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Somalis make their mark in the UAE

Afkar Ali Abdulla
Filed on August 2, 2003

DUBAI - The Somali community has been making their presence felt in the UAE over the last five years in the backdrop of the rapid growth of their businesses in the country, in general, and Dubai in particular. In Dubai, Somalis operate more than 30 gold and textile shops, hotels, computer businesses, money exchanges and livestock imports.

Somali businessmen consider UAE as a main base for exporting items to their country. Importing livestock and leather from Mogadishu to UAE has been practised even before the oil boom. The geographical proximity of the two countries has played a significant role in boosting the bilateral trade.

Sherif Ahmed, chairman of Somali Business Council, said that in the recent years a large number of Somalis have been travelling to Dubai to procure goods for sale in Somalia and nearby countries. The major items being exported from Dubai to Somalia include rice, sugar, clothes, building materials, electronics, household goods, textiles, automobile spare parts, tyres, batteries, cosmetics, used machinery and hardware.

On the other hand, an increasing number of Somalis are now looking towards international markets and Dubai has emerged as a popular shopping destination for the Somali tourist as well as businessmen. The easy availability of a variety of competitively priced goods and excellent air and sea connections for transportation of goods have helped to promote Dubai as a shopper's paradise for them. "Dubai has become a favourable destination for us," said Mr Ahmed.

He added that the council's aim was to offer its members a comprehensive range of updated news on the country and market development and provide them with contact details for new suppliers and customers. The business council is also a forum where Somalis meet to discuss matters concerning their homeland.

"Our intention is to make their daily job a little bit easier by providing them with the required information," Mr Ahmed added.

Adam Mohammed, manager of Somalia Livestock Import and Export Company, said that more than 140 Somali businessmen are involved in livestock exports, which is considered one of the country's major revenue earners. "Livestock and banana exports bring millions into Somalia," Mr Mohammed said, adding that they hire small wooden ships to transport their goods to UAE and Oman.

Abdurazak Kabadah, general manager of H Food Limited, said that the company delivers frozen meat to UAE by air. Mr Kabadah said that UAE government regularly sends food inspectors to Somalia to keep a check on the animals and the facilities before giving the approval for imports.

Another interesting factoro is that most of the gold, textile and cloth shops in Somali Souq in Murshed Bazaar, Dubai, are run by Somali women who prefer to run their businesses by themselves. Qamar Osman, owner of a cloth shop, said that Dubai is the best place to make business as there is no tax which encourages more trade. She added that around 90 per cent of Somali women involved in business in Dubai were victims of the long-running civil war which began in 1991 when rival clans began fighting to fill the power vacuum left by deposed dictator Mohammed Siad Barre.

Backbone

Somali women have always been the backbone of Somali society. In the UAE, 30 per cent of the Somali men's income is not enough to make ends meet, and in view of that the women chip in to help their husbands in supporting the family. "The business prospects in Dubai are relatively high and it gives us a chance to earn a decent living and recover from the suffering that we have gone through in our homeland, which was dubbed as the land of sorrow," Qamar said.

Aisha Geddi, owner of another textile shop, said that Somali women running their businesses was a common sight. "Somali women have gone through great difficulties in their home country - they faced starvation, humiliation and torture. These sufferings made them very strong and independent," Aisha said, adding that many women sold out their properties and made a beeline for UAE in order to generate more money and lead peaceful and secured lives. "We are trying to make our life better," she said.

Sacida Hassan Mohammad, owner of gold jewellery outlet, was all praise for Dubai. "I have lived half of my life here, my children grew up here and we consider this place as our second home."

Amna Osman, owner of a Typing Centre, said that since the civil war broke out in Somalia in 1991, the common citizens have gone through total destruction on the social and economic fronts. Those who were affected most were women and children.

The absence of basic rights for women, particularly in political field and decision-making process, remains a major impediment. "Today Somali women in UAE are not only running business to make money but also are working towards bringing a positive change to Somalia."

Mohammed Yarow Abu Bakar Mayow, Consul-General of Somalia, said that the UAE is considered as the second homeland for the Somalis as the UAE government facilitates their business and makes life easy for them. Besides, the government has welcomed them with open arms in all the emirates. "This fact has strengthened the relations between the two countries," he said.

He added that Somalis prefer to live and run their business in the emirates and Dubai is considered the gateway. The number of Somalis living in the UAE ranges between 20,000 and 25,000 while 60 per cent of them are running their own businesses including import and export between Dubai and Mogadishu, besides gold, clothes, textiles and several trade commodities.

Many others are working in various government and private sectors. He said that the trade between Dubai and Mogadishu is flourishing at present. There are six Somali cargo aircraft operating from Dubai to Mogadishu, 12 to 14 times a week. The anchorage number two at the Dubai Port, facing Inter-Continental Hotel, is specially allocated for Somali goods.

The consulate is in the process of calibrating the accurate statistics of Somali businesses especially in livestock, fish and foodstuff as well as the exact number of people of the community residing in the UAE. The Somali community participates in varied activities organised in Dubai and other emirates, including activities at the Women's Club in Sharjah, summer camps, Dubai Shopping Festival and Dubai Holy Quran Award competition during Ramadan.

The Somalis also organise social activities among themselves such as visits, get-togethers, help and support programmes for each other. They are also keen in maintaining their customs and traditions. Women wear the traditional and national dress called Floral Dirac and Garbasaar, cook the traditional dishes like sambusa dish and rice with somali spices and practice their culture.

Mr Mayow thanked the President, His Highness Shaikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, His Highness Shaikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, and the Rulers of other emirates and the members of Supreme Council for their assistance to Somalis and their contribution in solving the conflict in Somalia.

Community club

With the growth in the number of Somalis living in the UAE, the need for an association that bring them together was greatly felt and a Somali Community's Club took shape in Dubai and an official community leader was identified.

Hessian Abut Bakr, President of the Somali Community, said that most of the Somalis in UAE are centered around Dubai, Sharjah and Ajman. Most Somali families continue to observe their traditions and to wear their traditional costumes.

Approximately 65 per cent of them now are running their own business and others working in various private and government sectors. There are community cultural clubs in Ras Al Khaimah, Ajman, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, which unfortunately are not very active at the moment.

"But we are now working on reestablishing them and restoring their activities which will help in maintaining strong ties between the local community members and Somalia. The main objectives of establishing these clubs are to highlight our culture, history and civilisation and to organise several social activities to educate the Somalis about issues pertaining to social, economical and political situation back home."

He pointed out that the community participates in several activities in UAE such as the Somali pavilion at the Dubai Shopping Festival (DSF). Saliha Mohammed, a housewife, said that the group of Somalis around Ajman are very active. They organise various events such as religious lectures, Independence Day celebrations, cultural programmes during Ramadan and weekly get-togethers. "We also launch fund raising campaigns in support of the people in financial difficulties and social problems."

Flashback

Somali people come from a narrow country that is located around the Horn of Africa and borders both the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. Around 60 per cent of Somalis are nomadic or semi-nomadic herders, some are fishermen and farmers. Unlike many African nations, Somalia is composed of a single, homogeneous ethnic group who share the same language, religion and culture.

Colonial rule divided the Somalis from the mid-1800s until 1960, when two territories were reunited to form the modern Somalia. Somali government fell in 1991 after opposition from clan-based militias and three years of civil war.

Civilians have suffered from rampant violence, famine and death from starvation. Over one million people have fled to refugee camps in neighbouring countries. Resettlement programmes have enabled families to move to Europe, Canada and the United States.

The Somali language is an Afro-Asiatic language closely related to Oromiffa spoken by Oromos who call their country Oromia which located in the Horn of Africa and more distantly to the Semitic languages Arabic, Hebrew and Amharic.

The majority of the population is Muslim, Arabic is a common second language. Education was conducted in the language of colonial rule until the 1970s, so older Somalis from the north speak English and those from the south speak Italian.

Religion

More than 60 per cent Somalis are Sunni Muslims. Most of the social norms in Somalia are derived from Islamic traditions. For example, a handshake is the common and polite greeting, but men shake hands only with men, and women with women.

Social life

Family and social structure in Somalia is by clan and subclan. Since Somalis are largely nomadic, it is common for several subclans to live intermixed in one area. Membership in a clan is determined by paternal lineage or marriage into the clan.

Men who can afford to do so may have up to four wives. In urban areas, men may provide separate homes for each family. In rural areas, it is more common for all to live in a single household. Young adults and unmarried people live with the extended family.


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