Before Dubai’s gigantic skyscrapers dotted its skyline and oil money began fuelling sports cars along its expansive freeways, there were the trading ports. Little wonder then that Deira’s waterways continue to hold fast to some of Dubai’s old-world charm that now wears a new face. In some of these older parts, the Regal Group’s textile showrooms are run by a large Indian workforce that migrated from Gujarat, Sindh and Western Maharashtra. The group’s general manager, Tirath Galani, is one of several Indians engaged in the trade. Galani moved to Dubai from Nasik 27 years ago, when he joined Regal as an accounting executive. His reason for moving was simple: the quest for a better life.
“Many people moved into this trade, because they were making money. The surroundings, the entire Middle East, used to buy textiles from Dubai,” says Galani, taking a break from work. “This was the hub (of business). Most Indians settled here.”
Today, 3.3 million Indians live and work in the UAE across sectors like retail, oil, healthcare, hospitality, education and infrastructure. A large chunk of this demographic has found employment in companies also owned by Indians who moved to the Middle East in the 1970s, when the emirate was a desert. Companies like Regal, the Lulu Group, GEMS Education and Aster DM Healthcare have a near-identical success story — immigrant businessmen setting sail from the Indian West Coast, from states like Kerala, Maharashtra and Gujarat, to Dubai’s sunny ports, only to build a business empire from scratch. These empires have flourished today into billion-dollar businesses.
While the mushrooming of these businesses initially set off a massive demand for unskilled labour, their expansion has now turned the focus on the demand for a skilled workforce that is also, not coincidentally, choosing Dubai as the city of choice to embark on promising career paths.
“When you feel you’re culturally linked to a place, you feel comfortable. I think that is why the UAE attracted very successful Indians over here,” says Faizal E Kottikollon, Chairman, KEF Holdings, “Many Indians built this city — not just the entrepreneurs but the workers and the middle classes. Everybody felt home.”
It’s this feeling of home that has now turned into the emotional fuel that is driving India’s participation in Dubai’s Expo 2020, scheduled to begin in less than a year. In September, India’s Union Minister for Commerce and Industry Piyush Goyal unveiled the first look of the India Pavilion at Expo 2020. Flanked by business magnates from some of the Dubai’s better known business houses — the likes of Azad Moopen, the founder and chairman of Aster DM Healthcare, and MA Yusuff Ali, Chairman and Managing Director of the Lulu Group International, which runs a chain of hypermarkets worldwide — Goyal said the Indian diaspora could play a decisive role in the success of India’s participation at the expo.
“We look at them as our ambassadors, we look at them as our extended family,” said Goyal later, speaking to CNBC-TV18 on the importance of the Indian diaspora representing the country at Expo 2020, “These are the ones who take India to the rest of the world, who showcase India’s achievements and opportunities.”
Goyal’s words are not without merit. Today, the Indian diaspora in the UAE is financially sound with the ability to call the shots on matters of economy and growth. A case in point is just how the Indian pavilion at Expo 2020, which Goyal unveiled, is almost entirely funded by Indian companies here, with Aster DM and the Lulu Group, leading the way.
Big-ticket branding at Expo 2020 serves as crucial brand recall for the Lulu Group, which has embarked on an expansion spree — launching malls in Egypt, other parts of the Middle East, and in India outside its home-state of Kerala. The company agrees. “It’s a nice venue and location to spread the word about us to the large number of visitors and delegates who are coming from almost 190 countries to either be a part of the expo or a visitor to the expo — to show them firsthand what (brand) Lulu means,” says V Nandakumar, Chief Communications Officer, Lulu Group.
Away from the boardroom, and on the ground, the Indian workforce in Dubai continues to be hard at work, clambering onto the expansion bandwagon that Dubai’s Indian-origin brands have begun riding. From newer malls and hospitals, to taller skyscrapers and a more retail outlets — opportunities for the Indian diaspora are multiplying, in a place that comes quite close to being home. “There is huge trust on the part of the local population and the government on Indians,” says Azad Moopen, Chairman and MD, Aster DM Healthcare, “They feel that Indians come here, work hard, build something, and can be trusted. And that is one of the most important things.”
With the UAE government’s decision to hand out 10-year residency permits to expats working in medicine, engineering, art and science, and to high-net-worth individuals in the UAE with overseas origins, the Indian expat population in the UAE will only grow from strength to strength. What’s more? Issuing these residency permits to employees in technical fields could open up an even bigger market for a highly skilled Indian workforce.