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Highlights

  • In 1957, Lakhor Lulla starts the first lodging and boarding facility in Dubai known as Dubai Guest House.
  • In 1959, the senior Lulla starts The Airlines Hotel, the first hotel in Dubai and UAE.
  • In 1964, another hotel called The Deira Hotel is built in the heart of Deira Souk.
  • In 1967, the senior Lulla starts a hotel in Sharjah called The Sea Face Hotel.
  • In 1968, the Ambassador Hotel is built with 45 rooms and later it made into an 80+ room hotel, as passenger traffic increases in Dubai.
  • In 1977, the Astoria Hotel is built with 108 rooms.
  • The Ambassador & Astoria Hotels host many famous visitors including politicians, cricketers, movie actors, singers and Businessmen. Sheikh Rashid also used to host official banquets there.

Dubai: Prakash L. Lulla, 54, inherited a huge mantle when his father, Lakho R Lulla, died in 2009.

The late senior Lulla was instrumental in helping shape Dubai. He spoke Arabic fluently, just like a local tribesman. He was a popular Indian businessman and a pioneer who brought quality hospitality to the UAE.

Prakash, for his part, has done well too. He has big shoes to fill: keeping his father’s legacy left behind for him and his older brother.

Today, even though he has numerous health issues, Prakash is in office, making sure everything is in order and running smoothly.

Prakash Lulla
The late Lakho Lulla, a pioneer in the UAE who started the country's first hotel Image Credit: Supplied

Throwback to when it all started

Lakho came to the UAE in 1950 and worked with Sharjah airport as its first duty officer. He was also the first employee of Dubai airport; his staff number was 00001.

Then 20-year-old Lakho noticed something. The UAE did not have a single hotel. Transit passengers were forced to sleep on the terminal floor of the airport to wait for their connecting flight.

Lakho saw opportunity.

Noticing the discomfort of passengers, the senior Lulla started a guesthouse in Dubai. It was called Dubai Guesthouse and this perhaps laid the foundation of the hotel industry in Dubai.

Prakash Lulla
Prakash Lulla shares the story of how the Ambassador and Astoria hotel in Dubai was started Image Credit: Clint Egbert / Gulf News

Dubai Guesthouse

Dubai Guesthouse had three rooms. "One room was taken by the [Abu Dhabi oil company] PDTC all year, one room was for the Ruler's office, and the third room was kept for guests," said Prakash. "And it was on full occupancy always."

Prakash’s late mother used to cook for guests while his father ran the guesthouse.

Prakash Lulla
An old picture of Prakash Lulla's late mother with Sonia Gandhi at their house in Mumbai. Prakash's late mother used to personally cook meals in the Dubai Guesthouse when her late husband Lokha Lulla started it in the emirate

Launching the Airlines hotel

Prakash Lulla
The Airlines Hotel in Bur Dubai which was built in 1959.

Two years on the senior Lulla realised there was a need for something bigger and so he opened a proper hotel – the first-ever in UAE. It was called the Airlines Hotel.

“The eight-room hotel was built in two levels and this structure back then towered over other properties in the emirate. Imagine! And today we have the tallest building in the world located in Dubai,” he said with much pride.

The hotel back then was said to be one of a kind.

“There was running water, en-suite rooms, as in every room came with a bathroom, and kerosene lamps. There was a restaurant, too, with new cuisines like Italian. It was unheard of back in those days. We also served special meals on Fridays; [it's] what everybody calls now as the Friday brunch,” said Prakash who heard these stories from his parents.

Rulers, dignitaries, travellers alike visit Airlines and Ambassador hotels

Soon the Airlines hotel became a must-go-to place for travellers. It also became a hub for families and expats living in the emirate.

"The hotel was really popular; almost everyone went through there because of the airport and my father, and it became a hub for all the top families and expats," the multi-millionaire businessman said.

Prakash showed us several throwback pictures of his father and the late Ruler of Dubai, Shaikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum visiting Airlines Hotel. There are many pictures of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, as well visiting their hotels.

The rulers of UAE all for progress and development

"In fact, the late Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum was all for progress and development. He gave a piece of land to my father just behind the Airlines Hotel, so he could build another hotel with 34 more rooms," said Prakash.

This gave birth to the now Ambassador hotel. While the Airlines Hotel remained as the country's oldest hotel until 1975, it had to be demolished then due to its weak foundation. By then however, the senior Lulla had already opened the Ambassador Hotel located just across the road. Decades later, even today, the Ambassador hotel is UAE's oldest hotel. 

Prakash Lulla
Iconic picture : Lokha Lulla hosting Rulers of all seven Emirates at the Ambassador hotel Image Credit: SUPPLIED

Prakash recounted the day when his father approached the late Ruler of Dubai, Shaikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum (1912-1990) to tell him about the Ambassador hotel. “My father always believed Dubai had to have the best. And so he wanted to tell the late Ruler of Dubai about the Ambassador hotel. It was an eight-storey building which looked gigantic back in the days. It came with 40 rooms. The late Ruler of Dubai often hosted banquets here for guests, including one in 1968 which was held in honour of the then Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. The entire fourth floor was booked for her and team who came to the UAE with her.”

In 1967 the senior Lulla started a hotel in Sharjah called The Sea Face Hotel. This was also the first hotel in Sharjah.

“Our hotels used to be the only places from where catering would be done for several government banquets,” said Prakash with much pride.

As we sit through and look at old pictures of his father and his times in the UAE, Prakash is particularly excited about one picture of Rulers of all seven emirates. “You see the late Ruler of Abu Dhabi, Shaikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and Shaikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum. It is one of the most iconic pictures of all time.”

Prakash’s own journey in the hospitality business

Prakash L Lulla
Prakash Lulla pictured here with Sachin Tendulkar Image Credit: SUPPLIED

Prakash started working for his father when he was just 17 in 1982 at the Ambassador Hotel. “Until 1986, I was not given an official title. My father wanted me to work my way up. There were no special favours just because I was his son. I know now why he did it. It was because he wanted me to learn the business in the right way. I could not possibly sit in someone’s chair who was already a senior. My father was a strict disciplinarian and I am thankful to him for that.”

“I told my father one day that it was quite embarrassing sitting and working in the reception. I wanted to do more. Plus I have friends who are celebrities. They would come and stay in our hotel and see me sitting and working in the reception. Just imagine. It was quite embarrassing. I nudged my father to allow me to learn the business more and give me additional responsibilities. I think he too knew the time was right to promote and so began my journey in my father’s own business. Needless to say the learning experience was fantastic. It taught me to have gratitude for everything I was given. It was rather humbling.”

Prakash Lulla
Prakash Lulla pictured with Kapil Dev whom the former is close with Image Credit: SUPPLIED

Respect cannot be demanded 

He said: “My father told me that respect cannot be demanded, it has to be commanded. My father wanted me to simply go through the entire exercise of earning that respect. Today I feel blessed to say that I did earn that respect of my seniors. And that is why my father decided to give me that promotion and learn more responsibility.”

And so Prakash was given a little bit more responsibility and was enrolled into the administration department of the Astoria Hotel.

In 1988, Prakash left to do his masters in Houston, Texas. He returned in 1992 and it was only then that his father gave him the big post of managing director at the Astoria Hotel.

Prakash Lulla
Prakash Lulla pictured here with Pakistan Prime Minister at the former's Dubai hotel Image Credit: SUPPLIED

Clearing the air about Dubai's Ambassador hotel

“I have heard enough and more rumours that Ambassador hotel is shutting down. But it is not. It is under refurbishment and will be ready by March 2020. It will be up and running by then. The structure will remain the same, but a lot of the back end work and interiors is being worked upon by the owners.”

“I am tired of being asked by people on the whether the hotel is shutting. It is my father’s legacy, and my brother and I will do our best to keep it running. It is an iconic landmark of Dubai, we cannot let it go down the drains,” he said.

Prakash L Lulla
A black and white old picture of the iconic Ambassador Hotel Image Credit: SUPPLIED

What the land of UAE means to him

“My father passed away in 2009 August. In January, eight months before he died, he had the urge to meet Dubai rulers to tell them how much they meant to him. Unfortunately, that never happened.

“When my father died, we got a call from the rulers office saying HH Shaikh Mohammad wanted to meet my brother and me. He saw a full page ad placed by Indian high school. Ruler said my father knows him so well. He said I want to see the children.”

And when we met him it was such a great feeling. He told us he was sad about my father’s demise. We on our part said how our lives were made here in the UAE thanks to great rulers and their vision. So when you ask me what UAE means to me, this is what it is.

Where in the world will you hear the ruler himself calling residents and speaking to them this way. “Dubai is special and so are the ruling family members. They teach me to be humble and have gratitude for everything in life.”