DUBAI: "In the end it all boiled down to one question: Whether the commitment underpinning the country's vision was strong or not?" says Abdul Qader Al Accad, 73, Al Accad Group Chairman, as he looks back on his decision to relocate to the UAE from Syria.
The year was 1966 and Abdul Qader had just graduated from Moscow University with a degree in radio physics.
"Most of my peers were going to Germany or Canada, and there I was, flirting with the idea of moving to a city which many didn't even know existed," he says, settling in a swivel chair at his sprawling office overlooking Dubai's bustling airport.
Through the glass panes, dozens of planes can be seen taxiing on the runway - a stark contrast to the time when the linguist (Abdul Qader is proficient in five languages) arrived here on a month-long visit visa.
"Those days the airport had just one room. When I stepped out, I saw an asphalt road. Later I found that it was the only concrete road in the entire city. As a child I loved adventure, but nothing had prepared me for this.
"Days passed by and I was still undecided what I should do. Then one evening, some friends took me along to a majlis held by the country's leaders. It was a revelation. When I saw the unbridled ambition and steadfastness of Shaikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum [then Dubai Ruler], I was left in no doubt that Dubai was destined for something big. There was such simplicity and yet such sincerity in his vision that I was convinced about it. The decision was made - I was staying back."
Abdul Qader had a working capital of half a million Deutsche mark (approximately Dh300,000). He used it diligently to import building material and giant construction mixers through Port Rashid which had just opened at that time.
Bolstered by the discovery of oil, the once sleepy port of pearl divers was transforming into an important commercial hub.
Not wanting to miss out on a piece of the action, Abdul Qader expanded his business. "I started bringing perfumes and novelties from Europe. The women loved them. All my trading was done through the Government of Kuwait Office (presently the Kuwait Consulate, Bur Dubai) run by Shaikh Badar Mohammad Al Sabah. He used to hold a majlis every evening and I used to go there almost daily."
By the early '70s, Abdul Qader had become a reputed businessman. But his engineering degree didn't go entirely wasted. Whenever there was a power breakdown in Sharjah, Abdul Qader would drive down in his Land Rover to the Sharjah Electricity and Water Authority (Sewa) head office and fix the fault himself. "People find it hard to believe when I tell them that I used to double up as an electricity repair man for Sharjah," he says.
In 1975, Abdul Qader ventured into a new business - bakery.
"There was no bakery in the UAE those days, so I decided to set up one. I partnered with Sultan Al Owais and opened a small bakery on Zabeel Road with just five workers. We called it Modern Bakery. Today, it has over 2,000 workers and almost 500 delivery vehicles."
Over the years, Abdul Qader forayed into hotel supplies, ceramics and spare parts. Yet, despite his success, he remains self-effacing and humble.
"I guess I made the right choices. When I see all these swanky malls and restaurants, it's hard to believe it's the same city where I would struggle to find a proper eating joint. In the '70s, there was only one decent restaurant in town. It was called Sahara and it was located inside Shaikh Latifa Building at Al Nasr Square. Retrospectively I think it's not money but management that has made Dubai what it is now. The past few decades have passed like an unrealistic blur. We have come a long, long way, but I am still rooted in the past; I have not forgotten it," he says, digging out a worn out green hardbound document from a drawer.
It's a passport issued to him by the Government of Sharjah Dependency dated January 16, 1968. "I treasure it much in the same way I treasure all those wonderful memories."
1973The UAE dirham was issued as an official currency on May 19, 1973. Before that, most financial transactions were done through currencies of other countries.