There are few people, much less immigrants, who can recall the days when Dubai truly was little more than a stretch of sand. Sheikh Zayed Road was a mere two lanes and the tallest building was a few storeys high. The population consisted of a scattering of people in a dusty city little known internationally.
That was until oil was discovered and thousands of foreigners flocked to the emirate to seek the opportunities. Among them was an ambitious 20-something-year-old Indian immigrant named Asgar Patel.
But what made Patel stand out in the early 1970s was that he had already proven his independent business acumen after building up the largest Asian transport company at the time, Patel Roadways, despite his age.
He arrived in Dubai with the cash needed to kick-start his own ventures, ironically benefitting from the earnings of his fellow Asian expats who typically worked as low-paid labourers. Wall Street Exchange Centre became the UAE’s largest and oldest foreign exchange and money transfer company and was a lifeline for many who came to rely on Dubai to support their families back home. Remittances from Dubai are among the highest in the world, with nearly $13bn transferred out of the country last year, according to UAE Exchange.
Patel says he could sniff the money-making opportunities in the Middle East from 2,000km away.
“Because I was educated in England I didn’t really like India, to be honest with you. Therefore I came to Dubai,” Patel says.
“First thing, it was a tax haven. Secondly, the government really encouraged investment very much. Sheikh Rashid, the father of Sheikh Mohammed, I used to know personally. Things were different in those days; you could talk to them, sit and have a cup of tea with them.
“I established the exchange centre to help the increasing number of Indians remitting money from Dubai to India. Dubai was just building up so labourers had to send the money back to India. Being in the roadways business I didn’t see any difference to transporting money. One thing went by wire and one thing went by truck.”
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