Art of Blending Business and Charity

SINCE my first visit to the Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre at the Mall of the Emirates — a fascinating place for children and adults alike — I always wondered about the person who 
founded it.

By Rahul Sharma

Published: Sun 6 Dec 2009, 10:56 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 3:46 AM

DUCTAC is a wonderful place. With its small, crammed art shop, an airy art gallery, a library, colourful walls and a theatre, DUCTAC, as it is known to all living in Dubai, is almost the cultural nerve centre of this bustling city.

It took me some time to get hold of Brian Wilkie, the founder and currently the acting director. He travels a lot – sometimes on business and on others to raise money for charities.

When I found him I realised that at 60 he is refreshingly young, and more than willing to cycle across the United Arab Emirates or climb Mount Kilimanjaro to raise money to buy ambulances or build hospitals and orphanages in poorer countries of Asia and Africa.

His is an amazing story — just as Dubai’s. Wilkie, who came here to sell fire extinguishers, opened the first wine bar in the city in the late 1970s and eventually ended up setting up DUCTAC.

“It is surprising that how often what seems to be bad turns out to be good, or some good does come out from it,” Wilkie says as we sit down to lunch at the Capital Club one afternoon during the recent long Eid and National Day holidays. The restaurant is empty and the otherwise ceaseless chatter that usually interferes with a conversation absent.

Dressed in a white T-shirt and slacks, Wilkie bounds in to tell me his life’s story and talk about DUCTAC, which he says was born when a bunch of amateur artists began complaining about the lack of place to stage plays.

“We were doing our plays at the British embassy and then they turned their auditorium into classes and we had nowhere to put up the plays so we started doing them at the Country Club,” Wilkie tells me as I sip my usual carrot juice and we order starters on an otherwise lazy afternoon.

The idea, he says, “just grew and grew and grew.” Wilkie and others started looking at the Mall of the Emirates after they were convinced that they needed a larger 550-seat place for it to be commercially viable.

What had started out as a plan for a theatre soon turned ambitious and the arts centre was added and the library – that ran in a portacabin and was about to close — became part of the centre.

“The community was astonishingly generous, especially the Indian community,” Wilkie says, adding that they ended up collecting 65 million dirhams against the original plan for just four million. The collection drive was launched in 2003 and DUCTAC opened three years later with substantial contributions also from Emiratis and Western expatriates.

“It was huge…Dubai needed culture. There were no art galleries, no theatres. Our message was that Dubai was a great city, but it really lacked a cultural hear,” said Wilkie who was born in India and has spent most of his life as an entrepreneur.

The open day at DUCTAC last year attracted 1500 people and the number grew to 4,000 this year. Wilkie and his wife Sami went home with “shiny eyes”.

Dubai is home for both. “Dubai has continuously reinvented itself. Here you can do almost anything you want to because they want you to,” said the main who was supposed to go to Brazil to sell fire extinguishers but found himself in the Gulf when that government raised taxes by five times on fire equipment.

“I first got to Bahrain, spent three months setting up the agency and another three in Abu Dhabi and then came to Dubai for a day.

Somebody asked what do you think of the place and I said I’d like to settle down here.”

And Wilkie, who had hair down to his shoulder when he first arrived in Dubai in 1976, made the city his home, lost everything twice, found his wife and eventually did just fine. “Here I could do things that would have taken years to do back home,” he says remembering his early days in a place he has seen change so many times over the years.

As an entrepreneur Wilkie has a strong record. Apart from the Wilkie’s Wine Bar that he started as he was “fairly broke” he also founded Memo Express — Dubai’s first local motorcycle messenger service that he sold. He now owns a courier consolidator company, a health magazine and another company that recycles mobiles phones and e-waste.

“When I started my wine bar I got to know everybody. I even met my wife there,” says Wilkie who tells me that he fought a long court case after the hotel where the bar operated stopped paying him and told him to pack off. “It took me 10 years to get the money.”

Twice broke, he married a “sensible” woman, he says. “I was a good front man and she was very good with the back office, accounts etc. We worked as a good team, covering each other well. You learn as you go along,” added Wilkie, who said he did some soul-searching and goal-setting when he was 49 and decided to sell off the business that then employed 200 people because he figured it had grown too big as he did not know the names or recognised all his employees.

He then got into charity in a big way, first cycling across Cuba with a friend to raise money for charity and then eventually setting up Gulf for Good — an adventure challenge charity that has taken him to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro (in Tanzania) and other arduous places to raise money for a good cause.

Up until now the charity has raised nearly six million dirhams, taken 49 people to Kilimanjaro after 27 challenges across 16 countries involving 600 participants. Next year there is hiking and cycling expedition planned for Thailand, a trip to Lebanon to raise money for Palestinian children and another trip to Kilimanjaro.

Wilkie, who was awarded the MBE by Queen Elizabeth last year for services to business and charity in the UAE, says most of his friends here don’t see themselves going back. “The expatriate point of view has changed. I don’t think that last year has made a difference,” he says referring to the global economic downturn.

But there is something he misses in Dubai of today. “When it was smaller there was a lot more mixing. At a party there were Emiratis, British, Americans, Indians, Lebanese and Pakistanis. Now unless it is a company party you tend to mix only with your kind.”

Editor Rahul Sharma savours the idea of mixing work with pleasure for this column. You can write to him at

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