Jitters over attack on Indian mall in Oman

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  • Published 3.03.11

Washington, March 2: The first targeted attack on an Indian-owned property since the Arab world went up in flames in January has sent up a wave of concern in New Delhi that it may have to brace for an influx of its citizens from the Gulf, a repeat of the events following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

The burning down of Lulu Hypermarket in the Omani town of Sohar this week is particularly unsettling for the Congress party which fears that any repetition of this incident creating a pattern could have an echo in elections in Kerala, which has lakhs of households living off income from its people working in the Gulf.

The hypermarket is owned by a Keralite, M.A. Yousuf Ali, who is currently building his EMKE Group’s flagship project in Kochi, a 204,000sqm mall at an estimated cost of Rs 1,600 crore.

According to information filtering out of Sohar, the hypermarket was first set on fire on Monday and then looted after the fire failed to destroy the contents of the warehouse-like structure.

Eyewitness accounts relayed to this correspondent said Omanis in traditional robes and the country’s uniquely colourful headgear reminiscent of turbans in India took away electronic goods and luxury items while half-veiled women later joined the looters, piling up trolleys with fruit juices, milk, cheese and other food.

The police and fire brigade let the shop burn and did not stop the looters in this otherwise tightly controlled society where even unwashed cars are stopped and their drivers fined for putting dirty-looking vehicles on the road.

There are 87 Lulu stores across the six Gulf Cooperation Council states and in Yemen and Egypt, countries which are in various stages of upheaval since Tunisians overthrew their regime in January.

Ironically, Lulu’s 87th hypermarket was opened in Salalah only five days ago by the governor of Dhofar province of which Salalah is the headquarters. The looted store in Sohar has been running for five years.

Yusuf Ali, a recipient of Padma Shri and the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman, an award for overseas Indians that is given away annually by the President, is a member of the Prime Minister’s Global Advisory Council and a director on the board of Air India.

In 2005, he became the first foreigner to be elected to the board of the Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Two years ago he was re-elected to the board.

Some sources in Oman disputed the view that Lulu Hypermarket was targeted because it was Indian-owned. They said unemployment was high among Omanis in Sohar. And yet, the store which is huge and has as many as 500 employees had hired 200 Indians for work there. “The violence was against foreigners taking away jobs when Omanis have no work,” said one source in Muscat, Oman’s capital, on condition of not being named for fear of reprisals for giving information to the media.

“We will wait for things to cool down,” Yousuffali Abdul Khader, managing director of the Lulu Hypermarkets, told reporters in the United Arab Emirates yesterday when he was asked about the EMKE Group’s future plans for Oman.

Unlike in other Gulf states, there is also a history to resentment of rich Indians in Oman. For well over a century from 1698, Zanzibar was a virtual colony of Oman. In 1856, the post of Sultan of Zanzibar was formally created, but the Sultan was a member of the Al Said dynasty that continues to rule Oman.

In most of east Africa, relations between Indians and local people have been tense at best, hateful at worst, typified by Idi Amin’s expulsion of Indians from Uganda in 1972.

In January 1964, one month after Zanzibar was granted independence by Britain, the Sultan was overthrown in a bloody revolution in which thousands of Indians were killed.

Oman now has a huge citizenry of Zanzibaris who continue to nurse grievances against Indians, a baggage from its history of colonising Zanzibar.

Citizenship is severely restricted in Gulf states, but Oman and Bahrain have conferred citizenship on rich Indians who have lived there for a very long time.

Unlike other Gulf states, which nurse pan-Arab dreams, Oman, which is in the south-east of the Arabian peninsula, looks to South Asia much more than to the Arab world. The present ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, once famously told President Shankar Dayal Sharma that while other Gulf Arabs prefer to get on a camel and go west into the Arab desert, Omanis prefer to be on a boat and drift towards India.

Sultan Qaboos has assiduously worked to develop close relations with India. This is sometimes resented by Omani youth who are increasingly influenced by the ideas of Osama bin Laden and his articulate deputy Ayman al Zawahiri.

Omanis get salaries that are much less that those paid in the UAE or Kuwait. That has also bred resentment in places like Sohar and Salalah against richer Indians.