About 120 years ago, at the start of the 20th century, Dubai was already a centre for fishing, pearling and trade. Its natural harbour had accorded it the status of a small port, but after the Dubai Creek was dredged in the 1950s, the waterway saw a boom in shipping, and resulting increase in trade, re-exports and cargo handling. After oil was discovered in Dubai in 1966, revenues were wisely channelled into vital infrastructure: roads, schools, hospitals, and more ports.
According to government statistics, Dubai had a population of some 20,000 by the 1930s, a fourth of whom were expatriates. Some stumbled into small scale trade, others followed family tradition, and the rest fortuitously found their foothold. But their muddling world of business was so far removed from what it is today, it sounds implausible.
Mahesh Taurani, Director of Indigo Properties, is an avid story teller. “My dad was among the first Indians to land here in 1950, and I reached in 1959 when I was six months old. My earliest memories of Dubai are from around 1965, when water smelt of kerosene and the local currency was the Indian rupee,” he says.
“Business wise, Dubai was very small, very humble. Even if someone was lucky enough to have an agency (representation of an international brand or service), the numbers were small and the profits were meagre. Like everyone around us, we had no clue what to do, but the atmosphere was such that you could falter, but still succeed,” he reminisces. The Tauranis were in the textile business before branching out into other industries.
Dubai’s rise to prominence as a global business capital is rooted in stories of a small community of pioneering businessmen, and built on the qualities of trust and mutual respect. Today’s multinational corporations operating from gleaming skyscrapers are a far cry from the handful of visionary entrepreneurs who passionately believed in the region’s then imperceptible economic fundamentals. Alongside expatriates who settled in the fishing villages on the edge of this arid desert were local businessmen motivated by a desire to help community, and not just personal profit.
When Abdullah Al Ghurair founded Mashreq in 1967 – then known as Bank of Oman – he and his brother were driven in large part by these shared values as they sought to serve the small businesses at the souq, or marketplace, in Deira. For several decades, Dubai’s business world revolved around the 300-odd shops of the souq located alongside the Deira side of the city’s creek.
In her book, The Adventures of a Girl Wearing Pearls, British expatriate Jan Constable chronicles her experience of 1970s Dubai, which she recounts as “varying between terrifying, amusing and amazing”.
Her notes on business networking certainly encompass all three emotions: “In those days in Dubai, the only way to become acquainted with people operating in the business community was to meet them at social gatherings. These parties also enabled the attendees to quietly size up the opposition from a business point of view,” she writes. “It was very necessary to grasp the great mystery of just how a list of guests for a said party was drawn up, but these gatherings were all about making useful business contacts. One seemed to be at everyone’s mercy navigating these social minefields of business.”
Besides social norms and niceties, unwritten codes governed the business world of the era. “In those days, business was about making a living, not about making a fortune,” explains Rashed Ashraf, CEO of Eastern Trust and the ETC Group, and one of Mashreq’s first clients (his corporate account number was 002). “Actions and transactions spoke louder than words.”
His late father, Mohammad Ashraf Amin founded Eastern Trade Corporation in 1965 to trade physical gold and silver. With help from Mashreq, the company participated in GSA and IMF auctions and sales valued at more than $1.2 billion (Dh4.4 billion), and became one of the first South Asian members of the Commodities Exchange Inc (COMEX) in New York in 1972.
“The ethics, values and morality of that time were very high; once a commitment was made, it was made. Sometimes, after confirming an order, the price would go up or down substantially, but no one went back on their commitment even if it meant reduced profits or a loss. Your word was your bond,” he says, describing his father’s relationship with contemporary businesses and partners.
Arriving a little later than the others, Jacky Panjabi, managing director of Jacky's Group of Companies, recalls the business proposition of Dubai in 1985, which compelled him to make three visits in that year, and open a mini office on the third trip. His family firm had savoured success for 15 years in Hong Kong, the city he called home, but Dubai encouraged them to expand their markets and operations. “We started a humble office in Al Nasr Square, where we still have a showroom, and it remains my favourite. It was a one-man show, but success comes only with hard work, and I used to work 18 to 20 hours every day.
“Business conditions then were different and difficult, especially when I compared it to Hong Kong,” he says, and his recalled list includes the hassles of finding a trustworthy sponsor, the lack of metered taxis and English-speaking drivers, a lackadaisical approach to conducting transactions, and unusual business hours which included a four-hour break in the afternoons.
Panjabi also describes the Deira souq, adjacent to which he opened their first multi-brand showroom in 1988. “There were small stores, each selling a single company’s products, and the owners manned these stores themselves. All buying and all business was conducted in the souq at the time; unlike today, there were no choices for consumers.”
Among the many stories these men narrate lies a common thread that unites them and their empires. When the Bank of Oman was founded, it weaved in seamlessly into the world of local business, more as a trusted and reliable partner than an institution that offered a source of finance, and financial safety. Fifty years later, in its current avatar as Mashreq, the bank still holds fond memories for some of its earliest customers who say it bailed them out, stood by them in tough times, and shared their success as they continued to grow. Some of these stories are encapsulated in the bank’s recent golden jubilee documentary, The Journey to Possible.
Rashed Ashraf has carefully saved the banking ledgers dating back to the 1970s and 1980s, and he is proud to display a substantial letter of credit issued by Bank of Oman, when his family business needed it the most.
Jacky Panjabi speaks volubly of his longstanding relationship with Mashreq, which started in 1982 in Hong Kong. “A sister company, Oman International Finance, had helped us considerably when we were establishing our wholesale business in Hong Kong, and when I reached Dubai I paid a courtesy call to the bank. Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair (CEO of Mashreq) met me personally, and assured me of ongoing support, and we started an account here too.
“This has grown and beneficially to both parties, and they are truly a partner for our business.”
Mahesh Taurani recounts a poignant tale of the relationship between his father and the founder and Chairman of Mashreq, dating back several decades. As a witness to incidents related to a serious financial crisis in the family firm, he says it is personal concern and the generous assistance offered by the bank that bailed them out of the situation.
“We got an umbrella from Abdullah Al Ghurair when we were truly drowning, and since then we have never looked back. I remain deeply obliged.”