Dubai: From a 22-year-old callow youth who set foot in Dubai 56 years back to a leading businessman and cricket connoisseur in the region, Shyam Bhatia’s journey has been rather well documented. While he is respected in the industry circles here as one of the major players in manufacturing and distribution of steel, most in the international cricket community knows him as a benefactor of the sport and of course - the unique cricket museum at his home.
A ram-rod straight 78, Bhatia can be a bagful of anecdotes of the life and times in Dubai more than half-a-century back but more importantly - admits that it’s the penchant for growth among the Rulers of Dubai which had been directly responsible for fuelling his dreams to build his business empire from scratch. ‘‘It’s the foresight of the Dubai Rulers like Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum and His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of UAE and Ruler of Dubai - and their risk-taking abilities which has seen Dubai make such exponential growth. I have been just fortunate to be at the right place at the right time,’’ Bhatia said in an exclusive interview with Gulf News on the eve of what would be the UAE’s 50th National Day celebrations.
It is almost a given that any interview with him has to be conducted inside the quaint museum housed at the backyard of his villa - while it will be peppered with analogies from the game and his insistence on how ethics of cricket helped in his business career, but he is also an interesting chronicler of Dubai.
‘‘I had taken up a job in the National Insurance Company after arriving here on August 7, 1965 by ship via Karachi. I was staying in a shared accommodation along with a few friends opposite where the Dubai Museum is now located in Bur Dubai and one day, walked into the Majlis of Sheikh Rashid (at the Ruler’s Office) next to the creek without being stopped. The Ruler was in conversation with some officials and must have noticed an unfamiliar face a little later. He asked someone in Arabic to speak to me as to why I was there and I relayed back that it was just out of curiosity that I was there to see him. Sheikh Rashid smiled and patted me and I came out - he was an extremely accessible man,’’ Bhatia recalled with a smile.
‘‘He was a man of great foresight and also appreciated the need for welcoming the expat population. I remember him announcing the World Trade Centre building when that area was nothing but a huge mass of sand. A few years later, Sheikh Rashid announced the Jebel Ali Port as well when Port Rashid was in it’s infancy as he certainly saw the potential of Dubai developing into a major trading hub,’’ he said.
Life, as Bhatia recalled, was simple and basic as he found his source of recreation in sport soon (read: cricket). ‘‘There was a Indian Sports Club in the Bastakiya area where they played badminton, table tennis and also had a small cricket club. There were two plot of plain land where we could play - one opposite old Baladiya (now the Dubai Municipality headquarters in Deira area) and another one near the airport. The Maktoum Bridge had already come up and hence, we could drive across to the other side of the Creek. There was, of course, the option of a abra ride which cost a princely two annas,’’ Bhatia recalled.
The UAE, meanwhile, was formed in 1971 and the UAE dirham arrived as the official exchange after years of Indian rupee being an accepted currency. Bhatia had by now left his insurance job and entered into a business venture with a few of his friends on a salary-cum-commission basis. ‘‘Those days, the main business here was that of textiles but we realised that as this country was destined to grow, there would be a boom in demand of building construction materials. The first order of steel we placed was for 500 tonnes from India and soon it became 30,000 tonnes. We began as traders and imported other materials too, like the plywood came from Malaysia,’’ he said.
Being a Dubai resident, how often did he go to Abu Dhabi or Sharjah? Bhatia regaled with a slice of life from those days: ‘‘Yes, we used to go to Abu Dhabi once in a while for a drive. With no highway those days, it was quite an adventure to drive through the sand and our thumbrule was simple - drive with the sea to your right while going to Abu Dhabi and it would be to your left when coming back. There was an immigration at the border in pre-1971 days where we had to fill in forms while at the Maqta Bridge, there was a Customs clearance. There were only a few big buildings in Abu Dhabi those days like the Grindlays Bank, Jashanmal building and of course people gathered around the corniche.
‘‘Talk about Sharjah, we used to go to have kebabs at a particular restaurant. We had to call them and make a booking but mind you, we had to go through the operators if we wanted to be connected to another emirate. Sharjah. incidentally, played another important part in the expat life those days as we had to take the flight from there to India and the few options available were Syrian Airways, Air India or British Airways. They would go once a week and inevitably, there would be often delays,’’ he recalled.
It was in 1979, a year after he got married, that Bhatia formed his own company - Alam Steel - now headquartered in Jebel Ali. ‘‘By then, I was confident that even if I failed in this venture, I can always get back to a job. May be, I won’t be able to drive a luxury car but can still drive my own car. I took up a land at Al Quoz where the front portion was the office but the warehouse was at the back. With Dubai gradually growing, I also invested in starting our own production of steel soon.
‘‘It had been a closely knit society where everyone knew each other and I must admit that being a better cricket player (he had played at the state level for Saurashtra for one year) often opened up the doors easily for me. The government agencies like Customs or Immigration were cooperative and when we faced a problem, I would walk into the directors’ office easily. To be honest, I had never faced any major problems with the logistics of doing business,’’ Bhatia said. What was, according to Bhatia, the golden period of his business? ‘‘It had to be from 2000 to 2008,’’ he said candidly. ‘‘It was boom time and we have supplied steel for Burj Khalifa, Jumeirah Hotels, Naboodah buildings and supplied to virtually all important contractors in the city. We started a cut-and-bend factory of steel, took up space in Hamriyah Free Zone to supply to Northern Emirates during this phase’’.
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A man content with life and his achievements, Bhatia harps on the role that the UAE - and Dubai in particular - played in his journey. ‘‘Dubai’s ambitions to grow as a city only fuelled my dreams. On my part, I have tried to play with a straight bat and used the ethics of the sport in playing fair...it had been a great journey,’’ he signed off.