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Dubai - Yesteryears

A time when business meant a living, not the road to fortune.

Ram Buxani, prominent Indian and director of ITL Cosmos, who reached the shores of Dubai 42 years ago, narrates the tale of a bygone era of Sindhi migration and life in old Dubai...

I was 18. Now that I had gained some experience in work, I thought it was time for me to seek out my space in the Sindhuvarki set-up. It was also the time when many of the Sindhis who had migrated to India in the wake of partition were silently moving out to foreign countries. The Sindhuvarki network provided them the opportunities to go out of India. Their destinations in the 1950s and 1960s were mainly the far eastern countries such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines. They were also seeking their fortunes in French Indochina, Morocco, Nigeria and Egypt. The Canary Islands and Gibraltar were the other favoured destinations. They even looked as far as Latin America and the Caribbean.

Landed in Dubai
Of all these, Hong Kong was the most sought after place because its economy was booming after its recapture by the British in 1945. The fact that there wasn't any hassle in securing a Hong Kong visa was an added attraction. By the mid-1960s the Sindhis constituted 75 per cent of the Indian population of 20,000 in Hong Kong. I also wanted to jump into the bandwagon and sounded out my uncles and close relatives in Hong Kong, Singapore and Nigeria about my desire to work abroad. It was thus while I had been silently nurturing the ambition to work for one of the reputed Sindhi overseas companies that I chanced on the advertisement for a Dubai job in a local Sindhi newspaper in Bombay. When I sailed through the interview and landed in Dubai 42 years ago, as I mentioned earlier in the series, the place had no charm, as the civic amenities were poor or even non-existent.

Dubai becomes a re-export market
In the 1950s and early 1960s, the Dubai market was primarily oriented towards Iran because it was the most thriving economy in the region. The Dubai market was dominated by Iranian merchants. The historical reason for the presence of a large number of Iranians was the forced migration of the Iranian traders from the Lingeh port on the Iranian coast at the turn of the century. In 1902, when the Persian Imperial Customs introduced heavy taxes in Lingeh, which had enjoyed a free-port status, Iranian traders and Arab settlers migrated to Dubai where the Ruler offered them incentives such as free land, personal protection and exemption of import and export duties. And since then there was no looking back for Dubai; it thrived as a re-export market.

Textile was the mainstay
Dhows carried goods to Iran, which included foodstuff, textiles and sundry items. Those days, electronics items were yet to come in the market. As a trading item, textile yielded substantial business. In the 1950s, it was sourced mostly from India and Japan. Indian cotton voiles were great in demand, especially branded ones from Khatau, Sri Ram Mills and Srinivas Mills. In the harsh climatic conditions of Iran, people found cotton voile a very comfortable material to wear.

During the Haj season cotton latha (broad cloth) was in great demand. Those days, as a custom, the pilgrims carried a piece of cloth which they dipped in the holy Zam Zam water and carried home; and whenever a death occurred in the family, this cloth could be used as shroud (kafan) to cover the body. The favoured material for this purpose was from Japan, particularly branded ones from reputed mills such as Nishinbo No 10,000 and Toyobo No 16,000. This cotton latha was also used as lining material for draperies.

Telegraph...only means of communication
The textile business for the Iranian market was conducted through brokers, who were mostly Iranians and Indians. They played an important role. They were the eyes and the ears of the businessmen in a market where communications facilities were rudimentary or altogether absent. There was no telephone, no daily newspaper or television. The only communication channel open to the businessmen was the telegraph.

To beat it all, textile was a speculative item as the price varied according to the (natural) fibre market. The condition of the crop, the market demand and a host of other factors could send the price up or down. Hence the market remained speculative. We received offers from Japan on a daily basis through telegrams. Cable and Wireless, a British company that ran a service here, had two offices, one in Deira and the other in Bur Dubai. Messengers of the company would deliver the cables as and when they were received. The first delivery was at 8am and the last delivery was about 5pm.

The brokers'role
The offers from the Japanese companies would be passed on to the brokers, and they secured orders from the market. Some brokers showed loyalty to some particular indenting house while some others worked for several or for all indenting houses in the market. Obviously the most competitive company cornered the best part of the business. The interesting thing was that there was not much price difference in the offers from the competing companies -- the price often varied between 0.01 per cent and 0.1 per cent. The brokers not only secured orders but also worked as salesmen to help sell the goods. The indenting party had to pay a brokerage of five annas (16 annas to a rupee) for every order worth Rs100, which worked out at about 0.3125 per cent. The brokerage was the same when they sold the goods in the local market, but it was shared equally by both the seller and the buyer.

Having worked the whole day in the market securing orders, the brokers would report to the company in the evening. The quantified order would be forwarded to the principal supplier in Japan for conformation. It would take more than five moths for the delivery of the goods, as there was no direct shipping service from Japan to Dubai. The supplier would send the merchandise to Bombay where it would remain in the warehouse weeks together, if not months, until such time it found space in the steamer plying the Gulf route.

Business ethics and morality were at their highest in those days. Once committed, the traders would never change or go back on their commitment. Sometimes, after confirming an order, the price would go up or down substantially, but they never went back on their commitments even if that meant a reduction in profit or even a loss. Likewise, the indenting house also made sure that the goods were supplied whatever way the market behaved. One thing we have to remember is that the profit margin was not very substantial; it always ranged between 5 and 10 per cent. Business in those days was to make a living, not to make a fortune. Business was also considered a service to the community.

In the 1960s, when the Indian and Pakistani population in Dubai began to swell, the textile market received a new lease of life. It was the time when polyester fabric was entered the market. Polyester suiting, known in the US as Dacron, in Britain and India as Terylene, in Japan as Tetoron and in Germany as Tergal, began to enter the country in substantial quantities. The textile market began to grow; the character of the market also began to change.

Article Courtesy: Gulf Today

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