He made Rs 5 selling bananas to co-passengers on his first trip to Dubai on a ship, way back in 1959. Today he is presiding over a multi-million dirham empire. The story of Abdul Mateen Dhamma is one of perseverance, opportunism and having a good nose for money, right from a young age. And it has UAE written all over it.
Having lived in adverse conditions, Abdul Mateen Dhamma had only one dream when he was a young boy - to make money and live a good life. His decision to move to Dubai in 1959 changed his life’s course.
At 77, he is currently the chairman of Dhamma Perfumes, a multi-million dirham business.
“For us, success did not come overnight. There was a great amount of hard work, patience and the need to excel in everything that we ventured into. Adhering to business ethics was equally, or perhaps, more important to us,” Abdul Mateen Dhamma said.
Even at this age, the battle-hardened businessman is not ready to sit back on laurels past. Instead, he is keen to pass on his work and business ethics to his family where three generations are now actively involved in the business. No wonder he is regarded by many as a frontrunner in UAE’s perfumery business.
Dhamma himself can be regarded as the second generation of the family in the UAE as his father Shaikh Mohammed Abdullah Dhamma came to Dubai and set up a small watch business way back in 1902.
“I am happy my father saw us growing as a family business empire before he passed away in 1984,” said Dhamma.
Setting foot in Dubai
Dhamma said, apart from his desire to improve his life, it was the Pakistani coup d'état in 1958 that changed his life completely. The then President of Pakistan Iskander Mirza abrogated the constitution of Pakistan and declared martial law. He was deposed by General Ayub Khan, then commander-in-chief of the Pakistani Army.
“My family was in financial distress and things were quite tough in my country, I wanted to escape from there as early as possible. My father – who was then working in Dubai, asked me to leave Karachi and come to work here. My father did my visa, bought me a ticket and I arrived here.”
On the day of the voyage, Dhamma befriended a fruit vendor who was selling bananas. He struck a deal with him to help sell these bananas on board. “It was an interesting journey. I knew people on board the ship would be hungry and were not carrying enough food to last the journey. So I started my journey selling bananas. In the end when I alighted the ship I had five rupees in my pocket, it felt good!”
Better prospects in Dubai
Coming from a coup d’etat back home in his country, Dhamma identified Dubai as a city of opportunities. “It was a hard life, but one with plenty opportunities. Prospects were definitely better here.”
Dhamma opened a small perfume shop in Murshid Bazaar in the early 1960s. “My father owned a watch shop but it was completely bankrupt when I came to Dubai. I saw an opportunity lying here for perfumes,” said Dhamma.
“Back in the days there were no sophisticated means of making perfumes. All I did was blend essential perfume oils with oud, attar which I sourced from Bombay to create a fragrance. It was not easy to blend oils. I had to create a fragrance that would appeal to one’s taste. With experience, I developed a nose for fragrances, I was able to create blends to suit each one’s taste,” he explained.
In 1963 Dhamma got a motor cycle license issued by the then British government. This helped him to move around the city and build a clientele.
The need of the hour
“Life was harsh back in the days. There was no electricity or water. The weather was hot and perfumes were quite the need of the hour to keep one feeling fresh and get through the day,” explained Dhamma.
Residents and the local population preferred oil-based perfumes, he said. “People loved the smell of oudh and attar. This was our base for all perfume blends and it continues to be so even today.”
Dhamma said he had no choice but to develop a good sense of smell. “There were no perfumery schools back then to help one identify blends. We used our instincts to recognise oils and their fragrances and today I can smell a perfume and say what blends have gone into its making.”
Life back then
When Dhamma arrived in Dubai, he was staying with his father in a small room with no electricity and water in Murshid Bazaar area, near the Souq Al Kabir in Deira. “It was a small house. There were no toilets, we used sand pits for our toilet needs. Good water was scarce and came with a price of 25 paise. Cans of water were placed on donkeys and delivered to house,” Dhamma recalled.
“Opposite to my house there was a carpentry shop. When the carpenter decided to move out, I set up a shop of perfumes there with limited variety and means. That was the stepping stone for my businesses to come.”
A fridge running on keroscene
Dhamma recalled the first ever fridge to make its way into UAE was powered by kerosene. It cost Rs 5,000 and was available on rent for people who wanted to use it.
Another interesting story that he shared was how Nasser Square was a hub for passengers to hire Land Rovers to travel to Sharjah. “There were no taxis. And it took a full hour to reach Sharjah. There were check-points and we had to show our identity to get inside.”
About Dhamma today
Dhamma Perfumes currently has two factories, one in Al Quoz spanning 25,000 square feet and one in Ras Al Khaimah spanning 60,000 square feet with complete manufacturing facilities set up. “We have a range of perfume manufacturing units and facilities with state-of-the-art equipment to create the scents people need. We make use of several advanced processes, equipment and quality standards to create our perfumes. Basically, we offer a complete solution starting from developing the fragrance to designing, manufacturing, and the logistics support required,” said Junaid, Dhamma’s eldest son who is Creative and Production Head in the company.
Dhamma perfumes is into private labelling for multinationals and big brands. “We create fragrances for others. We do have our own brand of perfumes but our forte is in creating perfumes for others. We are working with key brand names of the world as well as celebrities from the world,” explained Bilal, Dhamma’s second son who is the Sales and Marketing Head of the company.
Surviving the pandemic
Junaid said keeping overheads low has helped their company sail through the pandemic. “We are a family owned business work with specific ethics set by my father. The business ethos continues down to the generation. My son who recently joined the business also is getting a complete overview of how we as a family run our business.”
He said up until today the ethos set by his father stands tall in the family-run business. Today we are not retail oriented, however, we create our fusions and blends and send our products to certified companies who create the perfume for us. Our revenues come from bulk exports with Saudi Arabia, India, Pakistan being some of our largest markets.”