From working at small shop to billionaire boss: Lulu’s Yusuffali completes 50-year dream run in UAE

He first arrived by ship from Mumbai in 1973 at the age of 18


Ashwani Kumar

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Published: Sun 31 Dec 2023, 9:43 AM

Last updated: Sun 31 Dec 2023, 11:52 PM

Exactly 50 years ago today, an 18-year-old Indian boy reached the shores of the UAE with the dream of becoming a successful entrepreneur. He started working at his uncle’s small distribution business in Abu Dhabi. Life was tough, but he had a fire in his belly to break the glass ceiling and soar to new heights.

Today, the 68-year-old Keralite spearheads the multibillion-dollar Lulu Group International, which operates a chain of popular hypermarkets and shopping malls.

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Meet Yusuffali M.A., a dreamer who is currently one of the richest non-resident Indians globally. Celebrating his 50 years in the UAE, the Keralite fondly recollected his six-day travel from Bombay (now Mumbai) onboard a ship named Dumra to dock at Dubai’s Rashid Port on December 31, 1973.

“Though the ship docked in the morning, it was around 10 pm when I came out of the port,” said Yusuffali, who hails from Nattika village in Thrissur district of Kerala.

Unlike the present, when we can vroom through highways, it was a tiresome journey between the emirates in the 70s.

“I still remember it took almost four hours that night to reach Abu Dhabi, as it was single-track road those days,” Yusuffali said about his commute, which happened in a blue colour Toyota Stout pickup.

Yusuffali started working at his uncle’s distribution business, and then started as a small trading centre in the 1970s.

That centre is today one of the biggest retail conglomerates in the region, with more than 260 hypermarkets and shopping malls across 24 countries, employing close 70,000 people comprising 46 nationalities.

Yusuffali has also been appointed the Second Vice-Chairman at the Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He is an influential business leader, community leader, philanthropist, and a go-to person for those in need, especially the vast Indian community in the region. “Business is not just about money, products, or services, it’s all about people," he says.

Among the awards and recognitions he received include the Abu Dhabi Award – the Abu Dhabi Government’s highest civilian award, the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award – the Indian Government’s highest honour conferred on overseas Indians, and the Padma Shri – India's fourth highest civilian honour, among several others.

Yusuffali acknowledges the meetings and the support he received from the UAE’s Founding Father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.

“I will be ever indebted to the benevolent rulers of this great country, my beloved UAE President His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Rulers of other emirates, UAE citizens, and large expatriate community for their wholehearted support, guidance and patronage over the years which has greatly helped us to grow to this level," he says.

Recently, Yusuffali visited Sheikh Mohamed to express his gratefulness and reccount the story of his first arrival to UAE, including showing the first entry stamp of the Rashid Port on his old passport.

“Being able to make a humble contribution to the tremendous growth of the UAE is the biggest achievement of my life,” Yusuffali says.

With an expanding business spanning the Middle East, India, Egypt, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines, China, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, Turkey, Spain, Italy, the UK, the US, and a revenue of more than $8.4 billion, Yusuffali has no time to rest on his laurels.

Retirement, he underscored, is never on his mind.

“I don’t have any hobby or passion other than work. So, till the day I am healthy, I will come to the office and work as usual. Retirement is not an option, and I never think about it.”


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