From schools to hospitals, Kerala businessmen leave imprint on UAE

Some of the UAE’s biggest names in business come from India’s Kerala state

Yusuff Ali, chairman and managing director of Lulu Group International, attends the World Economic Forum (WEF) India Economic Summit in New Delhi, India, on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2016. The summit runs until October 7. Photographer: Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg
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From supermarket magnates to industrialists who have built education conglomerates or established hospitals, some of the UAE’s biggest business names come from India’s Kerala state.

A large portion of the one million people from Kerala who work in the UAE are employed as nurses, drivers, technicians, electricians and accountants.

But there are also those who can be found in the self-made billionaires list and philanthropists who give back to the community by building local schools and clinics.

Yusuff Ali, managing director of the UAE-based Lulu Group left a village in Kerala for a job in his uncle’s distribution business in the 1970s. Described by Forbes as the Middle East’s retail king, his group owns close to 140 hypermarkets and supermarkets across the Middle East, Africa, India and the far East.

Handed the Queen’s Award last year for his contribution to international trade and employment generation in the UK, Mr Ali has diversified into hotel development and food processing.

Dr Azad Moopen, chairman of the DM Healthcare group, spearheads a healthcare chain that operates 18 hospitals, close to 100 clinics and more than 200 pharmacies in the Middle East and India.

A general physician who taught at a government medical college in Kerala, he moved to Dubai in 1987 to help an Indian doctor in an Ajman clinic.

Mr Moopen runs a foundation to help women and the elderly.

One of the most successful education entrepreneurs, Sunny Varkey, is the son of teachers who migrated to Dubai in 1959. Gems Education, of which Mr Varkey is founder, now runs more than 70 schools in 14 countries.

Mr Varkey’s group funds the training of thousands of teachers in programmes in Africa.


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Joy Alukkas’s father Varghese opened the family’s first jewellery showroom in Kerala in 1956. The younger Alukkas grew the business globally with a UAE showroom in 1987.  Joyalukkas is a household name in gold and diamond jewellery in the Middle East and India with more than 90 outlets.

Kerala has produced the most successful industrialists, said Sripriyaa Kumaria, director general of the India Trade and Exhibition centre.

“The Gulf was the most conducive environment for start-ups and saw the rise of entrepreneurs in the early 1980s from being just immigrants in the 1960s,” she said.

“Keralites being the most educated and skilled were an added asset and fuelled the chain reaction of SME growth and facilitated the growth of larger industries. Kerala migrants are no more takers but are givers in the UAE and back home.”