Obituary: Sir Naim Dangoor, entrepreneur

Entrepreneur and philanthropist made the UK his home after persecution in Iraq. Picture: Contributed
Entrepreneur and philanthropist made the UK his home after persecution in Iraq. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 17 April, 1914, in Baghdad, Iraq. Died: 19 November, 2015, in London. Aged 101.

Sir Naim Dangoor was an Iraqi-Jewish entrepreneur and philanthropist, who created a highly successful Mayfair-based property company, having sought asylum in the 1960s in the UK, following the seizure of his personal fortune and business assets, which included Iraq’s first Coca-Cola bottling plant, by the authorities and the persecution of Jews in his homeland.

The multi-millionaire vowed to thank the “wonderful country” that gave him refuge, recalling, “I made a promise that if ever I was to become successful I would put my money into education.”

True to his word, he went on to establish the Exilarch Foundation in 1980, named after the 13th-century Mesopotamian priest who was the supreme ruler of Eastern Jewry; the purpose of the foundation was to guarantee a future for those in need of an education.

He later became the self-appointed “Exilarch”, leader of Iraqi-Jews living in Britain.

The foundation went on to donate millions to health charities and organisations, including Cancer Research UK, Age UK and the Royal Society of Medicine; religious charities; and the creation of educational opportunities for other refugees as well as those less fortunate within the indigenous population.

It also sponsored schools, universities, such Birbeck University, and the development of new academies, such as Westminster Academy, later renamed the Naim Dangoor Centre.

Born in Baghdad in 1914, Naim Eliahou Dangoor was the second of six brothers and sisters to Eliahou Dangoor, reputedly the world’s largest printer of Arabic books; his grandfather, Ezra Dangoor, was the city’s Chief Rabbi, when the capital’s population was 40 per cent Jewish and owned 95 per cent of the business.

At the time, Baghdad and southern Iraq was under Ottoman rule until 1917, when the British captured it during the First World War. It remained under British Mandate until 1932 when it gained formal independence.

In 1931, aged 17, Dangoor travelled for five days from Baghdad to London where he enrolled on an engineering degree at Queen Mary College, University of London. Upon graduating, he returned to his homeland where he was conscripted into the army for two years military service, becoming an officer; he also met Ahmed Safwat, a Muslim and fellow London University graduate, who would become his future business partner and great friend.

After the army, Dangoor had hoped to become a railway engineer but was thwarted due to anti-Jewish restrictions that had been imposed in the 1940s. Subsequently, he decided to establish Eastern Industries with Safwat in 1949. Their first contract was to supply new windows to Iraqi government buildings; they then expanded into real estate development and other manufacturing ventures, including match and furniture production.

A year later, they began to make their fortune after securing the rights to become the country’s first Coca-Cola bottlers. After overcoming numerous challenges in importing bottling machinery and completing the construction of their plant near Baghdad’s city centre, the operation opened in the summer of 1950, with a series of newspaper ads proclaiming, “Soon you will see the bottle which brings enjoyment the world over!” Perhaps somewhat ironically, Dangoor shared his birth date with the iconic Coca-Cola bottle.

By this time, Dangoor was already married, having met his wife Renée, a former Miss Baghdad in 1947; he liked to joke that 1947 was the only year that Iraq ever held the competition so, technically, she still holds the record. They married the same year and had four sons. She died in 2008.

Following the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, there was a sudden rise in Arab nationalism and unease amongst the Jewish populous in the Arab world. New laws in Iraq, modelled on Germany’s 1934 Nuremberg laws, were brought in, restricting Jews in various areas including commerce, the media, the oil industry and civil service, as well as quotas in areas such as university positions.

With the rise of the Ba’ath Party in Iraq (later led by Saddam Hussein), pressure mounted on the Jews to leave.

The situation deteriorated and in 1959 Dangoor took the difficult decision to take his family out. He continued to travel between the countries for business until 1963, when the government issued a decree that the Iraqi Jewish Diaspora must return to the country to renew their passports or risk losing their property and money. Dangoor forfeited his citizenship, property, business interests and money, which were then seized by the authorities. He later fought tirelessly, but unsuccessfully for compensation on behalf of all displaced Babylonian Jews.

Soon after his arrival, upon the advice of a friend, he bought his first property in London. He subsequently formed his commercial property company, Monopro, which by 2015 had net assets worth almost £86m, with the family’s personal fortune estimated at £40m.

Dangoor also founded a community centre in West Kensington for new Iraqi-Jewish immigrants, in order to preserve their heritage, and in 1971, he began editing and publishing “The Scribe”, described as a “Journal of Babylonian Jewry”. For over 30 years, he edited and was a prolific contributor to the journal, recording the history and experiences of the Jewish Diaspora and helping to bring together its world-wide readership.

In 2004, his Foundation created the Dangoor scholarships, which promised £1,000 to students with no family history of further education, if they were applying to one of the 1994 Group of universities, a set of leading UK universities; so far £1m has been given. A few years later, he created the Eliahou Dangoor scholarships, named after his father; they sponsored 4,000 students from poor backgrounds applying for STEM subjects - science, technology, engineering and maths, which led to a £4m government investment into higher education.

In 2011, Dangoor was made a consultant professor of China’s Nanjing University, after funding scholarships and investing in the study of “universal monotheism”.

In 2014, he made the largest gift to the Royal Society of Medicine in its history, supporting young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, with a desire to follow a career in medicine. He was also the largest private individual donor to the Francis Crick Institute in London, a biomedical research centre.

In April 2014, to mark Dangoor’s 100th birthday, Coca-Cola published an article on the first Coca-Cola bottler of Iraq sharing a centenary with the Coca-Cola bottle.

He was appointed OBE in 2006, advancing to CBE six years later. Visitors to his Foundation’s office opposite the plush Connaught Hotel in London would be greeted with a bust of the Queen’s head. It delighted Dangoor, a passionate monarchist and patriot of his adopted country, that in June this year, aged 101, he became the second oldest person to be knighted.

Dangoor died peacefully with his four sons in attendance.