Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 21 August 2019

Portrait of a Nation: The Sikh magnate who feeds thousands for free

Al Dobowi Group chairman Surender Kandhari has established an automotive empire in Dubai but gets his greatest pleasure from serving those less fortunate

Surender Kandhari has not only built up a global business empire but is giving back to the community through the gurdwara he has founded in Jebel Ali. Antonie Robertson/The National
Surender Kandhari has not only built up a global business empire but is giving back to the community through the gurdwara he has founded in Jebel Ali. Antonie Robertson/The National

He is the driving force behind a thriving business that spans six continents, yet Dubai motoring magnate Surender Kandhari is at his happiest when serving others.

Mr Kandhari placed a lofty 61st in the 2018 Forbes list of the top 100 Indian business leaders in the Middle East thanks to the success of the Al Dobowi Group, which he established in Dubai in 1976.

Al Dobowi - meaning the man from Dubai - is the automotive products supplier that has made him a man of the world, growing into a global empire with offices in North and South America, Africa, Europe and Asia as well as the Middle East.

While Mr Kandhari takes great pride in his business achievements, he finds true fulfillment in the gurdwara - a place of worship for Sikhs - he set up in Jebel Ali seven years ago.

“I want to continue doing seva (service). God has been kind to us and I want to give back to society,” said the 70-year-old grandfather and chairman of the Al Dobowi Group.

He has followed the example of his own grandfather Atma Singh who built a gurdwara in 1956 in his hometown Vijaywada, India’s southern Andhra Pradesh state.

His grandfather had said the younger Kandhari too would construct a gurdwara one day.

“I feel it is my duty to look after people who are underprivileged,” Mr Kandhari said.

“I follow the three principles of Sikhism very seriously, to praise the lord, earn an honest living and to share.”

Built in Jebel Ali on land donated by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, the shrine attracts thousands of worshippers and people from different nationalities and religions.

More than 1,500 people eat meals daily inside the sandstone-coloured building decorated with lattice work.

The number climbs to 15,000 people on a Friday and more than 50,000 gather for religious functions, Christmas and New Year’s day.

The gurdwara welcomed about 60,000 Sikh devotees in November last year for the anniversary of the birth of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion.

Surender Kandhari has not only built up a global business empire but is giving back to the community through the gurdwara he has founded in Jebel Ali. Antonie Robertson/The National
Surender Kandhari has not only built up a global business empire but is giving back to the community through the gurdwara he has founded in Jebel Ali. Antonie Robertson/The National

Tourist buses have become regular feature after the Guru Nanak Sahib gurdwara was listed as number seven in ‘Things to do in Dubai’ by Trip Advisor.

People say they are drawn to the peaceful surroundings and immerse themselves in the hymns sung in the main prayer hall where the Guru Granth Sahib, or the Sikh holy book, is placed.

The simple, tasty vegetarian meal of rice, lentils, salad and a wheat sweet is an added attraction.

Every gurdwara has a tradition of langar, a community kitchen where free meals are served.

“I asked one tour operator from India how come he was here every day. He told me, 'sir, you give free food and we save money'.

“I don’t mind, that’s fine, let people eat well,” said Mr Kandhari with a hearty laugh about some package tour operators who shepherded tourists for lunch to the shrine to reduce costs.

Mr Kandhari’s success story in Dubai began in 1975 when he was asked by his father to survey the automotive business in the Gulf.

He returned to set up shop the next year with five employees because he saw growth potential in a region where the discovery of oil had begun to transform the economy.

Mr Kandhari’s mantra of change is key to his business.

From setting up the first tyre showroom that still exists on Al Maktoum Hospital road in 1979, he expanded the business to batteries, motor lubricants and then set up the country’s first tyre re-treading factory in 1996.

The company now has offices in 10 countries.

“You must think out of the box. Unless you do something different, you cannot succeed. You must be innovative because if you don’t have a disruptive approach your business will die.”

His achievements have won praise both in the UAE and back home in India.

Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, Minister of Tolerance, described him as inspiring role model when he launched Mr Kandhari’s autobiography The Temple of My Dreams last September.

Surender  Kandhari (seated extreme right) near Navdeep Suri, Indian ambassador to the UAE, with hundreds of worshippers inside the main prayer hall of the gurdwara in Dubai.      
Surender  Kandhari (seated extreme right) near Navdeep Suri, Indian ambassador to the UAE, with hundreds of worshippers inside the main prayer hall of the gurdwara in Dubai.      

The autobiography covers the creation of his conglomerate that now employs more than 2,000 people and the gurdwara construction.

He was conferred the Pravasi Bharatiya award for Non-Resident Indians earlier this year for his philanthropy and contributions to low-income workers in the UAE.

Mr Kandhari said he owes his success to the spirit of entrepreneurship the UAE nurtures.

“When I came here, Dubai was moving from a fishing village to a small trading hub.

“Sheikh Mohammed has great foresight. We were able to buy land, do business without restrictions and were protected as foreigners. I still feel protected because the UAE government supports business and enterprise.”

An avid golfer, Mr Kandhari is a founding member of the Emirates Golf Club and can judge a person by their game on the green.

“You need patience and sincerity for the game and you can know a person’s character in five minutes. If he starts cheating, you will know he does in life too.”

His conversation is sprinkled with wise idioms and reflects the strict moral compass that guides him.

Mr Kandhari has passed on simple lessons about gratitude and respect for others to his six grandchildren.

“We are all God’s children, we are not Hindu or Muslim or Christian. We must respect the otherness of people because no two people can be the same,” he said.

“I have taught my grandchildren to say as I do every morning when I get up from bed, “Good morning God, I love you God and thank you God. We are lucky to open our eyes and see the world. There are millions who don’t.”

Updated: March 28, 2019 09:18 PM

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