South Asian success stories: 10 people living the dream in the Middle East


By: Hyacinth Mascarenhas

It is no secret that South Asia and the Middle East have had a very close relationship for centuries.

Since the 1970s oil boom, the Gulf region has become one of the most popular destinations for South Asian workers. Expatriates from Asia, Africa and the Middle East were estimated at nearly 48 percent of the GCC’s total population of 43 million at the start of 2011. About 7.5 million come from India alone.

Trade between Asia and the Middle East rose almost 700 percent in the decade ending in 2010 leading to growing investment and deeper political and cultural ties. In every sector of society in the Arab world, more and more South Asians, especially from India, are making it big in the region. From retail and banking to entertainment and healthcare, these men and women came with almost nothing in the hopes of finding a better life in the Middle East and now sit atop successful, region-wide business empires.

Elan highlights ten successful South Asians whose remarkable success stories and remarkable career paths toward living the dream in the Middle East are certainly worth mentioning:


1.     Dr. B.R. Shetty, CEO of UAE Exchange and CEO of NMC Healthcare

“There were times, of course, particularly in the early years when my dream became a little threadbare, but I always knew that there would come a time when all the right pieces were in the right place. It was simply a question of where and when, and being ready when it happened.” – Dr. B.R. Shetty

When Dr. Bavaguthu Raghuram Shetty first arrived in Abu Dhabi from India in 1973, he shared a bedroom with four other men and earned no more than Dh 500 (about $136) a month as a door-to-door medical sales representative. Today, he is the CEO of UAE Exchange and the founding partner and CEO of New Medical Centre Health care, the largest health care services group in the Gulf region. His hospitals and clinics treat about 5000 patients a day and he’s not slowing down yet. He is also considering opening hospitals in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with further expansion across the MENA region once political stability returns and running a chain of super-speciality hospitals in India.

With an empire estimated to be worth between $500 million and $1.72 billion, Shetty is considered one of the UAE’s most successful expatriate businessmen.


2.     Mohan Jashanmal, regional manager of Jashanmal National Company

“India is like my mother, but I have grown up here, earned my livelihood here [in the UAE], so this is like my father, and I have the greatest respect for my mother and father.” – Mohan Jashanmal

Mohan Jashanmal came to the UAE in 1964, a time when freshwater was still being brought over in converted diesel drums from Bahrain. Today, he is the regional manager of the Jashanmal National Company in Abu Dhabi and Chairman of the Indian Business and Professional Group. He is also among a coveted few expatriates to be granted permanent residency in the UAE.

Serving as a bridge between Emiratis and Indian expatriates for more than half a century, Jashanmal is a spokesperson for the Indian diaspora and founder of India Club in Abu Dhabi. He continuously strives to continue the family legacy of hard work and excellence. In 2011, he received the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman in 2011, a prestigious award for Indians living abroad, for his continued efforts toward promoting cultural, traditional and trade relations between India and the UAE.


3.     Sunny Varkey, founder and chairman of GEMS

“My parents were brought over by Easa Saleh al-Gurg, who later became the United Arab Emirates ambassador to Great Britain. Our family came with empty hands, but in those days the U.A.E. was a land of opportunity.”

Arriving in Dubai in 1959, Sunny Varkey’s parents taught English as a second language and later started their first school for Indian expatriate children, Our Own English High School, in 1968. Since Sunny Varkey took over the company in 1980, it has gone through an amazing transformation from a single school to a multinational company with schools across the globe. GEMS Education, one of the largest providers of K-12 education in the world, currently educated an estimated 130,000 students with about 70 schools operating in 18 countries.

His company also hosted the first Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai earlier this year bringing together delegates from across the globe including former U.S. president Bill Clinton who was named honorary chairman of the Varkey GEMS foundation, the company’s philanthropic arm.


4.     Joy Alukkas, owner of Joyalukkas Group

“Hard work and dedication, of course, but the most important thing is having a target,” he says. “Only if you have a target, an aim, can you work towards it.” – Joy Alukkas on the secret of his success.

As the owner of well-known jewelry firm Joyalukkas Group, Joy Alukkas is a successful entrepreneur who has changed the way the world looks at jewelry. His father Varghese Alukkas started his first jewelry showroom in 1956 in Thrissur, Kerela in India. Born into a large family of 18 siblings, Joy followed his father’s footsteps and flew to the UAE in 1987 to explore the untapped market in the Middle East.

The company is now a $1 billion global conglomerate with as many as 85 outlets spread over nine countries including the UAE, Qatar, the UK, India and Singapore. In addition to being the only jeweler to be awarded the Superbrand status in the UAE for three consecutive years from 2010 to 2012, the company is also involved in multiple corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities around the globe including building homes, helping expats with financial assistance and more.


5.     Mukesh ‘Micky’ Jagtiani, owner of Landmark Group

“In Buddhism they say you only learn through hardships, and that your best friend in life is your hardship and sorrow. So when you get it, welcome it because it is going to teach you more about life than anything else.” – Mukesh Jagtiani 

When Mukesh ‘Micky’ Jagtiani was 21, he said he cleaned hotel rooms in Earls Court, the cheapest part of London and used to drive minicabs while studying to become an accountant. Jagtiani ended up dropping out and founded the Landmark Group in Bahrain in 1973 with a single store. Today, he is known as the king of retail in the Gulf and is the owner or regional owners of 23 major brands and more than 1300 stories spanning 18 countries.

His Dubai-based company operates multiple international stores including New Look, Shoemart, Steve Madden, Kurt Geiger, Maxx Fashion, Splah and the Home Centre.


6.     Mukund Cairae, CEO of Zee Entertainment enterprise – Middle East, North Africa and Pakistan

“It is the audience that teaches you what they want to watch.” – Mukund Cairae

Joining Zee Network in 2004, Mukund Cairae came into the company in distribution for Asia Pacific. He now heads their offices in Dubai and handles the MENA region. Pakistan and Turkey for one of the largest media companies in the world. Zee Entertainment currently spans 187 countries reaching almost 650 billion per day.

Cairae has held a number of senior positions at Zee and has seen Zee Network’s regional operations record its most profitable year in 2011-2012 along with a 77 percent increase in gross advertising revenues in the last three years under his leadership.


7.     Dr. Zulekha Daud, head of Zulekha Healthcare group

“Beyond the technology, besides the specialists, something more is there — the magic of a caring touch.”  –  Dr. Zulekha Daud

Dr. Zulekha Daud left India over 40 years ago to join her husband in an overseas posting in Kuwait. After working at the Kuwaiti Mission Hospital, she established the Zulekha Healthcare Group in Sharjah in 1961 aiming to offer affordable healthcare and medical support to all. The firm now oversees running hospitals in Dubai and Sharjah, two medical centers and three pharmacies treating over 550,000 patients annually.

Zulekha remains a well-known and well-trusted healthcare firm in the Middle East and received the Dubai Quality Appreciation Award and Dubai Quality Award in 2008 and 2012 respectively.


8.     Yusuff Ali M.A, founder of EMKE Group

“I believe hard work and sincerity are the main ingredients of success. Another key factor is adaptability: our ability to adapt to changing international trends and best practices is the main reason for our growth.” – Yusuff Ali M.A.

As head of the EMKE Group, Kerala-born Yusuff Ali M.A. is famous in India and the Middle East as owner of the popular grocery chain, Lulu Hypermarkets. Based in Abu Dhabi, EMKE opened the first supermarket in the early 1990s. It has now expanded across the GCC with more than 104 stores, controls 32 percent of the retail market share and has an annual turnover of $4.5 billion making Yusuff Ali one of the most powerful expat businessmen in the Gulf.

He was also the first expat to be elected as a board member of the Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce & Industry in 2005.


9.     Vishal Tikku, regional head of Mondelez International (formerly known as Kraft Foods)

“Part of being a global corporate business is being a global corporate citizen. Giving back to the community has always been part of the company’s culture and mission, and we are keen to make a difference in our communities.” – Vishal Tikku

Born and raised in Lucknow, India, Vishal Tikku worked at advertising agency Oglivy India before moving to Dubai in the late 1980s. After joining Kraft Foods Middle East & Africa as a Marketing Director in December 2004, he went on to become the Managing Director – GCC and ME Shared Services. Modelez International, formerly known as Kraft Foods, is the second largest food firm behind Nestle and is worth an estimated $36 billion.

Looking after some of the biggest brands in the region, Tikku heads a company whose products are staples in many households in the Gulf including Tang, Cadbury Dairy Milk, Flake, Oreo, Kraft and Philadelphia Cheese.


10.  Arif Masood Naqvi, founder and CEO of Abraaj Capital

“There are two kinds of people in this world. The first kind wake up in the morning, they look up, and they say ‘Good morning, God’. The second kind wake up in the morning, look up, and say ‘Good God, its morning.”

As founder and CEO of Dubai-based Abraaj Capital, said to be the largest private equity company in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia with, Arif Masood Naqvi has earned the reputation as one of the leading expat businessmen in the Gulf. He was also awarded the highest civilian honor in Pakistan, the Sitari-e-Imtiaz, by the country’s president in 2006.

Naqvi has also set up multiple funds to encourage job creation and support entrepreneurs and small business owners including the Riyada Enterprise Development Fund and partnered with the Palestine Investment Fund to support Palestinian companies.




  1. I personally know three people on this list and they are all amazing people. They work hard and are brilliant. This is a great list.

  2. “In every sector of society in the Arab world, more and more South Asians, especially from India, are making it big in the region.”

    Luck also plays a huge factor, in addition to hard work and brilliance. I sincerely hope the people on these list pass on that luck and opportunity to others in the region as well.

  3. Hi admin, i must say you have very interesting content here.
    Your website should go viral. You need initial traffic boost only.

    How to get it? Search for: Mertiso’s tips go viral

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