Dubai Landing—teething troubles

In the second part of the series, the writer describes the intricacies of setting up a business in Dubai and how the Indian community’s hard work that helped Indians succeed in the Gulf

Getting a trade license, that too for a representative’s office, therefore did not allow one to trade, and that too without a local partner was not going to be an easy one.  For, in a tiny little fishing village, but which had a smart population, headed by Sheikh Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler had personally supported and encouraged his people to trade and do all sorts of commercial activities.  Dubai was a British Protectrate and the few Indian traders who had ventured to be in Dubai had to undergo a lot of procedures before they could obtain a ‘visa’ and permission to operate there.

Sheikh Rashid was a man with vision and a mission. He was determined to turn this sleepy village into a buzzing metropolis in his lifetime.  He would see and build good roads; his sea-faring people would ply their dhows, which not only sailed around the Gulf, but also ventured to the east towards India and west towards Africa.  These dhows brought in essential commodities including salted meat. Of course the few vessels that anchored in the port would also carry other provisions. Fish, of course was in plenty and very fresh. And for water, there were few wells...

One of the means to ensure employment for the local people was promulgating the law that permitted foreigners could establish trading activities, provided they had a “local or national” partner who ‘owned’ everything and he, in turn, was the sponsor or giver of the ‘visa’, who sort of stood guarantor for his ‘imported’ partner.  He didn’t have much money to invest, and the foreign partner had to arrange for everything.

Until the formation of the federation and bringing together all the seven emirates into the United Arab Emirates, the Indian rupee was the official currency in use, thanks to the British connection India had. The Indian rupee was overprinted with “Gulf Rupee” or something to that effect. The dirham came into being later, though even today, in conversation, the rupee is used in all transactions but in practice, the dirham will be given!

But the most important thing in Dubai was the friendly interaction of its people. They were willing to learn, work side by side and very hospitable.  Of course, in such circumstances some smart alecs would cause trouble and that was yet another reason why locals had to hold the reins in business.

Due to the enormous activities in and around the Gulf, and particularly in Saudi Arabia, ports in Dubai were congested; waiting time was some 365 days! The neighbouring ports, too, had similar problems and the construction activity was causing untold shortage and labour was being imported by jumbo loads.  If Air India made profits, it was mostly due to the enormous haulage and runs they had in those years. The Dubai dhows would ply and bring in cargo into the creek; the merchants, aided by Indian and Pakistani staff would ensure profitable sales to Arabs from neighbouring countries, who would bring in their own vehicles and carry the goods back. More often than not, goods would be unloaded straight from the dhows to waiting trucks... that was the kind of business frenzy we had in those days...

The Dubai Municipality had to issue trade licenses; the immigration department would depute an inspector to assess the staff requirement before issuing the visa; big contractors, who had government approvals would have “group visa” for labourers. Work visa for women was not easy to obtain. So, to get the license for my office, despite my supporting documents, I had to have a “rented office, duly furnished” before an inspection took place. Needless to say, new houses in Dubai were under construction, and owners (through their Indian partners) would demand one or two years’ advance rent and so on. In the end, after about three visits, I had all in place and it took couple of months more before I could obtain visa for my family to join me.

If I recall, SRK Bhatia was the consul general, a friendly and hard pressed guy for time; in his tiny office room the largest object was the table (4 x 3 feet), on which rows and rows of freshly prepared passports were lying for his verification and signature. His new deputy, Mr Chaddha had recently arrived from Delhi, a veteran diplomat and who took care of the rest of the affairs of the state. I had met Mr Bhatia earlier also, but it was Mr Chaddha with whom my relation became stronger and closer in the years to follow.

The only Indian bank was Bank of Baroda which had the permission to operate in Dubai and we had a friendly Mr Lobo as its manager. It took them some time before they were allowed to open branches. And their main business? Just collect the cash from thousands of labourers standing in a queue, issue drafts or effect rupee transfers to their accounts in India. In course of time, they were also doing well in commercial advances and during the building boom, they made huge profits.  Businessmen, as usual, indulged in various trade practices and we had some fly-by-night operators, who shamelessly cheated and ran away from the country.

One of the prized possessions was the driving License; in 1970s, a new licensee was bound to get $300 raise (Dh 1,000 or about Rs 10,000) raise in the office, followed by a promotion. Obtaining the license was difficult; nobody, really, would be ‘allowed’ to pass in the first attempt; a second test would be given, some three months later and the third four to six months later. Set against this, ‘goras’ from the UK or USA or some identified countries in Europe could simply walk in and walk out with a UAE license by virtue of their country licenses. We had record-breaking attempts by some who had been ‘trying’ for several years without success. The smart Dubai police knew that one could ‘obtain’ a driver’s license in India for a couple of hundred rupees.

Business was clearly divided on community lines, I suppose, by accident. It was the enterprising, street smart Sindhis who led the business, followed by Gujarati Banias and middle-level executives came mostly from south India. But the majority of the working population came from the south, Pakistan in Dubai. In Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital had a greater number of Arabic speaking population from Palestine, Lebanon and Yemen.

And it was Sheikh Rashid, who was easily approachable, and who gave away a large piece of land to facilitate building of the Indian High School and the Indian Sports Club. But for his kindness, foresight and generosity, the Indian community would not have made this much progress or help in the national development.

And what was the mantra that helped them? The Indian community would not get involved in talking politics or religion, as both subjects were strictly taboo. Not in public, not in private.

Even among the local business community, we had the privilege of working with many of those who had close relations with Iran; that is Iranians who had settled down in the Emirates by marriage, and whose families had lived for generations and for whom Dubai was their home. They used the dhows to carry goods from Dubai to Khoramshahr for construction activities in Iran also.

We Indians are used to reading newspapers the first thing in the morning. Alas, we did not have one in Dubai, and, if I recall, there was Emirates News from Abu Dhabi, which we could probably get by 8 am or so. However, we did have a kind of tabloid, if you like to call that, which was printed and published by Cawas Motiwala, an enterprising businessman who had operated from Aden for many years, before migrating to Dubai. The other members of the Indian community in Aden, included Dhirubhai Ambani, Krishnan and Bharatkumar J Shah; Dhirubhai, of course, went back to India to establish the Reliance.

I cannot recall the name but this tabloid, but it carried some important news from Reuters, private advertisements and a whole bunch of leaflets, printed and supplied by the advertisers, and all these were simply stapled together and sold for a princely sum of one dirham to cover the labour cost!.  But one fine morning, from the Airport Road office, came out a first English newspaper in Dubai, known as “Gulf News”.  Day after day, it was sold out within hours after reaching the road, edited by an Englishman and supported mostly by Indian staff.  My earliest contact was their young Alexander.

Though I began to pen my views in the “letters to the editor” column, it was the announcement by the Dubai Traffic Police of a “Safety Awareness Campaign” that made me call on the Gulf News office, and met the Sri Lankan gentleman (whose name is under a mental block for me at the moment), who was the assistant editor. We had a chat, and based on that he asked me to write a series.

Well, one might wonder what the connection is.  Way back in the 1950s, when I was a student in Calcutta, we used to get the Statesman, Hindustan Standard and Amrita Bazar Patrika, the leading English newspapers; GA Johnson was the editor of the Statesman, which was about two miles from my home in Sealdah.  The Sunday edition of the Statesman devoted one page for youngsters, and had a club, called the Benji League, of which I was an active member. To encourage students to know more about traffic rules and to avoid accidents, Benji League had organised classes for its members, and a Mr Gomez, a police inspector was sent for this purpose.

This was a good experience, as it covered issues from traffic rules to what to do in case of fire!

I think a month later, when the traffic police organized competition at the end of an awareness campaign, all of us from various schools participated, and I had first prize in the “Pedestrian” category. And of course, you learnt a lot more in the 20 years that followed, and I wrote eight  articles covering various aspects on accidents, which are most caused by momentary lapses and negligence, which was appreciated by the Gulf News readers.

A short while later, yet on another visit, I came to know that the syndicated columns of daily predictions on astrological signs were not coming in, as someone had forgotten to renew the contract. I volunteered to write, to the amazement of the onlookers in the editorial department, and wrote for the next two to three weeks until the syndicated columns were revived. I shall write about how I dabbled on this occult science, which came about due to another incident at home, some other time.

Meantime, our representative office was doing well, until, of course, one over-enthusiastic merchant from Lebanon simply vanished without a trace, leaving a large debt all over the place, almost like many others from India and Pakistan. Our company’s consignment of pipes had arrived at the port, worth some $45,000 and he was demanding the documents for clearance (banks used to open the L/Cs, give the consignment to the opener in good faith, and have him settle the dues, after sales!).

Mr Lobo and I had a chat and decided that it would be unsafe to hand over the goods to his nominee and we arranged to have the goods cleared and kept in a friend’s godown, who was building a welding factory.  It took me some five to six weeks to clear the lot with a small margin of profit; but the last lot sale would actually facilitate a change of my job, because I was asked whether I was willing to move my operations to Hong Kong, as it was felt that the next major thrust in the area would actually come from China!.

I had visited Hong Kong and Taiwan on business promotion.  I did find great opportunities in Hong Kong, but found it essential to learn Cantonese Chinese to communicate with local business people; apartments were difficult and expensive to get and my family had just about settled down in Dubai, rather comfortably, though the weather was harsh in the afternoon.

So I decided to stay back in Dubai, for the family’s sake and look for a new employer, as I did not have the capital to rope in a local partner. I will tell you more about this in the next part.              

(AK Ramdas has worked with export organisations, initially in India. His international career took him to places like Beirut, Kuwait and Dubai at a time when these were small trading outposts. From being the advisor to exporters, he took over the mantle of a trader, travelled far and wide, and switched over to setting up garment factories and then worked in the US. He can be contacted at [email protected])

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1 decade ago
Excellent articles. Look forward to more
1 decade ago
Good stuff, thanks - I can relate to some of the anecdotes mentioned about the '70s in and around the PG, but from the outside looking in kind of perspective.

As a seafarer, we would often be stuck for months in port and at anchorage, and after that I had an opportunity to work for a transport company operating trucks and ships out of Sharjah.

A total disregard for any sort of international conventions, everything can and shall be traded including narcotics, women, children and more, and a brilliant way to disguise the seamier side of realities for the poorer people in Dubai - along with very pro-white tendencies at the workplace and elsewhere - all this and more.

Exploitation in this day and age, of everything and anything, thy name is the Gulf. No wonder, most people I know in the Gulf after making their fortunes there by fair means or foul, choose to live out their lives in other countries - Canada, Australia, NZ and similar - and this includes the watanees too.

Humbly submitted/VM
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