‘Abd al-Hamid Shuman
‘Abd al-Hamid Shuman, the son of Ahmad Shuman, a stone mason, was born in the Jerusalem district village of Beit Hanina in 1888. The youngest of four boys, he attended the local primary school in Beit Hanina. However, he left school before graduating and went to work at the local stone quarries to earn a living.
Life in New York
Like many Arabs from the Syrian provinces in the late Ottoman era, Shuman emigrated to the United States in 1911. He was 23 years old.
He had a mind for business, first working as a traveling salesman and then opening his own shop, which soon grew into a factory for ready-to-wear clothes. Shuman rose through the social ranks as a philanthropist and journalist, writing for Arabic-language newspapers, funding the studies of Arab students, and buying a cemetery in New York for the city’s Muslim community. Within a few years he had become prosperous and had opened a chain of shoe stores in New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia.1
He published an Arabic newspaper called al-Dabbur, which fundraised to support the national movements in Palestine and Syria.
While living in New York, Shuman became alarmed by the number of emerging Zionist financial institutions in Palestine, which fueled his ambition to create a bank for his people. He attempted to raise capital from wealthy Arabs in New York, but they did not share his vision, so Shuman expanded his business and amassed his own capital over the next 20 years.
He married before leaving Palestine and had a son, ‘Abd al-Majid; his wife died soon after. He then married Saniyya (the daughter of Ahmad Hilmi ‘Abd al-Baqi), and they had two children, Khalid and Najwa.
The Arab Bank
When Shuman left Palestine, it was still part of the Ottoman Empire. When he returned from the US in 1929, it was in the hands of the British Mandate, whose support for the Zionist project was opposed by Palestinians. Tensions were high. Shuman had saved 15,000 Palestinian pounds, and with that sum, he established the Arab Bank. It was officially registered on May 21, 1930.
Shuman was a committed Arab nationalist, and he believed that establishing independent and viable financial institutions would help Palestinians retain economic sovereignty and prevent domination by Zionism.2 The name he chose for the bank revealed his political leanings:
When I decided to establish the bank, I did not wish to give it my name or the name of my village, Beit Hanina, or my homeland Palestine . . . but instead the name of the Arab nation, the greater homeland. So I called it the Arab Bank.3
Shuman’s second wife came from a wealthy family. With the financial support of her father, ‘Abd al-Baqi, the bank expanded quickly, with branches opening in most Palestinian cities within a few years.
On the first day of opening the bank, Shuman said to staff: “Wherever you go—in Jerusalem, Jaffa, or Haifa—you will see evidence of Zionist and colonial institutions prospering and expanding. In their prosperity we can discern only our own weakness and dependence. Every colonial or Zionist institution that succeeds in our country drives yet one more nail into the coffin of our Palestine. But every Arab venture that manages to do well serves as a shield in the protection and defense of Palestine. Let’s get to work!”4
Involvement in the National Movement
A demonstration organized by Zionist groups on August 15, 1929, at the Western Wall sparked widespread clashes between Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem. Known as the al-Buraq Disturbances or al-Buraq Uprising, the confrontations left 133 Jews dead and 339 wounded; 116 Arabs were killed and 232 wounded.
On September 5, 1929, the Supreme Muslim Council formed the Central Committee to Aid Palestinian Victims of the al-Buraq Disturbances, and Shuman became its treasurer.
Shuman had good relations with many of the figures who established the Istiqlal Party (Independence Party of Palestine) in 1932. Many of the Istiqlal Party members were from the Nablus area and called for new methods of political action, including noncooperation with the colonial British Mandate authorities and nonpayment of taxes. On April 22, 1936, Shuman joined Jerusalem notables in issuing a proclamation that pledged their support for the continuation of the Great Palestinian Rebellion against British policy. They demanded Arab independence and the end of open-ended Jewish immigration and British support for Zionist policies.
Shuman was one of five delegates to represent the National Committee of Jerusalem in a conference of national committees, held in Jerusalem on May 7, 1936. In that conference, the Palestinian delegation announced a refusal to pay taxes unless the British government abandoned its pro-Zionist policies.
Shuman then became a key member of the Supply and Boycott Committee, formed to provide support for those affected by the rebellion.
Shuman had always experienced challenges and obstacles on a bureaucratic level from the British, but his public stand against their rule proved a step too far. In July 1936, Shuman was arrested along with other nationalists and was sent to the Sarafand camp near Ramla for several months. The same year, Arab Palestinian groups mobilized to organize a countrywide boycott to protest British support for Zionist immigration. In 1938 Shuman was arrested again and held in the Mazra‘a camp near Acre.
Shuman’s vision for a prosperous Arabic financial institution did not waiver throughout the events of 1948, and under his stewardship he not only ensured the survival of the bank, but preserved the deposits of thousands of its clients and opened several branches of the bank in other countries.
The Arab Bank remains one of the most well-respected and well-known banks in the world. It is Palestine’s most famous financial institution, and it finances cultural programs and scholarships in several Arab countries.
The Shuman family remained in positions of authority within the bank until 2012, when Shuman’s grandson, ‘Abd al-Hamid Jr., resigned from the board. In his letter of resignation letter, ‘Abd al-Hamid Jr. wrote that management had steered one of the Arab world’s largest privately owned banks away from its founder’s vision.
Today the largest stake in the bank belongs to Lebanon’s Hariri family, who hold about 22 percent of the bank, while the Shuman family hold 4 percent.5
Shuman died in the Czech town of Karlovy Vary in 1974. His body was taken to Jerusalem, and he was buried next to al-Aqsa Mosque.
Shuman stipulated that he wished a cultural foundation to be established after his death, which would fund scientific, intellectual, medical, and technological research to benefit all Arab countries.
His son ‘Abd al-Majid spearheaded the establishment of the ‘Abd al-Hamid Shuman Foundation in 1978 in Amman, which is home to the ‘Abd al-Hamid Shuman Cultural Association, the General Library and Data Systems, the Children’s Library, and the Arts Center.
Anderson, Charles. “From Petition to Confrontation: The Palestinian National Movement and the Rise of Mass Politics, 1929–1936.” PhD diss., New York University, 2013.
Bowden, Tom. “The Politics of the Arab Rebellion in Palestine 1936–39.” Middle East Studies 11, no. 2 (1975): 147–74.
Interactive Encyclopedia of the Palestine Question. “Abd al-Hamid Shuman.” Accessed November 8, 2023.
Jureidini, Maya, Al Arabiya Dubai, and Reuters. “Arab Bank Board Appoints New Chairman, Founding Family Left Out.” Al Arabiya News, August 26, 2012.
Kéchichian, Joseph A. “Abdul Hamid Shoman, the Visionary Entrepreneur.” Gulf News, January 8, 2010.
Mitter, Sreemati. Bankrupt: Financial Life in Late Mandate Palestine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020.
Shoman, Abdulhameed. The Indomitable Arab: The Life and Times of Abdul Hameed Shoman (1890–1974), Founder of the Arab Bank. London: Third World Centre for Research and Publishing, 1984.
Sreemati Mitter, Bankrupt: Financial Life in Late Mandate Palestine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020).
Abdulhameed Shoman, The Indomitable Arab: The Life and Times of Abdul Hameed Shoman (1890–1974), Founder of the Arab Bank (London: Third World Centre for Research and Publishing, 1984), 140.
Maya Jureidini, Al Arabiya Dubai, and Reuters, “Arab Bank Board Appoints New Chairman, Founding Family Left Out,” Al Arabiya News, August 26, 2012.