Dr PA Ibrahim Haji, a renowned Indian businessman, philanthropist and education advocate based in Dubai, died on Tuesday. His legacy shall live on through the hearts he had touched in his 55 years in the UAE.
Days before he suffered a stroke on December 11, he spoke with Khaleej Times and took us back to his humble beginnings in Dubai — from how he sailed across the sea and worked in a showroom made of mud, to how the city rose right before his eyes. Get to know Dr Haji’s expat life — in his own words.
Excerpt from the exclusive KT interview:
"I came to Dubai in 1966, but not by air. Instead, I sailed across the Arabian Sea. The place was completely new, with ‘buildings’ constructed the traditional way. Built with sand and mud, they had only one floor. In rare cases, another floor was added. Wooden planks were used in a few structures to strengthen them.
"At that time, I lived in the thriving Oonth Bazaar (Camel Market), where 10 of us stayed in a single room. I was very fortunate to have initiated my professional life in the spare parts division of the Austin Car distributors, owned by Ali Bin Abdulla Al Owais for a salary of 400 Qatar-Dubai rial.
"Dubai is known for its architectural marvels now, but back then, the showroom I worked at was constructed with a mixture of mud and clay. It was a strong structure that had no elements of concrete in it.
"Most offices of prominent business houses like Al Futtaim, Al Nabooda, Al Rostamani and Bhatia Brothers operated out of just a single room across our showroom, which was fairly bigger in size.
"Later on, my company provided me with accommodation in Al Ras, opposite the old library. It was a building with just a ground floor and a first floor. There were only three flats and six rooms. Now, I don’t know the number of rooms have been constructed on the same piece of land — that is the famous St George Hotel.
"We had a balanced work and leisure life. Life was very simple and stress-free. After work hours, a few entertaining activities kept us engaged. One activity I love looking back on is sitting on the banks of Dubai Creek and watching the abras and barges that transported goods to Oman. These boats not only created ripples in the water but also a sense of calmness. Another activity was the expat get-together at the famous Kader Hotel, which was situated in the textile souk. Kader Hotel was the landmark during those days. An expat’s life revolved around this landmark as it served as a meeting place.
"To add up to our entertainment, we formed a group and named it the Cosmopolitan Club in 1967, and played carrom and badminton at the terrace of a home in Sabkha, and that became our daily routine after work hours.
"Murshid Bazaar was dotted with benches that were occupied by the local Arabs for hours. They chatted away as they sipped hot Ghava. Similarly, the rich had majlises at their homes for daily get-togethers.
"One memory that has always stayed with me was my first trip to Abu Dhabi. The journey is now smooth, on a world-class expressway. Let me take you back in time when travelling to Abu Dhabi took over six hours. First, there was no direct road to the territory and part of our journey must be taken by the sea shore. I rode green Mercedes taxi, which I shared with four others. There were no toll gates during those days but four check posts should be crossed to reach the Abu Dhabi city.
"Travel to the neighbouring city of Sharjah was also tiresome. Sheeba Hotel was the only place that could be seen from Dubai to Sharjah. Between the three emirates, there was an endless stretch of empty land. Now, nearly no land is unoccupied.
"The construction of Port Rashid with 38 berths opened a gateway for Dubai to become the business hub of the Middle East. The late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the architect of Dubai, understood the need for a seaport.
"Prior to the construction of the port, cars and merchandises were ferried through barges and ships were anchored a few kilometres from the shore. Sheikh Rashid not only foresaw the significance of a seaport, but also an airport. Later, the Jebel Ali port project got Dubai the recognition on the shipping map. It became the largest port facility in the Middle East, surpassing even Bombay. The ship repair yard close to Port Rashid was another major step to attract shipping lines.
"Flights over Dubai was a rarity and then the city grew to have the busiest airport in the world. The first airport in the city had only a few rooms and was at the cargo operations. The construction and inauguration of the modern airport was another progressive infrastructure addition, which started connecting the world.
"To accommodate the low-income expats, Sheikh Rashid initiated four major residential localities, Satwa, Al Qusais, Al Shaab and Karama. He used to inspect all the development sites after his fajr prayer. I moved to Satwa — at a time when it was a newly developed locality — and occupied a two-bedroom apartment by paying Dh7,000 rent a year.
"Sheikh Rashid’s determination was incomparable and his focus to develop Dubai never wavered. It was a trait that His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, inherited from him.
"Sheikh Mohammed is also a man of great vision- which is extremely evident now. History is now in the making, with his unimaginable development work. Today, a small city like Dubai prides itself on having the best airport, the largest airline, the tallest tower, the highest hotel occupancy in the region, the best transportation system and more. He turned the city into a global destination for tourism, trade and business."
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