On a damp July afternoon, Amina, 42, and her sister Maimoona, 50, waited outside Muhyudheen Juma Masjid in Nattika, Thrissur district, Kerala, holding a sheaf of petitions. From Malappuram they waited to meet their benefactor.
“I want money to build a house; my sister is hoping to get help paying off the debt she incurred when her daughter got married. We have heard that Yusuffali is helping people in distress,” Amina says, as they stand outside the gates of the grand mosque built by the UAE-based businessman in his village of Nattika.
Earlier this month, Musaliam Veettil Abdul Kader Yusuffali or MA Yusuffali made national headlines when his UAE-based Lulu Group has opened a mall in Lucknow. Ali, who toured the newly inaugurated mall in a buggy with Yogi Adityanath, thanked the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister for the “blessings” and for ensuring a “peaceful environment” in the state. With this, Ali, a seasoned businessman whose Lulu Group operates in more than 20 countries, in West Asia, South Asia, the United States and Europe, and has an annual turnover of approximately $8 billion, had entered new territory – its Lucknow operation the first for the group in a northern state.
The Lucknow mall, built with an investment of Rs 2,000 crore, is part of a Rs 13,000 crore expansion plan in India announced in 2018. After Kochi, Bengaluru, Thiruvananthapuram and Thrissur, it is the fifth group shopping center in India. As of 2022, the Lulu Group has 235 stores, employing 60,000 people, around half of them from Kerala. The group has also diversified into the hotel, food and real estate sectors.
But for those in Kerala, Yusuffali is more than “the richest Malayali in the world”, the retail king who stands up for himself even when he is with heads of nations. For many in his home country, he is their last resort, a certainty and insurance when all else fails.
In June 2021, Ali paid the blood money 5 lakh UAE dirhams (about 1 crore rupees) to Free Becks Krishnana Kerala expat sentenced to death in the United Arab Emirates for a 2012 road accident that killed a Sudanese national.
Last month, while Ali was addressing an event in Thiruvananthapuram organized by the Loka Kerala Sabha, an expatriate association, a youth stood up to implore the businessman to help bring him back to home the body of his father, who died in Saudi Arabia. Ali suspended his address, spoke to his team in Arabia and ensured the body reached Kerala within three days.
In August 2019, when Thushar Vellappally, Bharat Dharma State Chairman Jana Sena, an ally of the BJP, was jailed in the UAE in an NSF check case, Ali deposited the amount of bail and released it. release.
There are these and many other accounts of Yusuffali – apparently apocryphal, but stories that his benefactors vouch for.
At Nattika Beach, fisherman PV Raju also has a history with Ali. “Six years ago, I went to meet her to ask for help with a professional course that my daughter wanted to follow. When he learned that I didn’t have a house of my own, he immediately offered to build one for us. His team supervised the construction… Last year, when I went to invite him for my daughter’s wedding, Ali gave him a gold chain,” says Raju, sitting in the house Ali built for him. .
Ali’s journey from a merchant family in the village of Natika to become one of India’s wealthiest people took off in 1970 when he went to pursue a degree course in business administration in Ahmedabad, where his father, MP MK Abdul Qader, ran a business. “Our family had five stores in Ahmedabad, including a restaurant, a general store and an appliance outlet. During his studies, Ali also took care of the administrative matters of the company,” recalls Ali’s paternal uncle, MK Muhammed, who lives in Nattika.
Shortly after, another of his uncles, MK Abdulla, who ran a department store in Abu Dhabi (UAE), asked Ali to help him. During the last week of December 1973, Ali boarded a ship from Mumbai to Dubai to join his uncle’s EMKE store in Abu Dhabi.
He got off to a rough start. The fledgling country, only two years after its formation, had an erratic power supply and Ali is known to have slept on the terrace of the building where he was staying, cooling the ground after dozing it with water. Despite the troubles and the temptation to return home, Ali hung on.
At the EMKE store, he took charge of the loading and unloading of goods and is known to have driven around the Emirates in his vehicle, hawking provisions. Together with his uncle, Ali has managed to ensure that the business keeps pace with the UAE’s economic growth and demands. The family began importing frozen food products from overseas and later established chains of cold stores and food processing units across the country. A decade after arriving in the UAE, Ali has successfully converted EMKE Group into a key retail player. Ali had by then also become the face of the family business.
In the 1990s, even as the Gulf was caught up in a messy war and expats fled, Ali stayed behind and even injected more investment, opening the first supermarket under the Lulu brand in Abu Dhabi. The word Lulu means pearl in Arabic and is often used as a term of endearment. Moreover, before discovering oil, the United Arab Emirates practiced pearl harvesting heavily.
Ali’s decision to stay has won him the support and patronage of the UAE government. Five years later, in 2000, Lulu opened its first hypermarket in Dubai and quickly expanded its presence in the Middle East.
In 2020, ADQ, a holding company owned by the Abu Dhabi government, invested
$1 billion in Lulu International Holdings for its expansion in Egypt. Previously, the ADQ had invested $1 billion in the Lulu group. The Lulu Group has also attracted investment from other governments in the region, including Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF).
Back home in Kerala, queues outside his Nattika home grew longer, with young people hoping to find jobs in Ali’s Gulf businesses. “Ali organized recruitment camps at his home. Aspirants from all parts of Kerala lined up outside his EMKE mansion. In the early years he was directly involved in the process. There was even a special Natika counter for the people of the village,” says Ali’s childhood friend, Abdul Latheef, who lives in Natika after a stint in the Gulf.
Over the years, the Lulu Group’s salary has become the biggest lifeline for the people of Natika. “Many houses in the area have more than one male member employed in the Lulu group. Anyone who wants to go abroad has a job at Lulu depending on their qualification,” says Rasheed, who has worked with the group for three decades.
Those who have watched Ali say he is the quintessential businessman – a trait that has played a significant role in his growth. His detractors have often accused him of being an opportunist, someone who doesn’t let ideology and other scruples get in his way.
For a long time, Ali was the bridge between Middle Eastern leaders and Indian governments. “He has warm relations with the rulers of the Emirates. He is one of the few who can enter the Abu Dhabi rulers’ house without permission,” said a source familiar with his style of operation.
A family friend says Ali used his contacts with the UAE’s royal family and elite to help those left behind or expats in his adopted country. When Kerala went through a devastating flood in 2018, Ali also mobilized support for the state.
He obtained permission from the UAE government for a cremation ground for Hindus and secured sanction for the construction of a church for members of the Jacobite sect. In 2004, in a rare gesture, the Jacobite Church in the United Arab Emirates honored him with the title of “commander”.
He is also known to maintain cordial relations with Indian governments regardless of the party in power.
“Whenever there is a regime change in New Delhi, he quickly connects with the who’s who of this party,” a source said.
Others point to how, during Narendra Modi’s third visit to the UAE in August 2019, Ali met with the Prime Minister of India and promised to ensure that fruits and vegetables from Jammu and Kashmir are exported to the Gulf. He also proposed to establish a logistics center and a food processing unit that would provide work for around 800 Kashmiris. The offer came as a relief to the government at a time when the Center’s decision to strip J&K of its special status had attracted international attention.
“It’s Yusuffali. All he does is get his business done, and he’s not ashamed to admit it. Nothing stands in his way when he wants to do business in a particular region. says a person who worked with Ali.
Adds a person close to his family: “He is a committed Indian, someone who firmly believes that in a democracy, the leaders are those who are elected by the people and that they must be respected. That’s why he has friends across the spectrum.
But as with most other subjects, his belief in democracy is not inflexible. “In the Gulf countries, the absence of a democratic system is its greatest advantage. It gets things done through the top layer,” the source said.
Even in his famous partisan state of Kerala, Ali has made friends across the line. “When the Congress-led UDF was in power, (former CM) Oomen Chandy was his closest ally, now that the CPM-led LDF is in power, he is the trusted friend of (CM ) Pinarayi Vijayan. He also shares good ties with opposition leader VD Satheesan,” said another source, pointing out that CPM’s P Rajeeve was at the forefront of an agitation against the Lulu group in Kochi, but when he became Minister of Industry during Vijayan’s second term, Ali had no difficulty dealing with him.
On his pragmatic approach to politics and politicians, Ali has often said, “I don’t have politics. My policy is to support democratically elected governments.”
This was evident in the way the band handled the recent Lucknow Lulu shopping center controversy – viral video, allegedly showing Muslims offering namaz at mall, led to police action. Management then released an unusual statement saying “over 80%” of its staff were Hindu.
Speaking to The Sunday Express, the mall’s public relations officer Sebtain Husain said ‘ordinary people’ don’t care about incidents like the namaz row, and its attendance has seen no fallout of the line. “The state government, the police have been supportive… And the locals are happy with the direct and indirect jobs we provide… Ordinary people don’t care about Hindus and Muslims, but are happy for their bread and butter . It also makes us happy.
The crisis may have been overcome, but it was also a sign that as the group expanded to new frontiers, Ali’s uncompromising pragmatism would be tested.