my course.”

He added: “I also have so many memorable memories from my time in Sunderland, but I must admit that I was amazed to see how such a relatively small city had such an open society that embraced multiculturalism, better than many bigger exposed cities in the UK. The versatility and diversity of the North East remains today my biggest and fondest memory.”

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