Thriving in the Land of Opportunities: The Dawoodi Bohras of the UAE

From humble beginnings to towering achievements - a look back to the journey of the Dawoodi Bohra community of the UAE.

Leadership in thought and action have been the defining traits of the UAE since its founding in 1971. The federation is blessed with a visionary leadership that gives top priority to the interests of the country and its citizens and makes them the focus of planning and national development. The UAE’s pioneering development experience is a blueprint of how governmental policies and independent enterprise synergise to enable progress and prosperity. 

The Dawoodi Bohras of the UAE have thrived in such conditions for the last five decades. Building on their penchant for business and trade, community members have come and built a legacy of growth and development based on the foundations laid by the country’s leadership. This article revisits the community’s journey down the years, from humble beginnings to towering achievements, with the recently concluded Ashara Mubaraka prime amongst them.

Humble Beginnings

The Dawoodi Bohra community is a part of the UAE’s history from its inception, when the first community members set foot in the region during the mid-twentieth century. Local community lore narrates the arrival of two brothers from the Karim family—Essaji and Moosaji from Gujarat—in the early 1940s as the first of what would grow into a thriving community that calls the land their home.

The progressive vision of the UAE leadership and the strategic position of the country as a significant trade hub provided an impetus for people to arrive in search of better livelihoods. Throughout the 1950s, Bohra community members began trickling in.  However, it was the 1960s that witnessed the first major wave of migrations when families began settling down.

Jabir Rasheed, 75, is a community member who came to Dubai in 1971 after completing his Bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering in Surat, India. ‘At that time, Dubai was teeming with opportunities. Within five days of my arrival, I landed an opportunity as a technical assistant at Galadari Engineering.’ He goes on to state two reasons why he thinks people came in droves to Dubai, “The regulations at the Port were what I call ‘business-friendly’ because of which the import and export business was booming at that time. Another important aspect was the ease with which a trading licence could be obtained. Of course, Dubai was nowhere as luxurious as today. Life was tough, but the profit was ten or twenty times the input.”

From Shared Accommodations to Growing Businesses

Initially, a large percentage of community members worked in the service sector, living in shared accommodations, with most bidding adieu to their families in their homelands. Gradually, people began exploring and venturing into a range of businesses, including hardware, construction, furniture, and dealing in ship supplies and equipment to name a few. 

In the early years, the expatriate community was comparatively small; there was a frequent and healthy socio-cultural exchange between the expats and the emirati citizens, where it would not be uncommon to find them sharing traditional recipes and bonding over evening Qahwa—the Middle-Eastern version of coffee. 

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Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin personally visited the shops and businesses of community members and encouraged them to expand and grow in their endeavours.

The 52nd al-Dai al-Mutlaq, the late Sultan al-Bohra Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, visited the region for the first time in 1969, where he interacted with community members and counselled them to adopt a business-minded attitude toward earning a livelihood. ‘The late Syedna had a vision focused on the growth and development of his community and the region. He encouraged community members to be honest and innovative in their business dealings. On his first visit, he visited all business establishments with a keen interest in their wellbeing and prosperity,’ said 81-year-old Akbarali Fakhruddin, living in Dubai for the past 55 years.

Deira, a bustling market area famous for its heritage structures and the renowned gold souk (gold market), was the primary commercial hub back then where people from the northern emirates would come to shop at a market known as Souk al Murshid. Shabbir Abbas, a community member, shares that his father migrated from Bahrain to set up a textile shop in the souk in the 1960s. ‘Although the UAE was yet to establish itself as an official state, my father received a warm welcome from the leaders and the local community. He got his trading licence officially signed by His Highness Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, who was known to visit the Souk and its adjoining areas in Deira to take stock of things and interact with people,’ he said. 

The late His Highness Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum interacts with Dawoodi Bohra community members in Dubai.
The late His Highness Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum interacts with Dawoodi Bohra community members in Dubai.

‘In the early years, we would gather in community members’ homes to mark important occasions. It was in 1978 that a community centre was established at a rented property in an area called Shabiya Power House where nearly 100 people would gather to mark occasions,’ remembers Zohair Poonawala, a resident of Abu Dhabi for nearly fifty years. Reminiscing about the first community centre, Aliasger Tapya recalls it as a warehouse roofed with aluminium sheets. Air conditioning was far off at the time and fans were all they had to cope with the high temperatures. 

In the early years, community members rented out spaces to assemble and attend community functions.
In the early years, community members rented out spaces to assemble and attend community functions.

The year 1984 was a historic one where the inauguration of the first Dawoodi Bohra masjid in the Gulf region became a milestone that cemented the community’s identity in the region. 

Saifee Masjid in Deira was the first Dawoodi Bohra masjid in the Gulf region and was inaugurated by the late Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin in 1984.
Saifee Masjid in Deira was the first Dawoodi Bohra masjid in the Gulf region and was inaugurated by the late Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin in 1984.

For the Dawoodi Bohras, as for many Muslims throughout the world, the masjid is the beating heart of their community. Primarily a place for community members to gather for prayer and spiritual guidance, it also serves as the nucleus of the community’s educational and social activities. It wasn’t long before the prospect of living near the masjid and its associated benefits attracted families to the bylanes of Deira. 

Expanding the Footprint Across the Emirates

As Dubai captured the attention of an increasing number of Bohra families each year, its sister emirates were also beginning to attract community members to their shores. 

The Dubai-Sharjah connecting road in the 1980s
The Dubai-Sharjah connecting road in the 1980s

Alifiyah Sulemanjee, a fourth-generation resident of Sharjah, said, “My great-grandfather Mr Abdul Rahim Tapya used to remind us of the empty expanses in the early years saying that the Sharjah-Dubai road was a single lane road in the 1970s and that the road where his furniture showroom was located was surrounded by barren desert and nothing much else”.

Nooruddin Khetiwala, like many of his generation, was an ambitious man of the 1970s. His intention was to seek better opportunities and establish himself as a successful businessman. This ambition brought him to Sharjah in the early 1970s at the young age of 25, a time when the region had begun progressing upwards on the trajectory of growth. His journey from the small town of Bhuj in Gujarat, India, to leading the Dolphin conglomerate in the UAE, is a textbook example of how aspiration and hard work translate into success.

The first community centre in Sharjah was established in a nondescript structure in the Maysaloon area. Eventually, the Masjid al-Fatimeen al-Bohra was established in 2003 which was further expanded in 2020. 

The late Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin attends a congregation at the erstwhile community centre in Abu Dhabi in the 1980s.
The late Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin attends a congregation at the erstwhile community centre in Abu Dhabi in the 1980s.

The emirate of Abu Dhabi follows a similar path. In the 1960s, the first few members of the community established themselves as small-time merchants on Najda Street, where they traded hardware and building materials. With the passage of time, the community made a mark as hard working business people with a reputation for honesty. Today, they are engaged in businesses ranging from shops selling hardware and spare parts to large manufacturing industries, international commodities trading, information technology and construction.

The turn of the millennium marked another key event for the community in the UAE. The community in Dubai commenced construction of a new masjid in the Al Qusais area where the Dubai government had granted a plot of land in 2001. The Burhani Masjid, one of the largest Dawoodi Bohra masjids in the Gulf region, was inaugurated by the late Sultan al-Bohra Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin in 2004 and chosen by him as the venue for the annual Ashara Mubaraka gathering that year.

First Ashara Mubaraka Congregation in the Gulf Region

The late Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin addresses community members in a sermon during the first Ashara Mubaraka congregation in Dubai and the overall Gulf region in 2004.
The late Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin addresses community members in a sermon during the Ashara Mubaraka congregation in 2004 held in Dubai.

For the Dawoodi Bohras, the Ashara congregations are akin to a spiritual, educational and material journey of growth and development.

Among the numerous benefits for the host city is the transformation of the selected location into a cultural hub for the Dawoodi Bohra community. The presence of Syedna, the influx of thousands of visitors and the coordination and cooperation with local and national governmental bodies elevates the local community’s standing.

The first-ever Ashara Mubaraka event in the Gulf region in 2004 was attended by nearly 40,000 community members from across the world and brought global attention to the UAE community for their hospitality and organisation.

At the invitation of the Dubai Government, Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin arrived in the host city as a state guest and an ambassador of peace and goodwill for the region. 

At the time, the area near the masjid was sparsely populated. An expansive marquee was set up near the masjid to accommodate the attendees. 

His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum (then Deputy Prime Minister) greets Sultan al Bohra Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin in 2004.
His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum (then Deputy Prime Minister) greets Sultan al Bohra Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin in 2004.

'The Ashara event was successfully managed owing to the determination of the UAE community and the efforts expended by the Government of Dubai, spearheaded by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum (then Deputy Prime Minister), who, during a meeting with Sultan al-Bohra, assured him of providing ample facilities to cater to the guests', said Shabbir Taheri, a Dubai resident of five decades. 

A feature in the Gulf News at the time stated, “Dr Burhanuddin said Islam means peace and the message of Muharram is universal peace. He urged his followers to remain committed to Islam and Sharia, respect human values, and work for the welfare of fellow beings. The Sultan, who was received as a state guest of the Government of Dubai, thanked the UAE leadership for the facilities and support provided throughout the event.”

Glimpses from the Ashara Mubaraka event in 2004. (R) The Burhani Masjid in Al Qusais can be seen in the background.

From Strength to Strength

With time, Bohra communities across the UAE, and Dubai in particular, grew both in size and stature. The younger generation, born and brought up in Dubai, took over the mantle of their fathers and forefathers with zest and determination. ‘Between 1985 and 2000 is what I call a period of transition. A slew of investments in the public sector and a range of economic opportunities was transforming the country and its people at a rapid pace,’ said Saifuddin Rupawala, COO of Lulu Group. ‘Community members rode this opportune wave where small-time traders opened up showrooms, established business houses, moved into manufacturing, and educated professionals landed opportunities at big companies,’ he added.

Business-mindedness and entrepreneurialism are defining traits of the Dawoodi Bohra community wherever they live. By adhering to the Islamic business code of conduct, diligence, and hard work, community members across the emirates scaled new heights while cultivating a reputation for ethical business practices based on honesty and trustworthiness.

Today, the community is contributing to the UAE’s socio-economic fabric through a range of businesses in retail, real estate development, textile, electronics, travel & tourism, manufacturing and the health sector. A number of professionals including doctors, lawyers, engineers, architects, IT specialists, chartered accountants and teachers also play important roles in contributing to the country’s economy. 

Contributing to the National Fabric

The ultimate purpose of ‘uplifting someone’ as stated by the late Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin and reiterated today by Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin is ‘to enable one who previously required assistance (both financially or otherwise) to begin assisting others of one’s own accord.’ Dawoodi Bohras across the UAE began their journeys with humble beginnings and have since grown into an enterprising and prosperous community. Throughout these years, the community has supported various social, cultural and environmental initiatives in line with the government’s agenda aimed at the betterment of society.

The MSB Private School in Al Qusais, Dubai
The MSB Private School in Al Qusais, Dubai

The drive for environment sustainability is a case in point. For the past two decades, community members have participated in various environmental and cleanup initiatives where young and old come out to lend a hand and raise awareness. The community’s MSB Private School in Al Qusais hosts regular seminars and workshops to sensitise and encourage students to lead sustainable lives. 

The Dawoodi Bohra community in Dubai were conferred with a ‘Special Category Award’ in the MEWAR Awards 2022.
The Dawoodi Bohra community in Dubai were conferred with a ‘Special Category Award’ in the MEWAR Awards 2022.
Dr Tariq al-Gurg, CEO of Dubai Cares, recognises the community's partnership in giving back to society.
Dr Tariq al-Gurg, CEO of Dubai Cares, recognises the community's partnership in giving back to society.

Additionally, nationwide e-waste collection drives and support for the Abu Dhabi mangrove initiative have been successful interventions that have motivated volunteers to plan and implement ambitious environmental projects on a sustained basis. These initiatives are carried out under the banner of Project Rise, the community’s global philanthropic arm that strives to uplift society across multiple focus areas in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. A validation of these initiatives came in the form of the Dubai Dawoodi Bohra community being recognised at the MEWAR (Middle East Waste and Recycling) Awards 2022 where they were conferred a ‘Special Category Award’ for their efforts in environmental conservation and sustainability.

Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin planted a date palm tree at the reservoir near Burhani Masjid in Al Qusais in the presence of senior officials from Dubai Municipality.
Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin planted a date palm tree at the reservoir near Burhani Masjid in Al Qusais in the presence of senior officials from Dubai Municipality.

In 2023, after the culmination of the Ashara Mubaraka event in Dubai, the current leader of the worldwide Dawoodi Bohra communitySultan al-Bohra Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin, initiated the planting of 80 indigenous date palm trees in Al Qusais, Dubai to foster positive climate action and promote sustainable development in the UAE.

Conclusion

The Burhani Masjid in Al Qusais, a testimony of the Dawoodi Bohra aspiration and growth in the UAE since the past 50 years.
The Burhani Masjid in Al Qusais, a testimony of the Dawoodi Bohra aspiration and growth in the UAE since the past 50 years.

Throughout its journey across six decades, the community evolved and established a distinct identity by developing a cohesive and organised community structure wherever they lived. This has helped them earn livelihoods, establish community institutions and successfully tackle and overcome various kinds of challenges—the Covid-19 pandemic being the most recent example.

Today—having hosted its first international Ashara Mubaraka event in 2004—the community has successfully organised the second such event this year, hosting nearly double the attendees than last time. Moreover, to cater to nearly 75,000 people in record-breaking hot temperatures for ten days is a testament to the cooperative temperament inherent within the UAE. Several governmental institutions, private companies and community volunteers synergised their resources in an exemplary display of coordination that has inspired and will continue to inspire the community in its journey going forward.

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Last Updated
August 17, 2023
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