Interview: Omar Danial, Founder, SISD

Omar Danial, Founder of Swiss International Scientific School in Dubai, explains how he established a $165 million boarding school in Dubai, and why the Swiss IB system is a key differentiator

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Swiss International Scientific School opened in 2015 and now has 1,200 students. That’s a big operation. You didn’t have experience in the education sector prior to this, so what led you to establish a boarding school in Dubai?

I’m a Swiss national and ran businesses in hospitality in Geneva where I created a chain of boutique hotels. I also have experience of private equity and am a financial entrepreneur specialising in hospitality. I have six children and when I moved to Dubai in 2010 I noticed there were no schools following the Swiss Baccalaureate curriculum, so to cut a long story short, I decided to set one up. We had a choice to be here and it was out of a personal need as a parent.

I was also encouraged by specialists in education that surround me. I went to all the people that I had worked with in the educational field in Switzerland and sought their council. I have taught entrepreneurship classes in Switzerland and I went to my contacts at the tertiary and university level. I explained the basis for establishing a Swiss international school in Dubai. They thought it was a wonderful idea and said they would support me. I had a lot of encouraging support from people that were highly respected, and some are now part of the board here in the school.

What challenges did you face securing funding?

The UAE wasn’t as mature as it is now when I started to finance the bricks and mortar of the school. The most common type of funding available was mainly bank funding. But there’s a mismatch between what an educational facility needs, which is long-term funding, and the funding that was available, which was very short-term.

SISD secondary school
The secondary school campus at SISD

There was a challenge of meeting the expectations of the capital costs, especially for a campus. It was quite a challenge to actually find funding. On the equity side of things the investors expect double digits if not more. Matching that expectation is difficult. We had to find the right balance between true educational investors that we were able to attract here and finding investors that have a long-term vision, which in this case meant supporting a long-term educational facility. We phased the construction of the campus to meet the funding criteria.

The total investment in the school campus was 600 million dirhams ($165 million) including the working capital needed to support the school through its ramp-up phase. 70 percent of the funding was actually by bank financing for the campus and about 200 million dirhams ($54.5m) of equity funding.

One of the other main differentiators is the fact that SISD is also a boarding school. Why is boarding a key component of SISD’s offering, and what kind of research did you do on the market potential?

Boarding is relatively new in the region. We’re the second boarding school in Dubai. It’s not yet a natural destination for boarding and education, though that will change. In this respect we have a double burden which is to establish ourselves and to promote Dubai as an educational hub where boarding facilities are available.

The world is spreading and Dubai is finding its way on to the education map. Right now we have about 20 boys in boarding and we just opened the first girls’ boarding house earlier this year. We were not sure what the acceptance was going to be towards girls’ boarding so we’ll monitor how it is being accepted on a cultural basis.

Our belief is that there is strong market potential for Dubai to be a regional hub for boarding. It’s very international but the choices of international schools in the whole region are limited. Our location also has the advantage of being quite convenient for the broader region including North Africa and the CIS countries. Our boarding facility is only in its second year but has doubled in size since we started it. We allow children to board on a weekly or term basis, which gives parents a lot of flexibility.

The encouraging part is we get more and more leads and enquiries from all over the world, including online searches for ‘boarding in Dubai’ as search words on the internet. Increasingly students are also doing their own research, looking for a school that they believe fits their profile.

Tell me about the regulatory challenges you faced when establishing the school?

This region is notorious for changing regulations quite frequently. You have to demonstrate your ability to mitigate any changes on an ongoing basis and you have to be very flexible with your ability to match those changing environments and regulations. This is something that we have managed so far. Regulations can change for the better or they can change for the worse. If you’re not prepared to be flexible enough you may find yourself a bit frustrated.

SISD exterior
The school is located in Dubai Healthcare City

Nevertheless this is Dubai, which is a fast evolving and forward-thinking city. So if you have an open mind you’re better prepared to face the changes in regulations.

How is the competition, with so many schools appearing on the scene?

I remember seeing a statistic back in 2010 when there were 150 schools in Dubai and the target was to attain 400,000 students. At the time there were less than 200,000 students in Dubai. Now there are about 280,000 students. I see a lot more established foreign brands coming here to operate with different curriculums and different offerings. It’s wonderful that parents have a choice now.

The fact that we’re IB and have a boarding facility and a brand new campus is also a major differentiator.

As an IB school you teach in French, German and English. The IB curriculum is also less well-known in this region. Does this present challenges in terms of recruiting teachers?

We do have a greater challenge because of our curriculum, which is more differentiated compared to many other schools operating a national curriculum and which means we have to be more selective in the teachers we hire. Hiring and retaining good teachers is a challenge for most schools but it’s something that we’ve been able to fulfil. We’ve been attracting and retaining the right talent. The most important thing is to create a framework which is attractive on a long-term basis for teachers to come here and establish themselves, especially in a transient market such as Dubai.

What nationalities are your teachers?

We have a mix which is very much like the international schools here in Dubai. What’s different for us is we need a high proportion of French and German speakers, and they tend to be French, Swiss, Canadian, German and Austrian on top of a mix of international teachers.

In terms of retention, Dubai does bring certain living standards expectation challenges and it’s up to us to make sure that the offering stays competitive and they’re happy to stay here longer.

How else do you hope to differentiate the school?

I have visions of doing something quite unique not only through the curriculum but also through STEM, which is science, technology, engineering, and math. We want to be a progressive school that teaches students the most important skills for the future. The integration of technology is something that we are very keen on delivering to serve the needs and the interests of children today. I am very interested to hear what students want to learn about and I think we should be a “bottom up” school in terms of supporting children and not telling them what they should be doing or studying in the future. The internet and all of the research capabilities online have allowed for a generation which has unlimited resources and creativity as to what they want to do in the future. We should be supporting that.

SISD
The primary school campus at SISD

How does the school promote the sciences?

We have the word ‘Scientific’ in the name of the school and that’s geared toward premedical studies. We are keen to nurture an interest in our students to learn about sciences, healthcare and technology.

We have a number of partnerships including with Dubai Healthcare City to help the students learn more about subjects and understand real world applications. This also helps the children to gain a better understanding of their interests and what career paths they might want to pursue before they go to university. For a similar reason, we also invite parents from various industries to give presentations about their sectors and their work to our students. This will sometimes lead to internships organised with the help of parents. Our aim is to foster a spirit of lifelong learning.