Dubai: India and the UAE share a long history. Relations between the two countries are said to be in a golden phase at the moment. They are the best ever, as some would think so. But know this, it has always been the case.
The numbers are there for all to see.
Total trade between India and the UAE stood at $50 billion in 2017, with exports from India to the UAE amounting to $28 billion, while India’s imports from the UAE reached $22 billion. The energy sector ties have morphed into a strategic partnership in energy security, with both countries investing in each other’s energy sector. Both countries are trying to move forward in nuclear energy by institutionalising cooperation with the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation and the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation.
India and the UAE are also exploring the possibility of enhancing cooperation in renewable energy.
India and the UAE are discussing cooperation in the establishment of logistical hubs, cold storage, warehousing and more, to operationalise the food corridor between the two countries. Agricultural exports from India and projects in the food processing industry were discussed during the sixth High Level Task Force for Investments (HLTFI) meeting in Mumbai in October 2018. Relevant business groups from the UAE and Indian states, including Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat, are in discussion to cooperate in operationalising the food corridor as early as possible.
The proposed food corridor will help in ensuring food security for the UAE, as it will get the best quality agricultural products at cheaper prices. It will also create opportunities for joint research and development in the agriculture sector.
The food corridor will help in increasing the earnings of Indian farmers. It will also help generate approximately 200,000 jobs in India as per initial estimates while increasing Indian food exports to the UAE to $7 billion per year.
All the achievement you see has been a co-operative effort by UAE nationals and Indian expats who worked closely to help shape the country.
Indians lived in the UAE for decades, some even for centuries, as they were part of the pre-Federation era where life was simple and hard, but one filled with a dream and vision.
On the occasion of the UAE’s 48th National Day, we bring you some interesting pre-Federation stories from Indian stalwarts, who were very much part of the UAE’s growth.
Mohan Jashanmal Jhangiani: Strong bond and trust between Arabs and Indians
If we had to put a finger on one factor that made the coordinated and co-operative efforts from the two countries to successfully shape the UAE, it would be ‘trust’, says Mohan Jashanmal Jhangiani, shareholder of Jashanmal Group of Companies and patriarch of the Indian community.
“There has always been a strong bond forged between Arabs and Indians. We go a long way and have maintained a close relationship. Back in the days, in business, there was no concept of letter of credit (LC). The guarantee was a strand of hair from a man’s beard,” explained Jashanmal.
“The hair would be safely tucked into a loin cloth. The name of the man taking credit would be written on the cloth. This was the guarantee. When the debt was met, the man’s strand of hair would be returned to him. This was the level of trust we shared between each other. That is why we are friends even today.”
Citing an old incident with the late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Jashanmal said: “The UAE leaders mingled with us like friends and family. Till today that relationship stands. It is a very beautiful feeling,” he said.
“I remember the late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan would come sit in my shop and chat with us. I cannot forget how during one of his visits, he asked me to give him pictures of gardens and tall buildings. He had a dream to see Abu Dhabi green with tall buildings. Look at the city now, it is green and beautiful. Not just Abu Dhabi, but Al Ain, Dubai, Sharjah, and the rest of the emirates, which are all so well landscaped and green. He [the late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan] was a visionary and I am so proud to have been able to interact with him closely.”
Recognising Jashanmal’s efforts in shaping the retail sector of Abu Dhabi, on March 11, 1991, the Indian businessman received a letter from the UAE government granting him, his wife and children permanent residence in the country.
In an interview with Gulf News, Jashanmal however, said that all this was not handed on a silver platter. He had to work his way up the ladder. But if it were not for the support from the UAE leaders and visionaries, nothing would have been possible.
Jashanmal loves the UAE so much that you will often find him wearing the dishdasha. “I love wearing my dish-dash, it connects me to the UAE. I had a very close friend who was the head of police. He used to wear his uniform during the day and dish-dash in the evening. I followed the same. Today, people call me Mohan of Arabia, like Lawrence of Arabia. In fact, a lot of people don’t recognise me in my western clothes anymore,” said the Indian.
Ram Buxani : “UAE rulers always maintained an open door policy.”
Popular Indian businessman, a veteran entrepreneur and chairman of a 60-year-old business conglomerate ITL Cosmos Group, said having an open door policy helped strengthen relations between India and the UAE. “Together we worked hard to see where the UAE is today. It would not have been possible if the rulers did not have an open-door policy. They freely interacted with Indians and shared their vision. It is a beautiful relationship we share,” said Buxani.
“The UAE National Day is indeed significant in the lives of its nationals and other citizens. It speaks a lot about the country’s leadership which has spared no efforts to see that national wealth is used for the betterment of the society at large,” he said.
Buxani said back in the days, the late Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, father of His Highness Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, would sit in the customs house himself to monitor people arriving in the city. He would begin his day as early as 5am and take a tour of the city in an open jeep and return to his Majlis by 6.30pm. “He had an open-door policy and anybody could visit him in his Majlis to discuss any issue.”
It is this open door policy that led to the growth of the nation.
Electricity: A milestone achieved through this open door policy
“Definitely, it was this policy that led to several milestones for the country. There was limited electricity in Dubai in 1959. So forget air-conditioners, fridge or any fancy lights. Everyone had a kerosene lamp at home and a hand-held fan. Nobody complained of the heat, it was just a way of life. At 6pm, a policeman would come knocking on the doors of establishments to ensure everyone had left the premises. The city would sleep by 6.30pm. Something unimaginable about Dubai [now],” Buxani explained.
In 1958, a company, Indo Arab Electricity Company with five shareholders, was formed to provide electricity in the city. One of the shareholders was Buxani’s company International Traders (Middle East) Limited.
This was a couple of years before electricity became available in the city.
Ramesh Shukla: "My life changed overnight thanks to the late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan."
Another Indian stalwart, Ramesh Shukla recalls how his life changed overnight after a chance meeting with the late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan.
Shukla came to the UAE in 1965 with Rs.55 in his pocket, little food in a bag, barely enough to last him through the five-day long voyage on a boat from Bombay to Sharjah, a Rolleicord camera clutched close to his chest.
Today he is a success story. But it was only three years after arriving in Sharjah that he got his first big break. Popularly referred to as the ‘royal photographer’, this famous lens man made a mark for himself with his amazing clicks – whether they were capturing the life of a common man who lived with grace and honour in the undeveloped Trucial States of Oman, candid and formal pictures of the royals and government leaders, or the changing landscape of the UAE through the decades. Shukla’s photos are all over Dubai today. It’s his photography you’ll see in Dubai's metro stations and in Etihad Museum.
Shukla said his first break-through came in 1968 at the first Sharjah camel race. “I was a freelance photographer. My friend asked me to take pictures of the event. I bought a cycle costing Rs.18 just for the race. I made the trip from Dubai to Sharjah on my cycle. I cannot imagine this now. But that is how life was decades ago.”
“The brief given to me was to click pictures of the ‘Sheikhs’ attending the race. I was really excited and looked every bit the shutterbug on the job.”
“I was a freelance photographer. That night I went home and developed the film. The next morning, I cycled back to the race and showed some of the pictures I had taken. The late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan was impressed and he congratulated me on my work. He signed one of my pictures and said, you are ‘fannan’ (an artist). My happiness knew no bounds. That is how my work slowly became recognised and rest is history as they say,” Shukla said.
“Where else in the world can you find leaders closely interacting with the country’s citizens and residents,” said Shukla.
Shukla has captured the essence of life. Whether images of the founding fathers, formal or informal, Bedouins and their way of life, photographs of a changing landscape of the Trucial States and later the UAE, this lens man recorded history through his pictures.
We found some very striking as they showed us life that we have never seen before in the UAE. Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, leading an impressive lineup of camels (1970), the Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum opening the Dubai museum (1971), a man carrying water cans on his back in Nasser Square (1966), a Bedouin and his donkey resting in front of a house near Satwa (1968) or an aerial photograph of the Dubai creek (late 1960s).
Among other photographs we found one with Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum sipping a glass of tea, as well as countless images of Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan clicked by Shukla.
We also loved seeing a photo of His Highness Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, in uniform back in 1980 or the young Sheikh Ahmad Bin Saeed Al Maktoum sitting and watching the Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum receiving Eid greetings.
“The UAE was always a beautiful country and continues to be. It is nothing less than magical as to how the country developed into a modern place. I feel honoured and blessed to have been able to capture the growth of UAE. I will never stop clicking. It is what I love doing most.”
Vasu Shroff : “My family has lived here for centuries, that tells you about Indo-UAE relations.”
A century is a long time for history to build up and events to unfold. And Vasu Shroff’s family have lived in Dubai for two.
At a time when it was unheard of people leaving India to come and work in a foreign land, Shroff’s grandfather took the bold step to get out of his comfort zone to come and work in Dubai. That was in the 19th century.
In 1952, when Shroff’s father summoned him to come and join the family textile business - even though he was in college – he jumped at the idea. He was on a boat headed to Dubai a week later.
“My family has always been in the trading business. Having said that, the real success came only much later for all of us, mostly after the UAE became a federation. Before that, life was hard in Dubai and saving every fil was critical.”
Today, Shroff is a respected name in the Indian community and chairman of a multi-billion dollar company. He is fondly regarded as the ‘youngest old man’ of the non-resident-Indians (NRIs) from the UAE. Shroff is chairman of the Regal Group of companies, heading the company’s subsidiaries Regal Traders, mainly into textile industry; Regal International, a pioneer of sports technology; Regal Technologies, catering to the satellite market; and the Regal Group of Investments, a financial company based in Dubai. Regal Traders, the predominant business of the company has 12 branches across Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Ras Al Khaimah.
He is one of the few expats credited with shaping Dubai into the city it has become. From piles of sand to modern skyscrapers, Shroff’s growth has paralleled that of Dubai's.
It may be a 66-year-old story, but the memory of Shroff's first steps in to Dubai are still fresh.
Shroff recalled Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum welcoming businessmen to the UAE with open arms. He is said to have laid a special trust in the Indian Bhatia community who were predominantly traders and businessmen. Recalling an incident, he said: “I had a friend who worked as an advisor to British Bank. He was in Dubai to do a study on Indian businessmen in order to calculate the lending potential to them.”
“When he visited the shops he was in a complete fix. None of us employed auditors and financiers in our shops. There was no balance sheet, ledgers, to keep a record of income and expenses. Most of us maintained accounts in note books and they were hand-written in our native language for our convenience. So when this banker went with a concern to Sheikh Rashid to seek his advise on the lending criteria, the ruler said to blindly trust Indian businessmen as they could be trusted, and knew their job well. “If you see a man in a black cap, white kurta (loose collarless shirt worn long) and dhoti (a garment worn by male Hindus, consisting of a piece of material tied around the waist and extending to cover most of the legs), lend him money. But if you someone in a suit, think twice. That was the trust he laid on Indians.”
Building a community in Dubai
Shroff, along with a few other Indian expats, started the first school for the community in Dubai with just nine students. He was the first teacher for the school and taught lessons in Hindi. Shroff also conducted Physical Education (PE) classes. “The school would begin at 7.30am and go on till 9.30am. After that, I would attend to my shop. The first thing I did was clean the shop thoroughly to welcome visitors. Our timings were from 10am to 1pm and 4pm to 8pm.”
“I never hired anyone to clean my shop as it would cost four annas to do the job. So I cleaned my shop every day.”
Shroff was also appointed as one of the committee members to conduct a census for the city in 1953. “I was designated the Jumeirah area. At the end of the census, when we collated our reports, the population of Dubai stood at 61,000."
It is no surprise that Shroff has been dressed with a number of titles during his years in Dubai, rewarding him for his philanthropic activities. He is chairman of the India Club, the Sindhi Gurudarbar Bur Dubai, former chairman of the Indian High School, and ex vice-chairman of the Indian Association. He is also the committee member of the Hindu Cremation Ground.
Reminiscing the past
Dubai was like a village in the '50s: Vasu Shroff
“The houses were not made of concrete. The rooms were tiny with old-style toilets. In 1952, water was scarce and there was no electricity. Water was delivered on donkeys to every household. These donkeys were brought especially from Egypt. I don’t know how we spent our time, but life was simple and easy. Today there are modern amenities and it comes with a fair share of stress. I miss the good old days [in] Dubai,” said Shroff.
The water was brackish with a high salt content. “I developed stones in my gallbladder. In fact, within a month of coming to Dubai I had to return home for medical treatment to fix the issue. It is quite unimaginable how people lived in Dubai without water, electricity and modern amenities.”
Want a bath, head to Dubai: Mohan Jashanmal
Jashanmal first came to Abu Dhabi in 1964 as the manager of Jashanmal & Sons company. He, his father and brothers were instrumental in taking the Jashanmal business to the level it is today. The privately-held company operates across 100 stores and employs more than 2,200 staff members.
“I was travelling with my wife, Vanitha, in a shaky eight-seater propeller jet. There was sand, sand and sand everywhere. Forget a full-fledged airport, there was no proper landing strip either. There was only a flat land between a pile of sand dunes and the pilot skillfully maneuvered to make a rocky, but safe, landing. There was a red jeep following the aircraft and the crew informed me it was a mobile control ‘tower’ which doubled up as a fire station in case of emergency. My wife was educated in the US and she was terrified with the ordeal to say the least. She kept asking me if we were going to crash and I kept reassuring her that everything will be fine,” he smiles, recalling the incident.
He said there was no customs, only a policeman with a stick asking people to open their suitcase and the ‘security check’ was done right in the middle of a sand dune. “When I think back now, it was rather fun and adventurous.”
Water was delivered by donkey
There was only brackish water available in the 60s. The water came in diesel smelling drums from Bahrain and Qatar. “[At the] end of the week we would crave for a bath in fresh water to wash off the salt [on] our body. And so every weekend my wife and I would visit my brother in Dubai who lived in Nasser Square at that time.”
“When we would reach his place, he would ask us to wait out[side]. He would get us a pail of fresh-water and tell us to have a bath outside before entering his house. Till today we talk about this in the family. It is a popular joke among us,” he says.
This incident prompted the businessman to import water filters from the UK, and made a success selling it to residents in Abu Dhabi.
"Sweet water was available in Al Ain. In 1965, an underground pipe was built from here all the way to Abu Dhabi. Water would be delivered to our doorstep on a donkey."
People used to live near water
Jashanmal said people mostly lived close to the water banks, or the Corniche as we now know it. The Hamdan area in Abu Dhabi was popular neighbourhood where people lived. The first Jashanmal shop was also located close to the beach. It was a single storey building and it was a common sight to find boats anchored on the beach right in front of the shop.
No airport; just a desire to live in Dubai: Ram Buxani
Buxani came in a boat from Bombay. “There was no airport in Dubai,” he said.
Buxani came to the UAE first when he was just 18 years old. With five rupees in his pocket and the courage of a lion, Ram Buxani left his home to work in Dubai.
It was 1959, when the city was part of the Trucial States that comprised of a group of tribal confederations, which were signatories to treaties with the British Government.
“When I told my brother I was leaving home, he thought I was crazy. My mother was worried about my safety and future. But I was not discouraged.”
Today, Ram Buxani is a popular Indian businessman, a veteran entrepreneur and chairman of a 60-year-old business conglomerate ITL Cosmos Group. He is an international trade finance expert with six decades of experience behind him.
Coming to Dubai – the long journey
It took him five days to reach Dubai's shore. There were four stops enroute: Karachi, Muscat, Sharjah and Dubai.
Five days later, the boat finally reached Dubai, but stopped mid-stream. “There was no port in Dubai. So we were transported to another boat which took us to the shore,” explained Buxani.
A small customs house had an immigration officer who took everybody’s passports. “He said he would stamp the visa and return our passports [the] next day. I gave my office address and it was delivered there.”
Buxani’s visa (his first foreign visa) was issued by the United Kingdom High Commission in Bombay as Dubai was then part of the Trucial States.
The visa (a copy of which is available with Gulf News) was issued for a period of one year.
“Dubai was a small place and I saw the entire city in half an hour. Everyone knew everyone here. In fact, the moment I stepped out of my boat, people already had a whiff that someone called Ram Buxani had arrived from Bombay.”