Dr. Dilnawaz Rumi, a member of the medical team of HRH Prince Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz, the then Crown Prince, was not even 30 when he started working at the royal palace. Now, 25 years later, despite the death of the then crown prince, he continues to remain a trusted physician of the House of Saud.
Starting as a standby for the main Saudi physician on leave, India-born Dr. Rumi became close to the Crown Prince, and accompanied him on his hunting trips to Morocco.
Hailing from a small town in the West Champaran district of Bihar, Dr. Rumi said, “Saudi Arabia is like a second home for around three million Indian expatriates. Their love for Indians, in particular, is noteworthy, and the centuries-old relations between the two countries play a big role.”
Saudi Arabia is no longer a country that attracts just the blue-collar or menial workers, but over the years highly educated professionals, including a growing number of tech, energy, and medical experts from India, including top doctors trusted by the royal family, have settled here and helped in the economic growth of the Gulf Kingdom.
The Indian expatriate community started coming and working here much before the advent of oil that prospered the local economy. Indians as migrant workers first began to arrive in modern-day Saudi Arabia in relatively small numbers soon after the discovery of oil in 1938. Their migration shot up manifold after the 1973 energy crisis – when the members of the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries led by Saudi Arabia proclaimed an oil embargo, which was targeted at nations that had supported Israel during the 1973 Arab–Israeli War – and subsequent oil boom.
Since then, Indians, mainly from Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, and, more recently, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Gujarat, have found employment in the Kingdom. Today, the Indian diaspora comprises about 10-13 percent of the total population and is the largest expatriate community in Saudi Arabia.
Not only is the community flourishing, but they are ready to provide a helping hand to their community members and the society at large in times of need.
While there are many Indian social workers and volunteers in every city of the Kingdom to provide help to the needy or stranded Indians and laborers, one such social platform is Indo-Arab Helping Hands, which was formed by like-minded Indian community members from different strata to give support to the patients and their families during the second deadly wave of COVID-19 last year.
They worked tirelessly during the pandemic and helped provide plasma, blood, hospital beds, oxygen cylinders, ambulance, and other necessary medicines not only for people back home in India but also in the Gulf region. This way they were not only there to provide succor in times of acute need but also strengthened bilateral and regional bonds between their adopted country, the region, and their native land.
Asad Ali, an Indian management professional living in the Gulf region for around two decades, presently in Saudi Arabia for 11 years, who is a founding member of the Forum, said, “We all came together with the zeal to help people suffering during this pandemic. It wasn’t easy to reach out to thousands of needy patients in India and in the Gulf countries. All the team members – from professors to businessmen to engineers, doctors, and social workers– really worked hard. We are happy that we were able to help out in this time of great crisis.”
Raghib Yahya, an Indian academic living in the Kingdom for more than a decade, who is also a founding member of the Forum, said he joined the cause seeing the “pure intention” of the members to help during the pandemic.
“We were able to help more than a thousand people both in India and in the Middle Eastern region too.”
Praise for the work of the Forum also came from the first woman commercial pilot of Saudi Arabia, Yasmeen Al-Maimani, said, “Doing these kinds of activities and help, Inshallah, will make the relations between India and Saudi Arabia even better and stronger. Not only that, but it will also provide an opportunity to have better people to people interactions.”
In recognition of the contributions of the Indian community, the Saudi government treats equally every expat, irrespective of their religion, and is quick to ameliorate their problems. What perhaps has given impetus to the relationship in recent years was the two landmark visits of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2016 and 2019, followed by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to India in February 2019.
In his 2019 visit, Modi commented on the immense role the Indian diaspora has played in building bilateral relationships between the two countries. India is proud of the place that “you have made for yourself in the Kingdom, and your hard work and commitment have helped generate a lot of goodwill for the overall bilateral relationship.
“..Indians have made Saudi Arabia their second home, contributing to its growth and development. Many Indians also visit the Kingdom every year for the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimage and business purposes,” Modi said.
As Indians are steeped in their cultural and traditional ethos, the Indian embassy in Riyadh and Consulate General of India in Jeddah very actively organize cultural programs from time to time. Recently, a cultural extravaganza was organized as part of Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav to mark the completion of 75 years of diplomatic relations between India and Saudi Arabia.
Bollywood movies are a major draw for Saudis. Recently Saudi Arabia conferred the title of “Personality of the Year” on Bollywood superstar Salman Khan, who is very famous in the Kingdom, for his contribution to the film industry.
Despite being a Muslim country, the Kingdom has taken to Indian cultural and spiritual practices for enhancing physical and mental well-being. The country saw its first yoga festival, which kicked off on January 29, and was attended by more than a thousand participants, including many women. Videos of the yoga festival were widely circulated.
Indian yoga teacher Irum Khan also participated in the festival. She has been teaching in Saudi Arabia since 2008. Two famous yoga teachers in Jeddah — Dana Algosaibi, a Saudi national, and one Lebanese Natalie Kriedeih — also took to the stage. The mega-event was organized by the Saudi Yoga Committee.
With burgeoning ties growing across frontier areas, Saudi Arabia is becoming a fast-growing investment destination for Indian companies. As per data from the Ministry of Investment of Saudi Arabia, there are 476 Indian companies registered as joint ventures or hundred percent owned entities, worth US $1.5 billion in the Kingdom as of March 2020.
These businesses include diverse sectors such as energy, fintech, health, management and consultancy services, construction projects, telecommunications, information technology, and software development. These companies not only facilitate more investments and businesses but help in creating more job opportunities for both the local Saudi and expat professionals.
In the list of business tycoons of Indian origin who are shaping the Kingdom’s economy, according to Forbes’ World’s Billionaires 2018, Lulu International Group is the most prominent one. M. A. Yusuf Ali, the chairman and managing director of LuLu Group International, owns the Lulu Hypermarket chain worldwide and LuLu International Shopping Malls. Though headquartered in the UAE, Ali is a major player in the economic scenario of the Middle East with an annual turnover of USD 8 billion and a staff force of more than 57,000. The group is expanding its presence in Saudi Arabia with 30 stores across the Kingdom.
Sunny Varkey, an education entrepreneur and philanthropist, the founder and executive chairman of the global advisory and educational management firm GEMS Education, stands tall for his immense contribution to the country’s education sector. The company is the largest operator of private kindergarten-to-grade-12 schools globally, with a network of over 80 schools in over a dozen countries. Currently, several schools are being operated by him in different cities of Saudi Arabia.
P. Basheer is another name among the known Indian-origin businesspeople known for their business acumen. Owner of a small shop in 1986, he was able to diversify his business and founded the Western International Group. His most famous business in retail is NESTO Supermarket in Saudi Arabia which has 85 outlets across the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and India.
Shamlal Ahamed MP is the Managing Director of international operations and the son of M.P. Ahammed, the founder of Malabar Gold and Diamonds, founded in 1933 in Kerala. Shamlal left behind his career in computer science to join the family’s jewelry business and helped in creating a quality brand that garnered the trust of the people in the purity of gold and diamond. Despite starting at a young age, he helped turn the firm into one of the most successful jewelry firms in the world. The company has 12 jewelry brands and an annual turnover of $4.5 billion, with a network of 260 outlets spread across ten countries.
Nadeem Tareen, Co-founder, Partner, and Director, Inshaat Salman Al-Terais Contracting Co., KSA, came to the Kingdom as a site engineer. But he soon rose to become a prominent businessman and educationist. His ambition to contribute to education led him to build hostels in Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh and establish various schools and colleges in Saudi Arabia and India.
But they are not the only ones. Several business tycoons began their business from small firms but within a short span, due to the hard work and business acumen, attained unprecedented success in the Kingdom with the full support of local authorities. The most popular among them is the SPAR group.
The President and Chief Executive Officer, Shibli Siddiqui, began his journey in early 2000 with his siblings. Within six years, he established his company, SPAR, which is now considered a pioneer in providing various access solutions, scaffolding products, and equipment in Saudi Arabia.
The company was based in New Delhi but soon spread its wings to Saudi Arabia. “Today, we have diversified into retail and steel manufacturing, hospitality, industrial technical services, industrial scaffolding services, and access solutions, etc. Very soon, more will be added to our business portfolio,” he said.
“There are many opportunities available if you have strong willpower and commitment. The local government and the people are supportive and friendly, and they are always there to support the good work and proposals. On the other hand, the largest Indian community in the Kingdom has always contributed positively towards the nation’s overall development,” said Siddiqui.
Alungal Mohammed, a Kerala-born businessman, the President, Chairman, and Managing Director of Al Abeer Group, runs a healthcare organization that operates high-end medical centers and hospitals across major cities in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations. His rise was meteoric. To provide quality medical care at the most affordable price triggered him to open a polyclinic in Jeddah in 1999. From there began the group’s rapid expansion, which now has 15 facilities in Saudi Arabia and has established itself in Oman, Qatar, UAE, Kuwait, and India.
V.P Mohammad Ali, another Kerala-born businessman, the Chairman and Managing Director of Jeddah National Hospital (JNH) runs an independent hospital that provides a high standard of medical care with around 1000 employees. With the hospital’s rapid expansion and the inclusion of advanced facilities, JNH is dedicated to achieving its vision to be one of the best tertiary healthcare providers in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
It is this strong and flourishing Indian diaspora that has over the years made a mark in Saudi Arabia and thus helped cement the centuries-old economic and socio-cultural ties between the two nations.
Asif Rameez Daudi is a regular columnist to national and international publications, is a King Abdulaziz University faculty member, Jeddah, KSA. He is also an international advisor at Millenial India International Chamber of Commerce Industry and Agriculture (MICCIA), a non-profit, non-governmental consultancy organization based in New Delhi.