Talal Abu-Ghazaleh is an extraordinary man, who has built a career as one of the Arab World’s most successful entrepreneurs in the face of adversity and despite overwhelming odds. Since 2009, he has been Chairman of UN GAID (the UN Global Alliance on ICT for Development), and he is passionate about his role in helping the world to achieve the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015. Talal Abu-Ghazaleh will be a keynote speaker at ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN 2010. He spoke to Harold Elletson about his life and ambitions.
By Harold Elletson
UN secretary General Ban Ki-Moon could not have found a better person than Abu-Ghazaleh to undertake this gargantuan task. Now 73, he has struggled for most of his life to achieve what would have seemed impossible to others. Forced to leave his home in Palestine in 1948, he settled in Lebanon, where he set his heart on winning a place to study at the prestigious American University in Beirut. It was an almost impossible task for a young Palestinian refugee.
“I owe my education to UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency),” he recalls. “I was a refugee in Lebanon. When I wanted to join the American University in Beirut in 1956, there was only one scholarship offered by UNRWA for the top Palestinian student. So, I had to be the top Palestinian student. I earned it, went to University and graduated with distinction.”
Since then, he has never looked back, building his Talal Abu-Ghazaleh Organisation (TAG) into a world-class company, which employs thousands of people in the Arab World and beyond. “I started in Kuwait in 1972, with a one-man office. Today we have 73 offices. The latest is in Kabul in Afghanistan. That shows how the organisation thinks. We always believe there is an advantage in being the first mover. At the moment, we are the only professional services organisation working in Afghanistan.”
TAG’s growth has been remarkable, and it has established itself as the leader in several different sectors. “We started as an accountancy firm in Kuwait. In five years, we became the biggest in the region. We became bigger than any of the big eight in the region. Then we became involved in intellectual property. Within twenty years, we had become the leading intellectual property firm in the world. Then we went into management consulting, IT, legal services and education. Now the group has 28 operating firms, including the largest translating firm in the world.”
Typically, Abu-Ghazaleh spotted the importance of intellectual property and the commercial opportunity associated with it fifty years ago – long before any of his competitors. “I was at a conference in San Francisco, organised by Time Warner when I first heard the expression. I was intrigued. At first we started advising governments on how to devise laws on intellectual property. Now we do a lot of portfolio management and show clients how to enhance the value of their brands and trademarks. The fact that we started as an accountancy firm was a great advantage. Having a financial background meant that we could appreciate the importance of intellectual property as a financial asset. We have been able to help our clients to understand its importance as an asset.”
Abu-Ghazaleh’s activity in the education sector has been no less ambitious and determined. As someone whose own life was transformed by access to knowledge, he is driven by a realisation of the opportunity technology brings to deliver the benefits of high-quality education to a wider audience. The TAG Organisation has recently launched a major new training initiative in the Arab World, the ‘TAG Knowledge Society,’ which aims to help young Arabs to develop new professional qualifications and upgrade their skills. TAG is creating a network of ‘one-stop shops,’ which are a combination of free internet cafe, business centre, stationery shop, classroom and digital library.
“We have tutors,” he says “who enhance students’ use of the internet and teach languages, for example, or how to sit for an interview. Because of limited resources or delays in introducing new technologies at their schools, the students can use our new technologies. We keep them updated. There are recruitment officers for job opportunities. The centres are a knowledge oasis. The students call them a ‘knowledge paradise.’ We get the top students in the region – those who know the value of knowledge.”
Talal Abu-Ghazaleh brings both his strong belief in the transforming power of education and his innovative management approach to his new role as Chairman of UN GAID. Originally a member of the United Nations taskforce on the use of ICT for Development, he succeeded Craig Barret, the CEO of Intel, as Chairman of UN GAID. “GAID is a multi-stakeholder agency, not just a UN agency,” he points out, “but it is under the umbrella of the UN and supported by them.”
Ban Ki-Moon had given GAID the task of focussing on issues relating to ICT for Development. From the outset, Abu-Ghazaleh was determined to use GAID to help achieve the Millennium Development Goals. Progress towards the MDGs had been mixed and he developed a “very ambitious programme”, which the Secretary General endorsed in April this year.
Abu-Ghazaleh has taken a typically innovative approach and GAID has created a new tool to help developing countries play their part in reaching the Millennium Development Goals. “Reports are useful. Studies are useful. But what we have is a hands-on implementation tool.”
The implementation tool is the ‘MDG Enabler,’ which GAID has developed with help from companies, including Microsoft, Intel and Ericsson and the enthusiastic support of academia and many governments. The response of developing countries has been very positive, with the UN representative of one African country describing it as “long overdue.”
Abu-Ghazaleh realised that, in focussing too much in the past on issues, such as ‘connectivity’ or ‘access,’ there had been some duplication of effort by UN GAID. There was no need to replicate the work of other organisations, such as the ITU. Instead of competing with other agencies, GAID had to focus on one thing, which was not being done by anyone else. He became convinced that what was urgently needed was a centre in cyber space, where countries could choose implementation tools and strategies and have access to virtual consultations from leading experts.
“It has been a beautiful exercise,” he says. “Developed and developing countries have been working together for the sake of the developing world in order to put resources into the engine.” He describes the end product – the MDG Enabler – as being “like a GPS in a car. You must have a car and a driver. But the GPS gets you there. The MDG Enabler gets you there.” Now the Kingdom of Bahrain has offered to host a virtual centre from which advice, help and consultancy can be provided to help countries to meet their Millennium Development targets.
Talal Abu-Ghazaleh’s efforts and enthusiasm have not gone without recognition. He was decorated by King Hussein of Jordan and by the President of Tunisia and has received a Gold Mercury International Award, as well as honorary degrees and doctorates. As a great admirer of France, however, he is proudest of the award of Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur, which was presented to him in 1985.
Despite his success, there is still an air of regret about him, though. At its root lies his concern for the land that he was forced to leave back in 1948. He is understandably uncompromising in his attitude towards recent events in Palestine. “There is an occupation and the occupation has to end,” he says. “There is no peace process. It is a misnomer. There are UN resolutions and they have to be implemented. The occupiers have become more intransigent and more aggressive than ever. They are demolishing more homes and villages. They have killed 2,000 people in Gaza. The world comes up with polite and modest statements but nothing is done. There are two million people in gaol in Gaza and the whole world is watching. The whole world is silent.”
Talal Abu-Ghazaleh has never forgotten his origins and is immensely proud to be both an Arab and a Palestinian. He has long campaigned for the “Arabisation” of the Internet and, before the end of the year, he will launch TAGITOP, the Arab World’s first regionally based laptop. A state-of-the art product with a named account from Microsoft, it will adapt to the needs of the region and pre-load programmes for schools and the business community.
At the same time, he is actively involved in capacity building initiatives in Palestine. His organisation has played a part in helping to boost computer literacy and he is proud of what his people have achieved, despite their circumstances. “Basic literacy for people between the ages of 15 and 30 is 95 per cent. And Internet literacy is at the top of Internet literacy levels for the region. One of the highest Internet literacy standards in the world is in Palestine – in spite of the occupation and the unbearable life there.”
The TAG organisation has been working closely with UNRWA on projects in Palestinian refugee camps, involving the refurbishment of computers and the development of skills. It has not been easy but it is a part of what Abu-Ghazaleh sees as his duty towards the Palestinians and others in the Arab World. “I have learnt to work with agencies and international organisations,” he says. “You can get things done if you want to.”
It is a characteristically positive view of life, which belies the many difficulties he has had to overcome. “My life has always been a blessing of suffering,” he says. “I tell my grandchildren – don’t think of suffering as hardship. Think of it as a blessing.”
Only time will tell if the suffering of his homeland has been a blessing too. He remains optimistic. “Every occupation in history has ended,” he says.
Talal Abu-Ghazaleh will deliver his keynote speech in the opening plenary of ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN 2010 on Thursday, December 2, 09:00 – 11:00.
Dr Harold Elletson is the Chairman of the New Security Foundation and a former Member of the United Kingdom Parliament.