Feature` On the eve of Father's Day, Tahira Yaqoob tells the story of a family firm that sells exquisite Swiss timepieces in the Middle East. Started by a patriarch, and handed down to his sons, the time has now come for the female members of the family to make their contribution.
When he opened the door to his watch shop in Dubai's souk for the first time in 1960, Ahmed Seddiqi couldn't help but glance with pride at the sign hanging over it.
It read "Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons", despite the fact he was operating solo after more than a decade of working from a cabin in the corner of a cousin's store, selling watches out of a drawer, while his four children were busy studying, rather than standing at his side behind the counter. But Mr Seddiqi had high hopes. After all, he reasoned, with his eldest son Ibrahim, then 21, about to graduate, he wanted to leave a legacy for his children with a family business that would secure their future.
His vision back in those early days led to a family-owned enterprise that has gone on to become one of the largest sellers of high-end watches in the Middle East, with 14 family members working for the firm over the years. It is an affirming statement of the strength of the family as dozens of different nationalities in the UAE prepare to celebrate Father's Day tomorrow. But what the late Mr Seddiqi may not have envisaged was that the descendants carrying his name forward are now just as likely to be female as they are male.
These days, calling the firm "Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons & Daughters" might be more appropriate - although there are no plans to change its name. Mr Seddiqi senior might have had the benefit of help from his sons Ibrahim, Abdulmagied and Abdul Hamied, but times are changing. While the company is still managed by men, it is 25-year-old Hind Seddiqi who is keeping the family tradition alive for her father Abdul Hamied, the vice-chairman and a 60-year-old father of five.
She has inherited his passion for watches and as vice-president of marketing, created a new department to promote the firm's 50-plus Swiss brands, becoming the first woman in the family to join the corporate team. She is not alone: the current chairman, Abdulmagied, has his daughter Mahra, the director of the luxury division, as his right-hand woman, while the late Ibrahim's granddaughter Muna is creative director.
"I prefer to be dealing with a woman rather than a man," says Abdul Hamied. "They are more tough in business. When we first started introducing women into the management of the company, many people were against me. "But I was very happy when Hind said she wanted to work for me. I thought, at last she will take some of the load from my shoulders. I have a place for all of my daughters if they are working."
Tradition still prevails in some areas, however, and he admits: "In this country, the environment for a woman is not always easy. I cannot tell Hind to go here and there or to get involved with the offices of sheikhs. "However, if we are selling products, we need to have women involved. Communication between two women is different to that between men." He says he inherited his openness to new ideas from his father. "He gave us the freedom to do our own thing, otherwise we would never have improved." But the vice chairman is not averse to the occasional old-fashioned streak: "There is only one problem with hiring women - they become pregnant."
His daughter, who has a two-year-old son Faris, gently retaliates: "I worked until the ninth month of my pregnancy and was back in the office within 60 days." Both father and daughter learned the intricacies of the business from a young age. He would visit the company's souk store as a schoolboy, meeting customers and unpacking boxes. He studied for a degree in Switzerland. His father had never visited the country but was fascinated by it as most of his stock was made there. Having graduated, he joined the company in 1979 and helped open its third store in Deira Tower a year later. His brothers had opened the second branch in Bur Dubai in 1969, which is now the oldest existing store after the souk shop closed a few years ago.
The brothers have since overseen the opening of another 50 stores across the UAE, many of them specialist outlets of brands such as Patek Philippe, Harry Winston and Chopard. Abdul Hamied, who has a collection of pocket watches, is now the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie's fine watch ambassador for the Middle East, India and Iran. So it was perhaps no surprise when Hind announced that she wanted to work with him after graduating in mass communications from the American University of Sharjah.
At the time, there was no marketing department so she created a team of five women, fighting prejudices and tradition to do so. "I was not intimidated by being the only girl in the firm - my age was more of a problem," she says. "It was scary having responsibility but I learned by experience. Everyone thinks working with your own family is a piece of cake but it is a bigger challenge because there are so many expectations.
"You cannot fail because you still have to see them again. But I was never the stay-at-home type. Even as a child, I would hear the grown-ups talking about the company and their love of watches and that made an impression on me. "I have the same mindset as my father and we think the same in terms of how we want things done. He has always treated us equally." So could there one day be a Ms rather than a Mr Seddiqi presiding over the company? "Why not?" says the vice-chairman. "There are plenty of women in high positions.
"My father taught me to be honest and straight in business. That is the most important lesson and everything else is secondary."