Abu Dhabi: The old adage “It takes money to make money” is one that Salem Ibrahim Al Saman strongly contradicts. Armed with sheer grit and determination, Al Saman, 81, rose through the formative years of the UAE to become a business titan in his own right.
Nowadays, Al Saman’s name is inherently linked with the successful rise of the UAE as his group of companies, which included Al Manara Jewellery, Salem Travel Agency, Salem Cargo International and Al Manara Magazine, gained momentum alongside the Union.
Speaking exclusively to Gulf News from his office tower on Hamdan Street in Abu Dhabi, the retired businessman recollected his struggle in the early 1960s when he left his home in Ma’arid, Ras Al Khaimah, and embarked on a new life as a citizen of Abu Dhabi.
Born in 1938, Al Saman had started trading at an early age since 1955, and was ready to move on.
“Life was very difficult in the ‘50s and it kept getting worse. Life wasn’t easy and it wasn’t a happy time. For my family and I, Alhamdulillah, we were okay. But I knew that if I wanted to progress in life, I had to leave Ras Al Khaimah,” said the father of nine.
Al Saman’s journey from Ras Al Khaimah to Abu Dhabi began on January 19, 1961. It was the day he decided to give up on his dreams of becoming a voyaging merchant, with all its hopes and disappointments.
After driving on a sandy track for hours on end, Al Saman arrived in Abu Dhabi and called for a meeting with Sheikh Shakhbut Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the Ruler of Abu Dhabi, who subsequently accepted his application and travel documents. Abu Dhabi passports were soon issued to Al Saman, his wife and two children. Simultaneously, Al Saman had also sent out a letter to the Ruler of Ras Al Khaimah with the news.
Almost immediately, Al Saman started to build relationships with local merchants, such as Abdul Aziz Al Ruba’yya, Jassem al Nowais and Mohammad Hareb Al Otaiba, who all had shops next to each other.
“At the end of 1961, I went to visit Hamad Bin Majid Al Futtaim in Dubai who had an office in the Al Ras area near the Deira-Dubai abra station. He asked me to open an office for him in Abu Dhabi, and after giving the matter considerable thought, I accepted a monthly salary of 350 rupees and exchanged a verbal understanding that I would become his partner.”
Al Futtaim was the agent for Toyota cars, tyres and spare parts, and through Al Saman’s laborious efforts, the office soon expanded into a string of shops. His hard work paid off, and his salary was then raised to 750 rupees per month.
That was the same year when a proper track of hardened clay was built in Abu Dhabi, linking Al Hosn Palace to the sea and to the airstrip, with an extension to the Beach Hotel – where the Sheraton Hotel stands today.
“A year had already passed and there was still no chance of becoming partner anytime soon. So I resigned and started to plan on setting up my own business, which eventually took shape at around the same time as Sheikh Zayed’s accession as Ruler of Abu Dhabi in 1966,” explained Al Saman.
From 1963-1966, work was also underway on building a freshwater pipeline from Al Sa’a, near Al Ain, to Abu Dhabi.
“I was the first to introduce office furniture to the Abu Dhabi market and trade flourished, particularly because government departments were being set up and there was good demand; in addition to the development witnessed by the emirate since the late Sheikh Zayed assumed power.”
The years 1967 and 1968 saw Abu Dhabi transform into a large workshop as the new city was born. The airport and the port were completed in 1969, and a new era of building and construction was underway.
“After a few unsuccessful ventures and failed projects, I went back into the business by making sure that I could supply everything that the city would need in its new era of development. I contacted the major players in office and home furniture in Britain, Germany and the US. Through landing successful deals, I was then able to diversify and branch out into different sectors,” he explained with a sense of pride.
Al Manara Jewellery
In 1973, citizens and expats had no idea about precious jewellery and watches, and according to Al Saman, “lacked the liquidity to buy glittering gold, diamond or inlaid watches,” as Western-made watches back then could be bought for 75 rupees.
On December 3, 1973 the first Jewellery and Watches exhibition was due to be held at the Hilton Abu Dhabi, and among those taking part were Aspreys of London, Piaget watches and Baume & Mercier.
“I received a call from the UAE Ambassador of Lebanon, Saeed Ahmed Ghobash, asking if I would receive a businessman named Naim Atallah, who was interested in staging the Jewellery and Watches exhibition,” said Al Saman.
After some deliberation, Al Saman and Atallah agreed to hold the exhibition from December 3 to 9, which coincided with the National Day celebrations and the gathering of the Rulers.
“I told Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed about the exhibition and he was kind enough to make it. And it was this exhibition and the visit by Atallah that marked the beginning of it all. After the successful event, Atallah and I met at the hotel lobby and agreed to establish a watches and jewellery company with an initial capital of Dh100,000. A third of the company was for me, a third for the British partners and a third for the Swiss partners.”
The origin of the Al Manara name
Al Saman fondly remembered how the name of the successful jewellery company came to be, and explained that it was all his business partner’s idea.
“Manara represented the first two letters of Atallah’s name, his wife’s and his son’s. We went on to obtain a trade license in that name, with the additional ‘Al’ at the front, making it the Al Manara Trading Company.”
The following year, in 1974, the Jewellery and Watches exhibition was held in Dubai and after achieving record success, Al Saman held 51 per cent of the company’s shares, and opened new branches across the UAE, as well as in Oman, Qatar, Iran and Nigeria.
“Any country, at its beginning, must pass through many difficulties and setbacks until things are properly organised. However, we were able to overcome all obstacles and difficulties,” Al Saman reflected.
“Our roads, which used to be rough and sandy, were paved and finished to international standards, hospitals were built and we now have branches of international banks, as well as top-quality schools and universities. The UAE has become a role model to be followed.”
In 1965, founded the Salem Al Saman Group, which now consists of:
- Salem Travel Agency
- Commercial Services Agency
- Salem Cargo International
- Al Manara Jewellery
- Al Manara Magazine
In 1968, Al Saman became founding member of the Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and held the posts of First Vice-President and Second Vice-President.
- A Knight (Cavaliere) of the Order of Merit of Italy. A decoration awarded to Al Saman by the Italian President in 1977 for his services to the promotion of relations between the UAE and Italy.
- Ambassador for the Swiss precious watches makers group.
- Honoured by Her Highness Shaikha Fatima Bint Mubarak, Chairwoman of the General Women's Union, President of the Supreme Council for Motherhood and Childhood, and Supreme Chairwoman of the Family Development Foundation, for his support of charity.