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Mohammed Mohebi, left, and Mahmood Mohebi, grandson and son of Baqer Mohebi respectively, during an interview with Gulf News. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

When Baqer Mohebi opened a small shop selling essential items way back in 1931 on the Creekside in Bur Dubai, he was in his early twenties. Through the years, the small shop grew into a massive empire that is now Zainal Mohebi Holdings. All thanks to the hard work by his son the late Zainal who was as young as nine years old when he started working for his father. In 1967, a 27-year-old Zainal took over the family business, when his father Baqer Mohebi passed away. The rest, as they say, is history.

Those who have lived in the UAE long enough would be aware of the legacy of late Baqer Mohebi, father of the late Zainal.

The Baqer Mohebi supermarkets are synonymous with huge discounts on snacks and grocery items. They are popular for the Dh1 deals in the shops on select items. The food outlet established in 1931 by Baqer Mohebi was one of only 15 shops set up back then in Dubai.

Ahmed Ramzan and Irish Eden R. Belleza/Gulf News

Zainal Baqer Mohebi, man behind the success of Baqer Mohebi Enterprises and its parent company Zainal Mohebi Holdings, passed away on July 11, 2019.

His son Mohammed Zainal Baqer Mohebi, 49, CEO of Zainal Mohebi Holdings, recalls how he made this family-owned business a success over the years.

Zainal's son Mohammed and his brother Mahmood Baqer Zainal Mohebi, board of directors at Zainal Mohebi Holdings give an insight into the legacy of Baqer and Zainal Mohebi in the UAE.

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Mohammed Mohebi, grandson of Baqer Mohebi, during an interview with Gulf News. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

Baqer Mohebi: The man who started it all 

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Baqer Mohebi (File photo)

The original shop Baqer Mohebi opened in Bur Dubai was close to where the British Bank of Middle East (BBME) was located.

Mahmood says his father Baqer was a philosopher of sorts. “He used to read a lot of philosophical books. During his travel, he came up with ideas and concepts. He was a visionary and saw things ahead of his times.”

“Zainal, who was the oldest boy among the siblings, used to hang around in my father’s shop and help him with his day to day activities. Unfortunately, my father died at a young age, and Zainal, given his experience and wisdom took over the business,” Mahmood said.

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Mahmood Mohebi, son of Baqer Mohebi. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

Dr. Zainal Baqer Mohebi: The man who took it to new heights

While Baqer Mohebi was the one who started the family business, it was really his son Dr. Zainal Baqer Mohebi, who was a visionary of sorts took the family business to the next level. “He was a very hard-working man. I would often find his blanket in his office, meaning he worked long hours and used to take power naps in the office,” said his son Mohammed.

He recalled his father’s financial challenges during his business career and said, “He always bounced back, which he did so by staying in the game, innovating business strategies and having a vision for the company and the community as a whole.”

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Zainal Baqer Mohebi, son of Baqer Mohebi

“My father would tell me not to listen to rumours. People will talk, he said, and their answers would come in time. Instead of wasting time brooding over his troubles, Zainal put his heart and soul in making his business a successful venture,” said Mohammed.

“Human beings are emotional, but the important tool is to limit our reactions as much as possible. I know that in his case, he had to rebuild himself twice – which is quite an achievement,” he said.

“That’s what set him apart,” he said.

Mohammed said he learnt much from his father’s accomplishments, but also paid attention to things where he could improve.

Passionate inspiration

Zainal loved cigars, and this is what prompted the Baqer Mohebi Enterprise (BME) to launch a tobacco division 50 years ago. “He loved cigars himself and he brought the cigar culture to UAE,” Mohammed said. Mohammed recalled how 80 per cent of the cold storage in their old kitchen was stacked with cigars. “He loved them so much.”

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Zainal Baqer Mohebi with late Cuban leader Fidel Castro

Zainal introduced Habanos, the world’s best hand-rolled cigars which showed his passion for Cuban cigars, Mohammed said. Today, the company distributes cigars throughout the UAE and Oman.

As a result, in 1988, the first exclusive retail chain for premium Cuban cigars, La Casa Del Habano opened in the UAE. Today there are six stores across the region – in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Dubai Duty Free Zone and Muscat in Oman.

Zainal Mohebi Holdings

The company is a conglomeration of companies based in Dubai with diverse interests in the high-growth industries of food distribution, international freight management, real estate and other related businesses.

Within the holding company, Baqer Mohebi Enterprises, specialists in the UAE for the distribution and marketing of consumer goods (FMCGs), is well known to the residents of the UAE and the likes of visitors from all over the world.

What is sweeter is a fact that this homegrown business from the UAE has remained within the family.
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A Baqer Mohebi shop back in the early days

An anecdote to remember

“My father loved Hoyo de Monterrey brand of cigars. It was a very long cigar. I remember my father would cut it into half and smoke it. I asked him why he did so, as the whole point of a long cigar was to smoke it that way.”

His father replied that when he first brought cigars to Dubai he smoked Romeo y Julieta. His friends would make fun of him saying he was sticking a long thing into his mouth. The habit of cutting the long cigar into two came from this incident.

“Nobody understood cigars, but he turned the whole concept around. He single handedly created a cigar culture in the UAE. However, he initially brought the cigar for himself. I would know my father was in the house by the smell of the cigar,” said Mohammed.

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Mohammed Mohebi, left, and Mahmood Mohebi, grandson and son of Baqer Mohebi, during an interview with Gulf News. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

Mohebi Centre

Another pioneering work by Zainal was establishing the first departmental store in the UAE – the Mohebi Centre. “It was in Bur Dubai near the Astoria hotel. It was very famous those days,” Mahmood said.

“On the ground floor, there was a supermarket and a shop with toys, perfumes, household appliances among others. We had major brands partnering with us,” he said.

Mohammed added, “I remember the Mohebi Centre was very popular back in the days. Bollywood personalities visiting Dubai would make a stop at the Centre. Even after we closed the premises, we would receive offers from major companies asking us if we were interested in representing them.”

More than just a businessperson: Zainal

Mohammed said his father Zainal was more than just a businessperson. “He was a patriot and worked hard to establish commercial bi-lateral relations between the UAE and the Soviet Union. What was special about him was that he was a visionary. He was always ahead of his time.”

Zainal passed away in 2019 after a long illness.

Fast forward to Mohammed’s journey

Mohammed joined the family business in 1994, after completing his studies in Geneva, Switzerland. He graduated from the College du Leman, Switzerland and then pursued higher education in Business Administration at the European University, Switzerland. He also did numerous training programs, including the Leadership Management module at IMD, Lausanne, Switzerland and at the London Business School (LBS).

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Mohammed Mohebi with Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, President of the Dubai Civil Aviation Authority and CEO of Emirates Image Credit: Supplied

“My foundation has been strong. There were principles laid down by my father. I learnt many of his values, but I also learnt from his mistakes. I could not feel more blessed to be part of the family.”

Falling in love with Switzerland

He recalled falling in love with Switzerland during his high school and university days. “I went there for my high school and when I told my father that I wanted to go back and study in the country for my under-graduation, he was more than happy to send me back.”

Joining the family business

Soon after joining the company, Mohammed became Secretary General of the group until his appointment as the CEO of the company in 2002.

In 2005, Mohammed founded Mohebi Investments becoming its chairman and CEO. He ventured into logistics and supply chain management area with the Mohebi Logistics initiative, establishing the benchmark for the sector.

Today, Mohammed is responsible for overseeing the operations of the Group. He also serves as vice-Chairman and board member of the Group joint venture companies. Mohammed oversees the formulation of the policies and procedures that provide the group with the blueprint for conducting business.

Keeping the company strategy

Mohammed said the company’s historical strategy was not to go into retail in a big way. “The strategy was to go to food services, agency lines and so forth. Of course my father also established businesses in other areas like shipping and real estate.”