Hundreds of Kashmiris toiled hard in Middle East’s coastal desert to become part of Dubai’s golden-glass growth story. Belatedly, they started following other expat communities by organizing sports events to interact and somehow reconnect back home. Masood Hussain reports the struggles and the successes of hitherto unheard Kashmiri expats living in United Arab Emirates
The imposing infrastructure was the only thing negating that it was Kashmir. As crowds used their lungpower to cheer for their teams in the Dubai International Stadium late on Friday, March 24, 2017, famous for its floodlight system, the shadow minimizing Ring of Fire, it looked a familiar Kashmir location. As Kashmiris were fighting on the wicket, nearly 2000 spectators from across UAE and Kashmir were watching the finals of the Kashmir Super League (KSL)-II, excited over the event and over-awed by the location.
Never ever in Kashmir’s cricketing history (many say only football has history because here cricket is politics and football is the sport), have the cricketers got a chance to play in a stadium, so exclusive and global. It cost KSL nearly 10,000 Dirhams for the T20 that saw use of floodlighting to conclude amid frequent downpour.
Interestingly, promoters of both the teams in the KSL-II finals – Rajbagh Royals and Razey Kadal Superhero’s, are based in J&K even though their teams comprised Kashmiris working in UAE. Rajbagh team belonged to Mudasir Qureshi, owner of Srinagar based Wood Shapers and Razey Kadal to Hilal Rather of Simula Group.
Support for Razey Kadal was immense. Its supporters nicknamed the other team as chocolates and Diary Milk that befits the up-market Rajbagh locality back home. There were quite a few girls who supported the Royals. But after the Superhero’s exhibited their weak defence in fielding amid an impressive Royal batting order, the situation changed completely. The only thing that reverberated in air was: Daz Ha Walie Koutru Aaz Ha Aayee Vaier. Rajbagh took the cup, a copper structure with Chinar leaves engraved, symbolizing Kashmir’s heritage, industry and culture. Zareef Ahmad Zareef who led the 37-member delegation that KSL had invited from Kashmir amid controversy, presented the winners a Samavar, the miniature copper classic that is Srinagar’s global souvenir.
Throughout the tournament, the expat boys would broadcast live commentary in Kashmiri to the spectators and on Facebook.
Till the Stadium managers did not switch off the lights, Kashmiris were busy interacting with each other. Some of them skipped the free packed lunch. In an interesting anecdote, an elder expatriate was shocked to see a junior entrant paying him 1000 Dirham. “It surprised me that a person whom I had given this amount the day he landed in Dubai did not find time for last 19 years to return it,” the shocked professional, who wishes to stay anonymous, said. “I do not blame him because Dubai is a time-scarce and abnormally fast space.”
“This is much more than a game,” explains Sameer Bhat, Opinions Editor at the Gulf News. “The game is just an excuse, it is actually a grand get-together and it was planned in response to an overwhelming sentiment to find a way out for meeting and interaction, precisely to stay connected.”
This sentiment led to the setting up of Kashmir Football League (KFL) and Kashmir Super League (KSL) in 2016. Sponsored by the businesses that Kashmiris own, both the initiatives have been a huge hit. “We have youth playing in both Leagues,” Aasim Nissar, a risk management professional with Bank of Abu Dhabi, said. “Moin Qazi sponsors one team each in both Leagues.” The final of the KFL took place on the eve of KSL final.
“Kashmiris rarely move beyond Banihal Tunnel,” Aasim said, “But the militancy has pushed them out for education and livelihood but we are very late and we still have a problem that we are not connected unlike Keralities who are influential, strong and well-connected back home.” Aasim says they are in the process of knowing the exact population of Kashmiris in the UAE and they have already reached a 10,000 figure which is expected to double once the networking process is over. Watching all other communities well organized, youngsters pushed the idea and the seniors and the businesses relented. Being organized in Dubai is vital to the interests of the communities they belong to. Aasim is in the process of creating a website of Kashmir diaspora that will list them all, their contributions and the services they sell.
Dubai continues to be world’s dream destination. Its take off, despite the absence of demography, a viable economy and water – three basics for a civilization, makes it distinct and interesting. It played its strategic location well.
Open history sources suggest Dubai was a fishing village till late eighteenth century that became an 800-member strong town of Baniyas by 1822. A decade later, two groups had a tussle in neighbouring Abu Dhabi and one faction migrated to Dubai and took it over. As the two tiny states fought over territory in 1947, British became the arbitrators and the belt remained its protectorate till 1968. By 1972, seven emirates – Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Qawain, Fujairah and Ras Al Khaimah – agreed to become members of United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Within the inherent limitations, Dubai started growing, primarily with trade and tourism that got flip when the aircrafts start landing on its asphalt runway in 1965. Though Dubai’s oil revenues are insignificant unlike Abu Dhabi, its economy is mostly run by the footfalls, the real estate, trade, exports and financial services. With almost one takeoff or landing a minute, its airport is managed by 90,000 people, contributing 27% to its nearly US $100 billion GDP.
Modern Dubai is quite a new phenomenon. Understanding its strategic location and the requirement of the emerging economies, the monarchy facilitated entry of the private sector, following strictly the capitalist model. And it succeeded. Seemingly, Dubai is a Bedouin’s dream who had empty hands, and actually not many hands, but still had the will. Many think it is outcome of a genius architect who was trusted by none for the ideas he had. Once he got a cushion, he created fascinating architecture, vibrant work culture and an impressive secular society where merit matters more than DNA.
Home to tallest building on earth, classy glass hotels, and towns built in sea and fountains traceable from space; Dubai is one of world’s most expensive happening places. It de-salinates sea water to feed its 10 million plus population, it removed the entire energy distribution management for a 30-second power outage and recently it lifted more debts to keep the growth story intact and is working currently on world’s fastest rapid transport systems right now to keep the dream stay on track.
Interesting part is that only 27 lakh people living in Dubai are local. This state is run and managed by expats making 85 percent of its demography. It does not feel overwhelmed that of every 10, more than seven locals are non-local because policy is clear: do whatever you wish but you are not a state subject. “No business can start without a state subject holding 51 percent,” one Kashmiri working in Dubai said. “This is for the law but in practice we give them a lump sum a year and they are at liberty to have any number of partnerships.”
Unlike south India that makes almost half of Dubai, Kashmiris were the last of more than 140 nationalities working in the port emirate. Though most of them have salaried jobs, quite a few did exceptionally well.
Vakils’ were the early Kashmir settlers in Dubai. The family moved to this Emirate in 1997 and they started with the gold business. Later, Vakil brothers –Khurshid, Imtiyaz, Mushtaq and Azad – floated Marina Home Interiors, a company registered in Delhi, and it is Middle East’s major brands now. He is the only Kashmiri who falls in the list of Top 50 Indian business tycoons in the Emirates. In 2015, Forbes Middle East ranked Khurshid Vakil, the co-founder and the eldest of the four Vakils’, at No 57. But in two subsequent rankings by Arabia Business, he jumped up the ladders from rank 37 to rank 27 with a net worth appreciating from US $ 370 million to $ 435 million.
“Just after completing my schooling, I am in Dubai for the last 31 years which is all my professional life,” Khursheed told Kashmir Life amid the razzmatazz of the KSL final. “We came at a time when there was no Kashmiri here but in last 10 years, the trickle started and now we have grown into a large community.” He said the people with resilience, professional competence and hunger for personal development and growth come to the desert emirate.
“When we came here we were young, resilient, and keen to do certain things and we had the idea,” Vakil said. “Then the practical side of the life teaches you something very different because what we are exposed to in Kashmir is completely different from what we observe here”. He said they had to learn one step at a time and had the patience to “adapt, improvise and innovate” enabling them to compete with all the International companies. After many years, Vakil said, they are in a position to “proudly say” that a Kashmir family has created “something very special and not just in UAE but in the entire Middle East and even beyond.”
Brand Marina, currently operates 49 stores in UAE, Qatar, India, Bahrain, Oman, Pakistan, Egypt and now Saudi Arabia, the recent being Islamabad, Jeddah and in India. Its showrooms look like galleries where traditions, cultures and arts across the world undergo fusion to tell fascinatingly inspiration stories. Run by more than 450 people, the company has 150 Kashmiris on its rolls. They interview Kashmiris in Delhi and appoint, every year. With other small ventures around Marina, the group’s sale turnover in last fiscal has been 230 million Dirham’s plus. It plans expansion to London, Toronto and Canada.
Vakil says he sees neither US Ethan Allen (promoted by Farooq Kathwari) nor Delhi based Cottage Industry Exposition (of Rashid Mir) any inspiration because “we do not do what they do as our concept is unique.”
Marina, however, lacks any Kashmiri product in its basket though it sources its products from 20 countries. “We meet Kashmiri manufactures having done wonderful job over the years, we tell them to slightly enhance the product because they have been producing the same old thing, year after year,” Vakil said. “From carpet to woodwork, there is no change for a very long time and the obsolete fashions lack any market right now.” He says he will give it one more push any time soon to see some Kashmir product getting into his stores.
Sajjad Shawl is no less an impressive entrepreneur. The man who was hugely involved with the 11000-kv Kishnapur-Pampore transmission line, Shawl, a Srinagar resident, went to Mumbai and then to Saudi Kingdom in 1996. There, he worked for 18 months with an Italian company but found life “too harsh”. He took the next flight to Dubai. For a mechanical engineer, dry dock engineering was a natural choice in a port state to repair ships. That helped him study the market keenly and see where the intervention could be possible.
“With three people, I set up Power Solution Industry (PSI) in 2003 and in last more than 13 years, we are growing quite rapidly,” Shawl told Kashmir Life while smoking at the Sheesha Café. “We have three manufacturing facilities, one each in UAE, Doha (Qatar) and Riyadh (Saudi Arabia). We supply to whole of Middle East which includes Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, UAE, partially to Iran and certain areas in Far East as well.” PSI is managed by 150 staffers now producing 25000 tons per annum and some of them are from Kashmir.
Producing and implementing cable management systems for all kinds of structures including sky scrapers, public utilities, power plants, refineries and transport systems, PSI has worked with some of the major projects in Middle East. “We did more than 350 kms of cable networking in Dubai Metro, we did Burjal-Khalifa – the tallest building on earth, a power plant in Abu Dhabi, Armani Hotel, King Abdul Aziz Airport Jeddah and maximum power stations in the area,” Shawl said. “But what gives me immense satisfaction is that PSI was part of the ongoing Mecca extension.”
In an area where competence and product is not being seen from coloured glasses, the experience has been rewarding. “Our last year turnover was 130-million Dirham’s and it is growing,” Shawl said. “We have reinvested more than 40 million Dirhams into the infrastructure so that we are upgraded and modern.” Shawl said his company has human resource from various nationalities. “But, I believe we are still in infancy,” Shawl insisted. “We have a dream to be a global company.”
With a strong base to bank on, Shawl has started diversifying. Apart from some interest in media – he runs a 24 x 7 web TV; he has various units producing hygiene and life style products including diapers for kids and adults. Next priority: solar systems in UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Keen to stay in touch with Kashmir, Shawl says mindset is the only difference between Dubai and Srinagar. “In Kashmir we wait for somebody to do it and in rest of the world people get up and do it,” Shawl said. “Kashmir has an environment in which people do not contribute positively to the economy.” Few years back, he had come with some governance proposals suggesting that professionals should be permitted to manage key public utility and development projects so that systems modernise, become efficient and fast. Cold shoulders in Srinagar sent him advancing his return.
Aijaz Bhat’s Dubai landing was a family compulsion. A resident of Khanmoh, his elder brother Arshad was a merchant navy captain. Mostly off shore, the family wanted some place where they could frequently meet. By the time, Bhat finished his IT studies in Bangalore, moved to Mumbai and in 2005 settled in UAE, the family got a second home.
With expertise in shipping, they acquired a small vessel that Arshad started managing as Aijaz jumped into mobile phone sector starting a company that would own text gateway. “If you have ever received a promotional text message on your mobile phone, the chances are that Ajaz Bhat had something to do with it,” UAE premier newspaper The National reported in September 2008 when Bhat had access to 1.3 million cell phone of the region. Now the two brothers are jointly managing 135 employees as they own nine vessels, mostly oil tankers that are always in high seas transporting oil. “We now provide charter tankers on limited lease,” Bhat said. “The IT company IG Telecom (earlier UAE mobiles) that produces content for telecom companies and apparatus makers in UAE, Germany and some other places.”
His company, made 25 million Dirham’s last year, quite less than preceding year, is working to get upgraded to mobile virtual operator. Cumulatively the two companies earned almost 165 millionDirham’s last fiscal. Bhats’ had planned some investment back home but the 2010 unrest led them to keep it on hold.
Kashmir has historically remained famous and partly prosperous for Cashmere. But in Dubai fortune is in real estate. The island country known for its massive infrastructure has evolved a sophisticated system to manage its real estate: builders, construction companies, brokers and maintainers. They have to study the entire sector, sit for an examination and pass to get a certificate.
Various Kashmiri expats have created a name in this field. Umar bin Farooq is perhaps the youngest of them. Schooled at New Era Public School, Umer’s whole-seller father Farooq A Rangrez sent him to Hamdard Public School in 1992 where he graduated and started earning. “My father gave me absolute autonomy and I admit I failed many times,” Umer told Kashmir Life. “He supported me in my failures till I understood the importance of decision-making.” By 2005, he was just a worker in a Delhi call centre till he decided to land in dream land.
“I joined a real estate company for eight months and then jumped to Emaar which is one of the biggest and picked up things,” Umer said. “When Emaar acquired the 140 years old Hampton International, I was the sales consultant. There, I became a branch manager and eventually headed its UAE operations.”
In 2012, Umar said, he set up Ottomans International, a brokerage firm with almost 10 employees. Now it has 70 on its rolls.
In 2016, Umar encouraged five real estate brokerage firms held by “British, Canadian, Cyprus, Indian, and a Kashmiri” to merge into a bigger one: the One Broker Group (OGG) and held its majority shareholding. At 36, he said, he earlier acquired British Lannhill Real Estate but offered not many details.
Umar’s stint with big developers gave him a rare access to real estate’s movers and shakers. “I used to sell single buildings earlier with an average 80 units a month but now it is changing,” Umar said. “This year, I got an exclusive right to sell a complete city, the upcoming al-Habtoor city, a $7 Bn project.”
The city comprises Noora, Amna and Meera towers with two 74-storey towers and a 52-storey tower. “In a year we sell around 2000 apartments but this year it could be more,” Umar said. “In our business, transactions are quite huge but the margins are less.”Putting up an advertisement on its Facebook page, the group said it is selling 1378 units in five projects which would fetch it a commission of 115 million Dirham’s as commission. Its yearly transactions could be around a billion Dirham’s a year.
While Umar said his foray into constructions has started with a g+4 building with multiple partners, he already owns three small allied companies: Ottomans Furnishing, Ottomans Maintenance and Ottomans IT. “The IT firm is working to create a software that will help ease out real estate processes,” Umar said. Cumulatively, Umar’s companies have 300 people on rolls. He is planning a real estate venture in Kashmir to get people move up the ladder than walk in lawns.
The other biggies from Kashmir expats in the real estate include Mudasir Wani’s Dre Homes – the man who funded KSL in the first go, the Stone House and the Location.
Moin Qazi proudly says he is the first generation businessman. In 1993 he was serving Saudi and in 1996 he was in Dubai working as procurement head of a construction company overseeing tall structures, petrol pumps and drainage. In 2006, he resigned and jumped into real estate business. “With nine agents in Dubai, I mange an average of 15 monthly rentals and selling four to five units but sometimes like in Ramzan, there is no work,” Qazi said. “Under NRI quota, I have two buildings in Bangalore’s IT hub that I have exclusive rights to sell.” He also runs a small telecom company selling various electronic utility products. Overall, he has 37 people, including a few Kashmiris, on rolls.
Qazi says UAE has a huge potential to offer jobs and opportunities, almost on daily basis. “Our boys and girls are smart and capable but I have seen they lack two things: they do not know how to write their resume for an international employer and how to be ready for an interview,” Qazi said. “I would be happy if some institution emerges in Kashmir that trains them into these two things.” He said he will be more than willing to guide, and, he believes, it can improve the success rate of employment for Kashmiris in UAE.
With real estate boom, there has been massive demand for various construction items. Aijaz Naqash is already into manufacture of PVC pipes and it is an outstanding success. “I am starting another manufacturing facility,” Naqash told Kashmir Life. “I am seriously considering appointing some Kashmiri human resource in the administrative set up.”
New ventures are just a routine in Dubai. Given the massive tourism, one Kashmiri youngster has started industrial laundry unit to cater to the requirements of the hotels that have really mushroomed around. Dubai, by the way, has the expensive hotels after Geneva. Prima Rose is in the process of a mega-launch, residents said.
“This is an amazing culture that respects merit,” Sohail Iqbal, who is member of Fujairah Development Board, a position of Chief Engineer. “It values talent, never discriminates and that is primarily why you see this place as it is.”
Sohail left Kashmir when he was getting a stipend of Rs 600 in 1984 as an unemployed civil engineer. He went to Libya and then was hired by Skansa for implementing Uri Civil-I. Finally he settled in UAE as a municipal engineer and rose up the ranks. “This country has maintained nice balance between tradition and modernity and they do not get into people lives so long as you deliver.”
With these businesses at the back and an over-insisting new generation seeking reconnect back home, tournaments took off. The urge and the desperation are indicated by the names of the teams, both in football and cricket. The six football teams were named: Aharbal Dragons, Wullar Warriors, Gulmarg Leopards, Zabarwan Hawks, Pahalgam Rangers and Sonamarg Stallions. Same was the case in the 14-teams of KSL2.
“I named my team after Hokersar and the sole idea behind it was to draw some attention towards the issue of wetlands back home,” Sohail Iqbal said. “While hunting is an industry across the globe, we have banned it so my naming of the team was a conscious attempt to do something that is indirectly linked to Kashmir and make some awareness.” He put his other major achievement on his FB page: “My son Saif is rising twenty two….He had no connect with any other Kashmiri here in the UAE save a few families…From the initiation of KSL, he has made hundreds of friends from homeland, and so has my daughter Zaira. They stumbled upon an identity that remained evasive from the time of their birth.”
KSL2 was underway but Khalid Parvez Wani was in Srinagar, interacting with the youth, he is so keen to help. A Boulevard resident, Khalid is Managing Director of 22-Bn dollar American data storage company, Western Digital Corporation. Based in Dubai, he manages company’s India and South Asia operations with $300 million business.
“It deeply saddens me to see the youth on streets full of rage and anger and it pains me to think how they are shaping their future,” Khalid told Kashmir Life. “I am trying to be part of the mass movement that helps improving the mindset by offering them guidance to a god future.” He is considering even setting up a small venture capital fund. “I am interacting with youth at a very small scale and I found they only need a bit of grooming and guidance,” Khalid insisted.
“It is just a sport but once we interact and meet it opens up avenues because opportunities are linked to networking,” Inayat Fazli, one of the key organizers said. “Between KSL1 and KSL2, there might be more than 100 youth who found way to a decent earning.” Now the organizers, according to Naqash have set a new target: every team in KSL3 must have three players who would come from Kashmir. Once a player goes to Dubai for a quarter-long tournament, he obviously will find enough opportunities to work.
“Very soon, it would be like a big League,” Qazi said. “This gives players an exposure and some confidence. The two teams who reached the finals had world class coaches: Razey Kadal had Pakistan’s Allied Bank coach Mohammad Asgar and the Rajbagh team had Mohammad Mohsin, the British team coach.”
One of the organizers said that certain businesses wanted to fund the exercise exclusively which was resisted because the basic idea is to involve all. “It is not a fact that we had any pressure from India or Pakistan,” the member talking anonymously said. “But it is a fact that we had massive pressure from J&K government that wanted to send one or two ministers to preside over the final match, an idea we resisted because it would have ruined the initiative.” An organizer said KSL2 is indebted to MbMalik Sports and Fast Stroke Sports for sponsoring the quarter finals, semi-finals and the final match.
This season alone, Sameer Bhat said 30 boys who essentially came for cricket got jobs and will eventually settle here.“We know that youth back home are insulated from the larger world because they do not step out too much,” Bhat said. “They also have a feeling of being victimized so we encourage them to come down, network and work in an environment where merit and work pays.”
A fierce commentator on Kashmir situation, Sameer says the conflict has seriously impacted the growth. “Because of political crisis, there is deep distrust and certain people want others to pull down” Bhat said. “But I have travelled world over and I know we have the talent and we grow in conducive environment. We have Basharat Peer heading the opinions page in New York Times and I personally edit the opinions section of a major newspaper in Middle East. Nakheel, one of the biggest builders here has Javed Magrey at a higher decision-making position.” He believes the lack of better incubation is Kashmir’s key crisis. “World has grown phenomenally in all these years and we have missed the bus but we must put extra effort in managing the deficit,” Bhat insisted.
Aasim believes that investors in Kashmir lack appreciation of ideas. “I have instances when people with ideas went to businesses for support, they were promised funding if the investor retains as high as ninety percent which normally is complete reversal of standard world practices,” Aasim said. “This place is supportive of all those guys who were rejected back home.”
Almost every person in Dubai is seeking a direct flight to Srinagar. “Can you believe there are 42 flights flying daily from Delhi, 38 from Mumbai, 36 from Hyderabad, 29 from Chennai, 12 from Kerala, 31 from Kochi and I do not know how many from where as 38 air carriers are involving on this sector,” Feroz Ahmad, promoter of al-Khudam, whose family lives in Sharjah, said. “Cannot we have one flight a week from Srinagar to reconnect the expats back home?”
KSL1 was a follow up to a musical concert when IBM (Irfan, Bilal, Mehmeet) performed in Dubai. Now Rashid Hafiz has performed on March 31, in follow up to KSL2. Priorities are gradually shifting at a time when chewing gum prevented Parvez Rasool from being considered in this season’s IPL.