Who says history books have to be a prosaic and plodding read? When narrated by people who actually made history or if the stage for the tale is set in the region one lives in, the subject is fascinating, even addictive.

Fly Buy Dubai, a 500-page tome on the 25 glorious years of the Dubai Duty Free, belongs to the latter category. Published by Media Prima, a Dubai-based publishing company, the book succinctly captures the essence of Dubai Duty Free and how it came to be an icon of sorts not just in the region but even internationally.

The title of the book is the catchy advertising campaign slogan, the first that was coined when Dubai Duty Free came into being in the mid-80s.

The author, Graeme Wilson, packs his work with plenty of anecdotes and pictures tracing the evolution of the Duty Free in Dubai and how the vision of the Rulers of the emirate and the enthusiasm of the people behind the project synchronised to deliver a marketing and retail miracle.

After the first few chapters on Ireland and the origin of the Duty Free concept in the late '40s at Shannon International Airport in Dublin, Wilson takes the reader straight into the thrilling challenge that 10 Irishmen from Aer Rianta – including Colm McLoughlin, John Sutcliffe, George Horton and Brendan O'Shea – undertook under the able guidance of visionaries like Shaikh Ahmad bin Saeed Al Maktoum, President of Dubai Civil Aviation Authority and Chairman and CEO of Emirates Group and Mohi-Din Binhendi, the then Director General of Dubai Department of Civil Aviation.

McLoughlin, Sutcliffe, Horton and O'Shea, who arrived in the UAE in September 1983, had less than four months to pull off this project.Recalls McLoughlin: "From day one we worked from 7.30am through to the early hours of the following morning. There wasn't time to get to know our surroundings – we had a massive challenge and a short time span to achieve it in."

The team was given a cramped, windowless area near a disused kitchen to set up their office. Here they set to work putting in place the various departments of marketing, recruitment, advertising and sales.

Wilson's description of the last few hours before the opening of the Duty Free pulsates with excitement and high energy: "When the green light was given, the escalator leading down from the passenger area to the Duty Free powered into action. After a few moments and without realising that they were making history and ushering in a new era for Dubai, a crowd of passengers took the 15-second ride down the escalator.

A few minutes later the first-ever purchases were made in this brand new world-class shopper's haven."
Passages like these are plentiful in the book and give the reader a feel of having a ringside view to the exciting events that led to the formation of the world's best Duty Free.

That was on December 2, 1983.
Dubai was then a little-known place. But that did not deter the Rulers from thinking big – from going all out with the opening of its first Duty Free shop in a smaller airport and making history.

Wilson, a specialist in biographies, says: "There were similarities between the Irish situation and that of Dubai. Both had built their economies from nothing. The Shannon airport free trade zone was doing very well and in Dubai it was ... Shaikh Maktoum bin Hasher Al Maktoum who created the world's first free trade zone and laid the foundation of Dubai Duty Free."

What has the writing of the book taught him? "Every book I write has been a learning experience for me,'' says Wilson. "The early chapters of the book draw parallels between Dubai and Ireland and the vision of its respective leaders in capitalising on whatever opportunities they had.
His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, started the DDF venture. It's a prime lesson in knowing what vision he had for Dubai and it became a trademark for his modus operandi in every other venture.

"I think DDF is all about looking at the Dubai brand. Tennis, horse racing, powerboat racing... [the Rulers] have done a lot for all these sports. DDF today has a turnover of $1.2 billion which is perhaps higher than the GDP of about 160 small countries," he says.
Apart from writing biographies, Wilson, who is in love with the UAE, feels he owes his success and the honing of his writing abilities to this country.

A school dropout from northeast England, Wilson had a passion for horse racing. "I never thought I would become a writer. The only claim I could lay to writing was having had the privilege of editing my school magazine. I dropped out of school at 16 and turned to all sorts of activities at 17. When my friends were making £30 a week, I was making £50 a day. I was always passionate about horses and in those days the Al Maktoum family was well-known in the world of horse racing in England and Ireland.

"By 1992 they announced that horse racing was going professional in Dubai. "I decided to visit Dubai since I had heard so much about it. I arrived here in May 1992 and was struck by the beauty and simplicity of the place.
I lived on Diyafah Street and was so taken up by the energy and buzz here that I decided to stay back.'' Wilson joined a local newspaper where he was "given half a page on horse racing.

"The salary was nominal, the work back breaking. As an apprentice I had to rewrite most of the press releases. [The news editor I was working under] killed my enthusiasm and dumped me into drudgery, but I owe my editing skills to him. He taught me to look for news and to be an economical writer," recalls Wilson, who got married soon after and launched his publishing career with a book on horse racing, followed by the biography of Shaikh Zayed, a book on Emirates airline and later the book on Dubai Duty Free.
Wilson has written close to 30 books in nine years. He feels honoured to have had a chance to write Fly Buy Dubai. "I felt greatly honoured when I was approached a year ago to do the book," he says.

There were no history books or research bureaus to turn to, to source information on DDF so Wilson pieced together the story anecdote by anecdote after interviewing scores of people who had a role to play in the making of the Dubai Duty Free.

"Most of it was gleaned from the long hours of interviews I had with the founding members. I sat with Colm for five hours and produced 50 pages of manuscript. George's inputs were very helpful as he narrated anecdotes on how it was pulled off.

"Then there were the other founding fathers such as Shaikh Ahmad bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Salah Tahlak, Tournament Director, Dubai Duty Free and Mohi-Din Binhendi who recreated those scenes from the past for me. The book thus is peppered with anecdotes from these men," he says.

One of the most interesting episodes in the book is the arrival of Imelda Marcos, the then First Lady of the Philippines at the Dubai Duty Free in the first year of its opening. Known for her extravagant tastes, the First Lady did not disappoint the sales staff. In less than half an hour, she bought goods worth $20,000.

Wilson writes: "Her presence was almost a dream come true for the Dubai Duty Free. It had been only a few months since representatives of Aer Rianta had huddled with Rodney Fitch, the renowned retail designer, to come up with a modern and inviting concept for their new facility. And now, just four weeks after the opening, their vision was being endorsed by the world's most famous shopper.

"Within 25 minutes, Imelda had clocked up $20,000 in purchases, all packed into a dozen bags carried by her assistants. Before leaving the floor, polite to a fault, she left $100 in tips for 12 or so of the staff."

Wilson, whose company Media Prima has published 30 titles since 1996, all written by him and edited by
a host of editors, feels he owes his success to his wife, Lara Marrouch, an astute businesswoman who runs the publishing company with an iron hand. He also has great regard for the editors who polish and prune his style.
Among one of his most loved books is a biography of the former Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. "I am a great admirer of the lady. She is sharp and has a certain aura around her. I was in Sri Lanka for precisely six weeks to get the book ready."

He also feels privileged to have written the authorised biographies of some of the Rulers of the UAE. What is the secret to his prolific writing? Wilson feels there is no set formula or method to the madness of writing. He tries his best to strike a balance between academics and anecdotes.

"There is no programme of planning of chapters. I simply sit down and begin writing. The radio is always on, I like the interruption and love the hustle and bustle in the office. I cannot write in isolation.

"My books aren't whole-heartedly academic. In fact they are bright and sparky and anecdotal. "The DDF is a fantastic story. It is a contemporary story and I received tremendous support from people who were involved with it."

Although his spontaneity as a writer is definitely a plus point, Wilson feels humbled at the opportunity Dubai gave him and is planning to launch himself as a fiction writer as well. "I am not a trained writer and I am recording the fortunes and history of a country; I am a nobody. I am currently halfway through a huge novel based on the Dead Sea Scrolls, a quasi fiction that I intend to publish by the end of this year."

Fly Buy Dubai is available at leading bookstores in the UAE.

– Suchitra Bajpai Chaudharyis Senior Feature Writer, Friday