My Life in Dubai (Part 3)
Having lived in Dubai for 30 years (in February ’18) one of the senses you get is that this city always finds a way out of each downturn. The Gulf War turned out to be a time of great opportunity. Being the Supermarket of the region, the whole of Kuwait and Iraq turned to the UAE to stock up after the war. As a simple example, one morning a container truck pulled up outside our office. This Kuwaiti gentleman walked in and said he wanted to buy videotapes. Just stuff as many as you can into the container he said. When the boys started the filling, they found half the container was already filled with toilets, bidets, tiles and other ceramics. The enterprising businessman drove down to Dubai, and picked up whatever he could, such was the level of need for the rebuild of the two countries.
The boom lasted a year or so, and then the market cooled down and we began to worry about what was going to make the change?
Around this time, serendipity struck again. As the representative of my company in a large trade body, I had been tasked to make a presentation on some arcane subject. The meeting was attended by the head honchos of all the leading electronics and appliance companies in the city and they seem to have found the report of great interest. As I finished and returned to my seat, one of the CEOs sitting next to me leant over and asked me, “Are you looking for a change?” I smiled and said, “Well we can discuss it.” He called me into his office the next morning at 9 am and I walked out with a new job.
The Berlin Wall crashed in 1989. By 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was formed. The fortunes of the city began to rise with the opening up of the CIS countries as unbridled capitalism took shape. In Dubai, our streets, taxis and clubs were full of these men and women who were enjoying a new freedom and independence. The hotels, especially the small ones, were packed with individuals out to make a quick buck. If my memory serves me right, the authorities had to soon introduce a rule denying visit visas to single women below 30 years of age. They bought in bulk whatever they could and took the goods back to their countries where it was quickly offloaded. And then they came back for more. I was now engaged in selling watches, and our sales boomed as people bought large quantities for reselling back home.
To give you an idea of the scale of this wholesale business, one of my dealers called me into his office. He was operating from a one shutter shop in Deira, which would have been at most 200 sqft, selling a whole range of different watch brands including ours. He wanted some advice, and I climbed the tiny wooden staircase leading from his shop to a small office on the mezzanine. Looking at his audited reports of the last three years I was stunned. In the last three years, operating from that ‘’ hole in the wall’, his sales turnover was 100, 105 and 110 million Dirhams per year! It was fun and games. Distributors for everything from watches to electronics to tyres to appliances to textiles were busy just getting in huge stocks and clearing them out in days.
Then, in August 1997, the Asian Tigers crisis struck the countries in the Far East, and between August 1998 and September 1998, the value of the Russian Rouble went from 6.43 to a Dollar, to 21 to a Dollar! Before you knew it, all the Russian customers in Dubai disappeared.