Last updated on October 3, 2015 at 8.37 am
THROUGH THE YEARS: Dr Ram Buxani with his colleague Murij J. Manghnani and Tazuke, a senior executive of Toray of Japan, in 1967; with then-Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi in May 1981; and with UAE Minister of Economy Sultan bin Saeed Al Mansouri and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi during the latter’s visit to Dubai in August 2015.56
“I came to Dubai to make a living and support my widowed mother. It was on November 18, 1959, that I landed in Dubai by sea. I was just 18 years old.”
I travelled onboard a ship operated by British India Steam Navigation. After facilitating a safe voyage to me and a few others, that vessel S.S. Dara sank in Dubai waters a few months later in what I believe is a poignant twist of fate.
My landing on Dubai shores was not a smooth task. The sea was very rough. I had to disembark from the ship some two kilometres away from the coast onto a small boat to reach the shore. I was scared as I did not know how to swim. I remember the winter breeze and drizzling weather as I first set my foot on the seashore, and instantly I fell in love with an indescribable charm that was Dubai in the fifties.
I started my Dubai life as an office assistant on a monthly salary of Rs125. The Indian rupee was the legal currency that was used for all transactions in Dubai and other Trucial states those days. I got the job in ITL-Cosmos by applying in response to an advertisement in a Bombay newspaper.
ITL Group came to Dubai when there was no post office, and when the postal system was introduced, the then Ruler of Dubai, the late Shaikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, allotted Post Box No. 6 to ITL Group, and even today the group is the only foreign company to hold a single-digit post box number in Dubai. Another unique status for the group is that it was the first company in Dubai to receive a Decree of Incorporation from the Ruler of Dubai in 1958.
56 YEARS IN THE EMIRATES
> 1959: Dr Ram Buxani arrived in Dubai from Bombay to join ITL-Cosmos Group as office assistant
> Pioneer promoter of IndusInd Bank, which was established in 1993
> Served as chairman of Indian High School and the India Club
> Initiated formation of the Overseas Indians’ Economic Forum, forerunner of Indian Business and Professional Council
> Played key role in forming Dubai’s first trade group, the Electronics Group
> Ranked among the 100 most influential Indians in the UAE in 2013
Even after 56 years, I remain with the same company although my roles have changed several times: starting as an office assistant, I now serve the company as its chairman with a substantial financial stake.
A fond childhood fantasy of mine was to restore the upper-middle class status my family enjoyed in Sindh before 1947. After the tumultuous partition of India and Pakistan, I had to flee with my grandmother, mother, brothers and sisters to India at the age of six as refugees. My father passed away just before our migration.
What prompted me to start my eventful rags-to-riches expatriate journey in Dubai was simply a quest for a decent monthly salary to support an impoverished refugee family of two – myself and my mother. After my sisters were married off and my brothers had emigrated to Hong Kong, I had to take over the responsibility of looking after my mother and our one-bedroom house in Baroda.
Those days, life in Dubai was rustic and simple but hard without any of the amenities like roads, cars, buses, electricity, air-conditioners and tap water. The town itself was within a one kilometre radius. Donkeys were used to transport water in tins at a price of four annas or a quarter of rupee for salty water and eight annas for sweet water.
There were hardly any other expenses. The free extras I enjoyed along with my salary included lodging, boarding, toiletries at cost, two cinema tickets per month, hair cut twice a month and laundry. What other expenses one could have on a regular basis? The only expense I had to incur was postage for a few letters sent home. That would be around Rs2 per month. So, conveniently, I could remit Rs100 every month to my mother.
My first evening in Dubai started with a feast at the residence of Sugnomal Adnani of Modern Trading Corporation. It was a prearranged dinner where my colleague Chellaram Sajnani, who received me on shore, took me. It was a meat and khubus dinner. I also had the first taste of the brotherhood and cordiality that existed among Dubai residents those days. If someone asks me whether I was surprised or disappointed on my tryst with Dubai, I would say none of those feelings occurred to me. Indeed, I had no disappointments or surprises. The reason, perhaps, was that I had embarked on my journey to Dubai without much expectation. I was rather expecting challenges and opportunities and wanted to face life as it came about. So there were no surprises but challenges and opportunities were plenty. I began enjoying my new-found destiny as I went on learning my first lessons in trading and business. And I am still learning new things in this amazing land of opportunities.
Dubai used to be a seller’s market those days. Not much competition. It did not require much skill to sell what you import, and that also at your price. Making profit was also not very difficult. But individual needs were also limited and there was no such thing as greed. Life used to be rather peaceful.
Looking back, I feel that local citizens have always been friendly, helpful and cordial all these years. They had never taken the Indian community or any of the expatriate community as competitors. Their tolerance and acceptance levels to traditions and culture of outsiders were quite high. Diwali used to be a national holiday in Dubai. The Ruler even visited a few leading Indian households to greet them on Diwali.
Doing business was hassle-free in Dubai. There were no procedures and formalities to start a business. What you required was the will and some finance to start the business. Hire the premises, put up a name board, if you really needed one, and get going.
In contrast, if I am asked which one is better – today’s business environment or yesteryears – my answer would be “it was good then and it is good now”. With the growth of the country, bureaucracy and other government machineries have to play their part. There has to be a system, procedures and formalities in place. In summary, I think that my life and achievements in the UAE are intertwined with that of my foster country.
The story of my evolution – from an adventurous teenager in pursuit of a livelihood to a seasoned businessman over nearly six decades – is a microscopic reflection of the phenomenal transformational growth saga the former Trucial states have scripted before and after the UAE federation was formed.
What would one expect more than what I have got? However, looking back, I sometimes feel that living in a relatively small country had its advantages. Even a small contribution to the society got noticed and acknowledged. It is no more the case now in a teeming metropolis like Dubai.
One golden rule I have always followed is this: don’t compete, create. “Walk away” from any thought that reduces your worth. “Walk away” from the failures and fears that stifle your dreams. The more you “walk away” from things that poison your soul, the happier your life will be.
One of my new-found passions is my Facebook account. I operate it myself. It is indeed addictive. A glance at Facebook is a priority over a cup of tea in the morning. But it helps me stay connected and reinvigorated. The best advice I had received in life was from my late elder brother Hotan Buxani: Daro mat ki Dunia Khilaf hai; Rasta wo Chalo jo Sidha aur Saaf hai – “Don’t fear the world, just follow the straight road in life”.
As a Dubai veteran, I am often asked for my guidance and advice to new comers and job-seekers. It may sound philosophical, but my advice to them was invariably this: life does not provide warranties and guarantees. It only provides possibilities and opportunities. Don’t miss them. Make best of it. And if you are still searching for that one person who will change your life, look in the mirror.
A game-changer in so many ways:
Dr ram buxani, a doyen of Dubai’s business community, has made his mark as a prominent thought leader and a spokesman of the Indian community. Through some of his game-changing community initiatives and his seamless entrepreneurial spirit he has endeared himself to his fans and friends across the world.
Dr Buxani, 74, who arrived in Dubai at the age of 18, is now the chairman of ITL Cosmos Group, where he joined as an office assistant 56 years ago. The group is involved in diversified areas encompassing consumer electronics, textiles, banking and hospitality industry. He is also the director of several companies spread around the world. As a former Khaleej Times journalist had aptly described him, “both greatness and its twin, fame, rest easy on Ram’s shoulders for he’s a man who learnt pretty early in life how to handle success”.
His autobiography Taking The High Road, a philosophical exercise on business and community, is a testament of his life’s passion and mission. It chronicles the myriad challenges and opportunities he had to face on several fronts in the backdrop of a desert city’s meteoric rise as a sought-after world destination for business and leisure.
Dr Buxani’s involvement with the business fraternity of Dubai provided him a vantage point from where he could take an unusual perspective of the spirit of Dubai. His thesis “Governance of Dubai: The influence of tribal tradition in decision making, especially in the critical periods of the development of the City-State” earned him a doctorate from Washington University. The thesis brought out the elements that go into good governance, the hallmark of Dubai’s success as a modern city-state.
As an impassioned thought leader, Dr Buxani campaigned for the need to treat education as an industry in the eighties to ensure that such a key sector should not suffer due to lack of funds to constantly innovate and enhance its quality benchmark. Although initially scoffed at, every business house is now taking cue from the thought and putting education as an important part of their operation, says Dr Buxani.
As told to Issac John