The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been a fertile land for Indian business leaders who have established global brands in the world’s oil hub. One of the fastest-growing cities globally and the most populous in the UAE, Dubai attracts Indian businesspersons as it offers ease of doing business, access to world-class infrastructure, investors, world-class living standards, no income tax, and proximity to India, Africa, and Europe.
The success stories of businesses such as M.A. Yusuf Ali’s Lulu Group, construction king Ravi Pillai’s RP Group, and Micky Jagtiani’s baby products’ line Landmark Group are legendary.
These business tycoons all landed in the Gulf in the 1970s, and made their way to the top from their humble beginnings. Jagtiani famously drove taxis in London before arriving in Bahrain, later shifting to Dubai where he launched his Landmark Group. This company now employs over 45,000 people and has more than 1000 stores across the Persian Gulf region, the Middle East, and India. Thrissur- born Yusuf, a diploma holder in business administration, initially went into his paternal uncle’s business, later tapping into the retail revolution by setting up Lulu hypermarket in the 1990s. He now employs a 50,000 strong workforce from 37 different nations. Pillai left his father’s farming fields in Kerala and started a construction business in Saudi Arabia. Today, he employs over 70,000 people across his several businesses, including hospitality, hotels, steel, cement, and oil and gas industries.
There are many more that have set the benchmark of success. One of them is Sunny Varkey, son of school-teacher parents, one of the biggest educationists in the Gulf region operating over 250 schools in 13 countries. Then there is Yogesh Mehta, the petrochemical boss, who is the CEO of Petrochem Middle East, the largest chemical distribution company in the Middle East which is ranked number 12 in the world, and gold trader Firoz Merchant, a school dropout who visited Dubai for his honeymoon and never returned.
Many Indian business leaders had made their mark before them, like Dr. Zulekha Daud, who delivered 10,000 babies in 56 years. She heads the Zulekha group which is one of the largest private healthcare networks in the Emirates
The success of Indian business tycoons belies the notion that UAE was known for attracting cheap labor from India. Today, Indians have left their mark in all sectors and dominate in construction, healthcare, retail, financial services, manufacturing, transport, hospitality, and the entire service sector. They are the leading contributors to the economy and have occupied a place of prominence.
In 2019, five Indian ex-pats – three of them from Kerala — made into the Forbes billionaires list with a combined worth of a staggering $15 billion. Yusuf Ali tops this list with assets of $4.7 billion. He finds himself in the company of Jagtiani and BR Shetty of NMC Healthcare, who own two floors in Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest skyscraper.
India’s contact with the UAE dates back several centuries, mainly due to their trade and commerce. In the initial years, UAE was the hub for Indian blue-collar workers. The discovery of oil in the 1960s brought an influx of Indian workers. Most of them were from the state of Kerala. But the Indian migration drastically went up during the 1970s and 1980s, with the expansion of the oil industry and the growth of free trade in Dubai.
The situation evolved in the 1990s with the liberalization in India and the changing economic scenario in the Gulf countries, throwing open the doors for the professional workforce. India was the biggest human resource pool available, sending professionals who excelled quickly. The annual migration of Indians to the UAE, which stood at 4,600 in 1975, rose to over 125,000 by 1985 and stood at nearly 200,000 in 1999.
Today, UAE has a total population of 3.5 million Indian ex-pats, which comprises 27 percent of the UAE’s total population of nearly 10 million, and is the largest among any ethnic group in the country.
A few decades ago Dubai, a city that was little more than a fishing village and was built on the back of an oil and real estate boom, is today recognized as the globalized financial capital of the UAE – a hub for tourism, trade, and banking. The city, which is teeming with glittering skyscrapers, has become known the world over for its colossal projects.
It has attracted many Indians, especially entrepreneurs and tech professionals, who are shifting base to Dubai, a safe cosmopolitan city with a multicultural and multilingual population. Around 35 percent of the Indian community in the UAE today comprises highly accomplished professionals.
“The business environment in the UAE has allowed a number of companies owned by the Indian diaspora to become multinationals in their own right. These include the Lulu group in retail, Aster in health care, Sobha in real estate among others. These companies have invested in India and constitute a real bridge in economic relations between India and UAE,” said Navdeep Suri, former Indian ambassador to the UAE and co-chair of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) national committee for the Dubai Expo. FICCI is a non-governmental trade association and advocacy group based in India.
Aster DM Healthcare is a healthcare conglomerate in the Middle East, founded by Dr. Azad Moopen. The Sobha Group is a multinational real estate and construction group with diversified interests and investments in the UAE, India, Oman, Brunei, and Tanzania, and was founded by P.N.C. Menon.
According to Dr. Somdutta Singh, a serial entrepreneur and angel investor, who shifted to Dubai in 2020, “the Indian community has played a significant role in the economic development of the UAE.
“The Indian community is respected for its technical competence and sense of discipline. Given these qualities, Indian expatriates enjoy an advantage over other nationalities. Indians have not just contributed to the country’s employment sector but also marked their presence as entrepreneurs.”
Born in Kolkata in West Bengal to doctor parents, Singh is a first-generation entrepreneur. After finishing her master’s in the United States, followed by a string of comfortable corporate jobs, she launched her first venture, Unspun Group, an ad-tech firm. She is currently operating her third successful venture, Assiduus Global, the world’s fastest-growing cross-border, multi-platform E-commerce supply chain and distribution company that scales Fortune 500 companies and D2C brands across global e-commerce marketplaces.
Singh said she shifted to Dubai as it emerged as a “key business location on the world map.”
“The Middle East, specifically Dubai, bridges the time gap between the far West and the far East, especially when there are important meetings or calls. Since we operate across the globe, from the US to Europe and even Japan, living in Dubai makes it seamless to travel to these regions and easier to do business. There is a high level of accessibility thanks to the geographical advantage.
“As the UAE and India come closer and collaborate, the center of attraction remains Dubai for investors from India because it has a robust and sound business ecosystem,” said Singh, who also runs a not-for-profit organization Digital Leadership Institute (DLI), that focuses on making the youth of India digitally literate to help them lead self-sustainable lives.
“High on technology and huge on infrastructure, Dubai ranks top among other countries in the happiness index as well,” she said. Singh’s foundation helps entrepreneurs from tier I and tier II cities raise funds for their ventures. It also works with Ketto.org to fund surgeries of young children whose parents cannot afford the costs.
“Many Indian entrepreneurs and start-ups wanting to expand have invested in Dubai. Dubai has 3,000 start-ups, with 200 of them founded by Indians,” added Singh, who was featured in 2020 in Fortune India’s 50 most powerful businesswomen edition and was also bestowed with the Times 40 under 40 honor.
Indians also rank first in investments in Dubai’s real estate sector. Dubai Land Department data shows that more than 5,000 Indians have invested in Dubai’s real estate sector in 2019, pumping in more than Dh.10.89 billion.
The contribution of the Indian diaspora – which is also majorly involved in philanthropic works – was also mentioned by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit to the UAE. Modi, who has visited the UAE twice since 2014, said, “India is proud of the fact that more than 30 lakh Indians are part of the development process of Gulf countries.”
Modi will be visiting UAE in January 2022, the first foreign trip next year. He will also visit the India Pavilion during his trip to the Dubai Expo.
Lauding the contribution of the Indian diaspora in the growth of the UAE, Indian Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal, during his visit to Dubai in October this year, described each member of the Indian community as an “ambassador of India.”
“A diaspora as large as 3.5 million Indians in the UAE, serving this country well and have contributed immensely towards its growth.”
Lately, young second-generation Indians – armed with foreign degrees and tech know-how – are expanding their influence, either as entrepreneurs or as heirs to family businesses.
Fashion designer Ayesha Depala has made waves in the industry with her artful creations. Her designs are worn by some of the most famous celebrities across the world. The Luxury Closet, founded in 2011 by Kunal Kapoor, a luxury pre-owned goods marketplace, is high on the glamor quotient and is fast expanding. Ashish Panjabi is another rising star who runs Jacky’s Group of Companies, an electronics retail giant, in the UAE. John Paul Alukkas, who rose through the ranks, currently manages the Joyalukkas group’s international operations focusing on expansion. As the company, which has over 8,000 employees across 11 countries, seeks to grow further, the younger Alukkas – emulating his father Joy’s business sense – intends to carry on the legacy that includes jewelry, money exchange, fashion, and malls.
The rise of Indian entrepreneurs in the UAE is not only helping in enhancing diplomatic and trade relations between the two countries. It is also helping to further Indian interests in the Gulf region.
This article is part of a new series, Indiaspora Features, which commissions journalists to write about topics of interest for the global Indian diaspora.
Kavita Bajeli-Datt is an independent journalist associated with South Asia Monitor. She has worked in prominent Indian news organizations like IANS, PTI, and The Week where she wrote extensively on health, crime, politics, and art and culture.