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Non-Resident Indian Entrepreneurs in the United Arab Emirate by P C Jain

Non-Resident Indian Entrepreneurs in the United Arab Emirate, by Prakash C Jain,

 (New Delhi: Manak Publications, 2010, ISBN 978 81 7831 189 0; 227 pages)

One of the biggest turnarounds in India’s relations with the Middle East happened during the 1970s when the sudden increase in oil prices led to the rapid pace of economic development among the Arab Gulf countries. From a situation that existed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when British India served as a major trading hub, centre of imperialist domination and a source of cultural inspiration for the Gulf Arabs, the period following the oil-boom in the Gulf witnessed a massive influx of skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled labourers from India. This new kind of asymmetrical relationship has been amply described in Prakash C. Jain's book on Non-Resident Indian Entrepreneurs in the United Arab Emirates. While there has been a large amount of literature on the nature of labour migration from India to the Gulf and its socio-economic impact on the societies from where the migration has taken place, there has been lesser focus on the Non-Resident Indian (NRI) entrepreneurs who have become successful in the Gulf.  

This has been especially strange as Indian merchants, both Hindus and Muslims alike, from Sindh and Gujarat have not just been active in Gulf trade since the eighteenth century but also dominated trade in the region till the early twentieth century. This book seeks to fill this gap in our understanding of Indian migration experience in the Gulf.  Because of the paucity of works dealing with the subject, the book relies heavily upon field research conducted by the author in the UAE.  

The first section of the book provides a brief history of the UAE and the major transformation that occurred in its economy during the twentieth century. Before the discovery and production of oil, the major commercial activity of the Emirate was pearl trade. The world economic depression that set in during the late-1920s led to the decline of the pearl industry while the 1960s saw the beginning of earnings from the sale of oil. In the next section, the author has described the changing nature of migration from India to the Gulf, both before and after oil became the primary component of economy. During the former period, the migration was in the form of Indian merchants who settled in the Gulf for the conduct of maritime trade. In the oil phase, most of the migration has been in the form of massive labour migration. The differences between the two types of migration have been neatly delineated here.  

The book then moves on to detail the ethnic and caste backgrounds of the different Indian entrepreneurial groups in the UAE including the different Sindhi groups, Parsis and Muslim sects and finally the newly emergent businessmen from Kerala. In the last two chapters, the author has listed the major NRI entrepreneurs in various fields like general trade/consumer electronics, textiles, jewellery, education, health care, manufacturing, media etc. The work has touched upon little known aspects like the reach of underworld personalities based in places like Dubai on the Bollywood film industry and the child-begging rackets in Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia for which most of the children are brought from Murshidabad district in West Bengal.  The book also has certain interesting and revealing details on the annual increase in NRI deposits in India since the 1970s.  

The book naturally has certain shortcomings that are inevitable in any research which is at a preliminary stage. Instead of devoting the last two chapters to describe major NRI entrepreneurs, it would have been worthwhile to focus on how caste and community factors have provided an edge to these businessmen to become successful in specific commercial areas. While this issue has been given attention in the first chapters with regard to the early Indian merchant communities in the Gulf, it holds true even for the post-1970s situation.

In the UAE the Sindhis continue to dominate textile trade. Coming to the new generation of Malayalee businessmen, the inclination of different business communities towards particular kinds of trade have influenced the nature of their businesses in the UAE. While Kerala Muslims are well known for their entrepreneurial skills in various fields, until recently Kerala Christians had enjoyed a kind of monopoly in gold jewellery business centred in the town of Thrissur in central Kerala. This explains the success of the Joy Alukkas group in the UAE. It is only the innovative and daring among traditional trading communities like the Sindhis who have ventured into new areas like consumer electronics during the 1950s when most of them started diverting to textiles and foodstuffs businesses in the aftermath of the decline of the pearl trade.

There are also variations in the initial locations of business chains in the Gulf. Most Sindhi businessmen dealing in general trade and branded items began their businesses in other Gulf locations like Kuwait before beginning franchises in the UAE. On the other hand, the newer generation of Keralite businessmen began in the UAE before branching out into other parts of the Gulf. This points to the fact that while all the Gulf countries prospered from oil revenues, it was the UAE that eventually became a major re-exporting hub and financial centre that led to the emergence of the ‘Dubai model of development’ in contrast to other countries which used to depend solely on oil revenues. A brief comparison between the UAE and the other Gulf states would have helped us better understand the historical development of the NRI entrepreneurs in the UAE.

Finally, far from being exploratory and introductory as the author claims, Non-Resident Indian Entrepreneurs in the United Arab Emirates is a pioneering one and would inspire further research on the issues that Professor Jain had raised.

Shelly Johny is a Doctoral Candidate in the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

As part of its editorial policy, the MEI@ND standardizes spelling and date formats to make the text uniformly accessible and stylistically consistent. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views/positions of the MEI@ND.

Editor, MEI@ND: P R Kumaraswamy