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Emirates NBD, a custodian of UAE’s pearl diving heritage

Article - December 9, 2015

Created by one of the most prominent philanthropists in the history of the UAE, the Emirates NBD Pearl Museum houses one of the largest and finest collections of pearls in the world, and was gifted to the nation as a reminder of its culture and heritage.



In 1963, the late Sultan Al Owais founded the National Bank of Dubai. Emirates NBD was formed in 2007 after the merger between Emirates Bank International (EBI) and the National Bank of Dubai (NBD), which combined the second and fourth largest banks in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Today, it is one of the largest banks in the region – as of September 30, 2015, total assets were AED 390.4 billion (equivalent to approx. US$106 billion) – and the group has a leading retail banking franchise in the UAE, with more than 219 branches and over 916 ATMs and CDMs in the UAE and overseas. Furthermore, it is a major player in the UAE corporate and retail banking arena and has strong Islamic banking, global markets and treasury, investment banking, private banking, asset management, and brokerage operations.

As well as being in the UAE, the group also has operations in Egypt, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and representative offices in India, China and Indonesia. Emirates NBD’s vision is to be globally recognized as the most valued financial services provider based in the Middle East.

The group is also a major player in the corporate banking arena. With fast-growing Islamic banking-affiliated entities, strong investment and private banking services, and a leadership in the field of asset management products and brokerage services, Emirates NBD is well positioned to grow and deliver outstanding value to its shareholders, customers and employees.

As a socially responsible corporation, Emirates NBD engages in several corporate social responsibility activities, focusing mainly on priority causes in the UAE, such as charity, education, environment, culture, art and sport. Preservation of the UAE’s culture and heritage is at the heart of the group, and in addition to supporting various initiatives that aim to preserve the UAE culture, in 2003 Emirates NBD launched the first pearl museum in the region, containing one of the largest collections of natural pearls in the world. The Emirates NBD Pearl Museum is a gift from the late Sultan Al Owais, the founder of the National Bank of Dubai, to the people of the UAE and the region to remind them of their culture and heritage. Indeed, the story of Sultan Al Owais and his pearls is heavily connected to the prosperity that the bank enjoys today.

Born in 1925, Ali Bin Abdullah Al Owais was a pearl trader of the Shamsi tribe of Sharjah. Sultan’s father was a pearl merchant, and Sultan as a young man would accompany him on business trips to places like India where he spent several years. Sultan developed a business acumen and soon became one of the most successful businessmen in the UAE, chairing a national bank and developing various businesses, both in trade and industry. While Sultan Ali Al Owais eventually went into international banking, he continued to pursue his passion and to buy pearls, and thus created one of the world’s largest and finest collections.

Sultan Al Owais kept this priceless collection out of nostalgia for a way of life, which has now vanished from the Gulf. His wish was that the pearls should be available to remind people of the origins of the Emirates. The museum is dedicated to the life of Sultan Ali Al Owais, and to his decision to display this priceless collection of natural Gulf pearls as a tribute to the citizens of the UAE and the Gulf at large.

Sultan Al Owais was also generous in other ways, becoming one of the most prominent philanthropists in the history of the UAE, donating hundreds of millions of dirhams for the construction of several projects, such as the Baraha Hospital in Dubai, the main mosque at Dhayd, several dams in the Northern Emirates, and various schools and hospitals in the UAE and other Arab countries.

In recognition of his philanthropic activities, Sultan Al Owais received many awards, the most important being the award by His Highness Sheikh Zayed of the Federal Medal that is given normally only to rulers of the Emirates. He was also honored in 1987 by the UAE Writers Association and was selected as the Personality of the Year as part of Sheikh Hamdan’s prize for Excellence in Educational Performance for his contribution to education during the last prize-giving ceremony. While Sultan Al Owais is sadly no longer with us, his generosity of his pearl donations and the business acumen of the bank he founded ensure that he will be remembered for many years to come.