Dubai: Getting a driving licence in the UAE calls for a celebration for many. However, an Indian expat recently celebrated getting his Dubai driving licence 45 years ago. He also claimed he has driven for an estimated 2 million km since then without causing any accidents.
Esmail Pillai Salim was about six months shy of 20 when he received his driving licence on May 31, 1977, he told Gulf News.
“It was a Tuesday,” recollected Salim, chairman of Total Freight International, a shipping and logistics company in Dubai.
“Forty-five years later, May 31 this year also fell on a Tuesday. I had first left my home in Kerala on a Tuesday and I flew into Dubai after spending some days in Bombay (now Mumbai) again on a Tuesday on February 10, 1976,” he said about the coincidental significance of Tuesday in his life.
After his arrival, Salim said he worked briefly with an insurance company and Gray Mackenzie but it was when he joined the Gulf Agency Company that he felt the need to get a driving licence.
“They had just started the air freight division’s operations. That is when I realised I needed a driving licence and a car,” said Salim, who has preserved his learner’s licence with him.
When driving became a necessity
Salim said those were the days when there was booming business at Port Rashid.
“Ships used to queue up to offload loose cargo in boxes. Container service was unheard of in those days. Cargo boxes were offloaded in different berths based on the space available to offload the loose cargo. Berths were very far. Sometimes a ship would offload half of the cargo boxes in berth one near Dubai Dry Docks area and then go to berth number 14 where Hyatt Regency Hotel in Deira is now. It was a tedious task to take out the boxes belonging to our clients from the heaps of boxes.”
He continued, “I had to first check and verify the boxes in the first load of cargo and then walk all the way up to the next berth to locate the remaining pieces. It was only after confirming the entire order’s arrival that I could book a truck to go to both the locations and collect the cargo. The driver of the open trailer would have a helper with him in his cabin. So, I had to sit on top of the cargo boxes and hold on to the slings used to tie them up. I could fall off anytime had the driver not been careful. After delivery, I had to get signatures from those in charge of collecting the goods.”
Salim said he also had to visit different government entities for documentation works.
“Taking a company car and driver with me for all these works was not always feasible. That is why I decided to go for driving classes,” said Salim.
How driving classes were in those days
There was no Roads and Transport Authority back then and driving tests were under Dubai Police. “We had to book classes for a month at a driving institute.
He said, “Driving classes at the time were mostly about giving the learner the confidence to use the steering and drive the manual cars. There was no signal test. There were hardly six-seven road signs. Still I failed in the first two tests and cleared the third one.”
Salim said he felt like clearing the tough civil services exam in India. “It was like getting IAS (Indian Administrative Service). That licence was a huge turning point in my life. It created a positive impact in my life. It changed my image at the company. My role and position changed. Even the most senior people and my brothers, who had been here for several years, didn’t have one. They didn’t feel the necessity. Some had bike licences and also depended on the Dubai Municipality bus that would take you around Dubai for 25 fils. Even my elder brother Kassim Pillai, who was a senior officer with the customs department, used to take the bus.”
New car, new life
Salim worked hard and bought a car with his hard-earned money in the same year. “That was a Datsun 120Y, which was new in the market. Buying that car with Dh11,000 hard cash meant a lot for a 20-year-old. Had I had Dh2,000 more, I could have gone for one with the ac. Imagine driving around at 50 degrees. But it was a fight for survival.”
With his licence and car, Salim not just survived, but thrived in his profession. He was promoted as the air freights manager and his salary and benefits also went up.
“Weekend trips were a big luxury. Friends and family enjoyed those trips in my car. Driving was an entirely different experience because the roads were not like this. The number of cars was very less. There was hardly any radar camera or speed limit signs. I remember seeing camel warnings often.”
He recollected driving on the newly built Garhoud Bridge and also through the Al Shindagha tunnel built under the sea as special experiences.
Cause for celebration
“Every area related to my job became very easy. It was a big thing. That is why I value my licence so much and decided to celebrate 45 years of getting it,” he said.
The licence stood him in good stead also when he changed companies and later on started his own business in 1991.
With his family by his side, Salim cut a cake carrying the image of his licence that shows his date of birth, the date of issue of his first licence and the date of expiry of the last renewed license on May 30, 2022. “I got my license renewed on May 31. For the first time, it was renewed for five years. My first license was for two years and all other renewal was for 10 years. Earlier, we had to surrender our old licences when we went for renewal.”
With a penchant for cars, Salim has owned many over the four decades. Those included Mazda 626, Mitsubishi Pajero, Volvo 940 GLE, Mercedes-Benz ML 500, Mercedes-Benz G55, said Salim.
“Currently, we have a Maserati, Peugeot and Lexus at home,” he said.
Though he confesses that he has received minor traffic fines, Salim said he considers having an accident-free driving experience as a blessing. “That does not mean I drive very slow. I can reach Abu Dhabi in 55 minutes. But I am very careful and agile,” the grandfather of one said with a smile.