On a muggy July afternoon, 42-year-old Amina and her sister Maimoona, 50, waited in front of Muhyudheen Juma Masjid at Nattika in Kerala’s Thrissur district, clutching a sheaf of petitions. From Malappuram, they were waiting to meet their benefactor.
“I want money to build a house; my sister is hoping to get some help to repay the debt she incurred from the wedding of her daughter. We have heard Yusuffali helps people in distress,” says Amina, as they stand outside the gates of the grand mosque built by the UAE-based businessman at his Nattika village.
Earlier this month, Musaliam Veettil Abdul Kader Yusuffali or M A Yusuffali made national headlines when his UAE-based Lulu Group opened a mall in Lucknow. Ali, who drove around 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 that, Ali, a seasoned businessman whose Lulu Group operates in over 20 countries, across West Asia, South Asia, the US and Europe, and has an annual turnover of around $8 billion, had stepped into 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 India expansion plan announced in 2018. After Kochi, Bengaluru, Thiruvananthapuram, and Thrissur, this is the group’s fifth mall 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 hospitality, food processing and real estate sectors.
But for those in Kerala, Yusuffali is more than “the richest Malayali in the world”, the retail king who holds his own even when he is with heads of nations. For many in his home state, he is their last resort, a certainty and an assurance when all else fails.
In June 2021, Ali paid blood money 5 lakh UAE dirhams (around Rs 1 crore) to free Becks Krishnan, an expatriate from Kerala sentenced to death in the UAE for a 2012 road accident that killed a Sudanese national.
Last month, while Ali was addressing an event in Thiruvananthapuram organised by the Loka Kerala Sabha, an expat association, a youth stood up to plead with the businessman for help in bringing home the body of his father, who had died in Saudi Arabia. Ali suspended his address, spoke to his team in Saudi, and ensured that the body reached Kerala within three days.
In August 2019, when Thushar Vellappally, state president of the Bharat Dharma Jana Sena, a BJP ally, was jailed in the UAE in a cheque-bouncing case, Ali deposited the bail amount and got him released.
There are these and many other accounts of Yusuffali — seemingly apocryphal, but stories that his benefactors vouch for.
At Nattika beach, fisherman P V Raju too has an Ali story. “Six years ago, I went to meet him to seek assistance for a professional course that my daughter wanted to pursue. When he got to know that I have no house of my own, he immediately offered to construct one for us. His team supervised the construction… Last year, when I went to invite him for my daughter’s marriage, Ali gave her a gold chain as a gift,’’ says Raju, sitting in the house Ali built for him.
Ali’s journey from a family of traders in Nattika village to becoming one of the wealthiest Indians took off in 1970 when he went to purse a diploma course in business administration in Ahmedabad, where his father M K Abdul Qader ran a business. “Our family had five stores in Ahmedabad, including a restaurant, a general store, and a home appliances outlet. While studying, Ali also handled administrative matters of the business,’’ recalls Ali’s paternal uncle M K Muhammed, who lives in Nattika.
Soon after, another of his uncles, M K Abdulla, who ran a department store in Abu Dhabi (UAE), asked Ali to help him out. In 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 into its formation, had erratic power supply and Ali is known to have slept on the terrace of the building where he stayed, cooling the floor after dousing it with water. Despite the troubles and the temptation to return home, Ali hung on.
At the EMKE Store, he took up loading and unloading of goods and is known to have gone around the Emirates in his vehicle, hawking provisions. Working with his uncle, Ali managed to ensure that the business kept pace with the UAE’s growing economy and its demands. The family started importing frozen food products from abroad and went on to set up cold-store chains and food processing units across the country. A decade after landing in the UAE, Ali managed to convert the EMKE Group into a key player in the retail business. Ali had by then also emerged as the face of the family business.
In the 1990s, even as the Gulf was caught up in a messy war and expatriates fled, Ali stayed back, and even pumped in 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. Also, before it discovered oil, the UAE was heavily into pearl harvesting.
Ali’s decision to stay on 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 footprints across the Middle East.
In 2020, ADQ, a holding company owned by the Abu Dhabi government, invested
USD 1 billion in Lulu International Holdings for its expansion into Egypt. Earlier, ADQ had invested USD 1 billion in the Lulu Group. The Lulu Group also attracted investments from other governments in the region, including Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF).
Back home in Kerala, the queues outside his Nattika house grew longer, of youth hoping to find employment in Ali’s Gulf ventures. “Ali conducted recruitment camps at his house. Aspirants from all parts of Kerala would line up in front of his EMKE Mansion. In the initial years, he was directly involved in the process. There was even a special Nattika counter for people from the village,’’ says Ali’s childhood friend Abdul Latheef, who lives in Nattika after a stint in the Gulf.
Over the years, salary from the Lulu Group has become the single largest lifeline for people in Nattika. “Many houses in the region have more than one male member employed in the Lulu Group. Anyone willing to go abroad has a job in Lulu as per his qualification,” says Rasheed, who has been working with the group for three decades.
Those who have watched Ali say he is the quintessential businessman — a trait that has played no small part in his growth. His critics have often accused him of being an opportunist, someone who doesn’t let ideology and other scruples get in the way.
For long, Ali has been the bridge between the rulers of the Middle East and governments in India.“He has warm relations with rulers in the Emirates. He is one of the very few who can walk into the house of Abu Dhabi rulers without permission,” says a source familiar with his style of functioning.
A family friend says Ali has used his contacts with the royal family and the UAE elite to help those back home or the expatriates in his adopted country. When Kerala went through a devastating flood in 2018, Ali also mobilised support for the state.
He got the UAE government’s clearance for a cremation ground for Hindus, and secured sanction for constructing a church for members of the Jacobite sect. In 2004, in a rare gesture, the Jacobite Church in the UAE honoured him with the title ‘Commander’.
He is also known to maintain cordial equations with governments in India, irrespective of the party in power.
“Whenever there is a regime change in New Delhi, he is quick to connect with the who’s who of that party,” says a source.
Others point out how, during Narendra Modi’s third visit to the UAE in August 2019, Ali met the Indian Prime Minister and promised to ensure that fruits and vegetables from Jammu and Kashmir are exported to the Gulf. He also offered to set up a logistics centre and food processing unit that would give jobs to around 800 Kashmiris. The offer came as a relief for the government at a time when the Centre’s move to strip J&K of its special status had attracted international attention.
“That is Yusuffali. All that he does is to further his business, and he is not ashamed to admit it. Nothing comes in his way when he wants to do business in a particular region,” says a person who has worked with Ali.
Adds a person close to his family, “He is a committed Indian, someone who strongly believes that in a democracy, leaders are those who are elected by the people and we have to respect them. That’s why he has friends across the spectrum.”
But like on most other matters, his faith in democracy isn’t inflexible. “In the Gulf countries, the absence of a democratic system is his biggest advantage. He gets things done through the top layer,” the source says.
Even in his famously partisan home state of Kerala, Ali has made friends across the divide. “When the Congress-led UDF was in power, (former CM) Oomen Chandy was his closest ally, now that the CPM-led LDF is ruling, he is (CM) Pinarayi Vijayan’s trusted friend. He shares good ties with Leader of Opposition V D Satheesan too,” says another source, pointing out that the CPM’s P Rajeeve was at the forefront of an agitation against the Lulu Group in Kochi but when he became Industries Minister in Vijayan’s second term, Ali had no trouble dealing with him.
On his pragmatic approach towards politics and politicians, Ali has often says, “I have no politics. My policy is to stand with the democratically elected governments.’’
This was evident in the way the group handled the recent controversy over the Lucknow Lulu mall — a viral video, purportedly showing some Muslims offering namaz at the mall, had led to police action. The management then issued an unusual statement saying “over 80 per cent” of its staff were Hindu.
Speaking to The Sunday Express, the mall’s Public Relations Manager, Sebtain Husain, said “common people” do not care about incidents like the namaz row, and that its footfall has seen no fallout of the row. “The state government, police have been supportive… And locals are happy with the direct and indirect employment we are providing… The common people don’t care about Hindu and Muslim, but are happy for their bread and butter. That also makes us happy.”
The crisis may have blown over, but it was also a sign that as the group expands into newer frontiers, Ali’s hard-nosed pragmatism will be put to test.