When Majid Al Futtaim was born, in the 1930s, Dubai was a small port town on the eastern end of the Persian Gulf whose natural harbor along a saltwater creek was home to pearl divers and smugglers. It lacked running water, electricity and even paved roads.
By the time Mr. Futtaim died, in December, Dubai was home to nearly four million people and hosted another 16.6 million more a year, drawing tourists to sights like the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, and a seemingly endless line of luxury shopping malls, including the Mall of the Emirates, which boasts an indoor ski slope nestled among stores like Givenchy and Rolex.
Many of those malls and other attractions — in fact much of what has brought Dubai roaring into modernity over the last few decades — are the work of Mr. Futtaim, whose retail and real estate empire made him the wealthiest businessman in Dubai and one of the richest in the Arab world.
A spokesman for Mr. Futtaim’s company, the Majid Al Futtaim Group, confirmed his death, on Dec. 17, but declined to say where he died or give a cause.
Starting with his first mall, in 1995, Mr. Futtaim brought the Western-style consumer experience to the Persian Gulf, blending shopping with dining, leisure and entertainment. He opened the Mall of the Emirates a decade later, at the height of the gulf region’s economic boom.
Even that boom’s calamitous end, when mounting debt almost forced Dubai into default during the 2009 economic crisis, did little to hamper Mr. Futtaim’s progress. By then he had diversified, with malls and supermarkets — his company held the exclusive franchise to the French brand Carrefour — across the Middle East and North Africa. By the late 2010s, the company was expanding as far away as Kenya and Uzbekistan, with plans to go even farther.
“The commercial trajectory of Majid Al Futtaim and his companies not only reflects what Dubai and the U.A.E. have become, but also where the Emirates want to head in the future,” Robert Mogielnicki, a senior scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, said in an interview. “He is a shining example of an elite merchant class that became fabulously rich alongside the tremendous economic growth of the U.A.E. at the outset of the 21st century.”
Many details about Mr. Futtaim’s early life are unknown. He was believed to have been born in Dubai in 1934, into a family that was already well established among the merchant elite that controlled economic activity there. Before joining the family business, he worked as a bank clerk.
His survivors include a son, Tariq, a vice president and nonexecutive director at the Majid Al Futtaim Group. Information on other survivors was not immediately available.
Dubai’s emphasis on trade, and its eventual conversion to a globetrotter’s paradise, was born of necessity: Unlike its neighboring emirate Abu Dhabi, indeed unlike most states in the Persian Gulf, Dubai has almost no oil to exploit. What it did have was a natural harbor and a prime location just inside the Strait of Hormuz, the entry to the gulf, where trading ships coming from India and East Asia could stop after a long voyage.
The Futtaim family, inspired by the waves of Arab nationalism sweeping across the Middle East in the 1940s and ’50s, were early advocates of independence from Britain, which held nominal control over Dubai and eight other gulf sheikhdoms, known as the Trucial States. After Britain withdrew, in 1971, six (eventually seven) of those states formed a federation, the United Arab Emirates, with Abu Dhabi as its capital.
Dubai’s ruling family, under Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al-Maktoum, made a bargain with its merchant elite. In exchange for their support, the government would grant them monopolies over imported goods and the right to exclusive deals with foreign businesses — the Futtaim family, for example, won a lucrative deal with Toyota, a deal that even today gives it control over approximately 30 percent of the emirate’s auto market.
Unlike some families, which did little more than act as gatekeepers for foreign businesses, the Futtaims took an active role in tailoring retail to the local market. Under their control, Ace stores, which strictly sell hardware in the United States, are more like department stores in the Middle East, offering not just hammers and nails but also tents and workout gear.
“He’s one of the last of the old-guard merchants who built Dubai,” Jim Krane, a fellow at the Baker Institute for Public Policy and the author of “City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism” (2009), said in an interview.
For decades, the Futtaim family ruled as a unified entity, the Al Futtaim Group, but it began to fragment in the 1990s, thanks to a falling-out between Majid and his cousin Abdullah. At one point the dispute was so heated, and so bad for the family business, that the royal family had to intervene.
Mr. Futtaim founded his own company in 1992, and opened his first mall, the City Center Deira, three years later. It was a landmark: Not only did it introduce increasingly wealthy Dubaians to Western-style shopping, but it also blended the experience with family-friendly dining, leisure and entertainment opportunities.
“He believed in Dubai as a global hub, as a place people would flock to,” Alain Bejjani, the chief executive of the Majid Al Futtaim Group, said in an interview. “His vision and Dubai’s vision went hand in glove.”
Mr. Futtaim topped himself a decade later with the Mall of the Emirates, at the time the largest indoor shopping venue in the region and easily the most luxurious. It drew international attention, and some derision, for its five-acre indoor ski slope, a sign of either the region’s material success or its Ozymandian excess.
Lost in the criticism was the fact that Mr. Futtaim’s malls were about more than just shopping and leisure. However circumscribed by commercial and government interests, they offered Dubaians much-needed public space, indoors and year-round, and they made Dubai a destination for wealthy tourists from Europe and Asia.
Today the Futtaim group’s holdings span 17 countries and include 13 hotels, 29 malls and 375 Carrefour supermarkets. The company also manages four mixed-use communities, with 29,000 homes.
And despite taking a hit during the pandemic, the Futtaim group in October announced the groundbreaking for its most ambitious project yet: the Mall of Saudi, a $4.3 billion megaproject in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, that will include 600 stores, six hotels, 1,600 residences — and an even larger indoor ski slope.