Heritage notes: Story of an essence
Like every perfume has three notes, my father, late Shaikh Muhammed Saeed, was defined by humanity as his foundation, with a middle note of humility that was crowned by charm, says Muhammed Ali Saeed Shaikh, CEO of Shaikh Mohammed Saeed Group of Companies, umbrella company to the many businesses his father started and Muhammed Ali expanded.
“I am so proud to be a Dhamma grandson, and my children are the fourth-generation narrators of a story that started here nearly 70 years ago,” he says. Muhammed Ali is seated at his head office in Deira’s Murshid Bazar, in the midst of crowded stalls and lattice-fronted homes.
Shaikh Mohd. Saeed Est. is one of the region’s largest manufacturers, wholesalers, distributors and retailers of perfumes, deodorants, perfume oils, oud, bakhoor etc. Next door, Dhammasons/ Dhamma Trading continues to be one of the UAE’s largest retailers of agarwood and ouds, while Al Hunaidi happens to be the first shop in Dubai to sell perfumes. Located across the street is the old home that once housed the family, when they first arrived from Pakistan.
“My grandfather Shaikh Muhammed Abdullah came with his family from Karachi in 1954, among the first Pakistanis to reach Dubai,” Muhammed Ali narrates. “They spent their early years without electricity or running water, buying potable water sold on donkeys, bathing in the sea and waiting for parcels of food.”
They also formed strong bonds with their neighbours– now famous, illustrious names – who were similarly eking out a living by trading, bartering services, and waiting for the tide to turn. The most prominent visitor to this ramshackle marketplace was Shaikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the erstwhile ruler of Dubai for 32 years. “Everyone from that era remembers his friendly nature and kindness, as he went around talking to storekeepers and drinking tea with them.
“My grandfather prayed with Shaikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum. Members of the ruling family frequently bought perfumes from our shop, and later it was Shaikh Rashid who signed the title deeds to the land on which this building stands, and our home in Deira,” he adds.
My grandfather shared a close relationship with Shaikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum
Shaikh Muhammad Abdullah’s third son, late Shaikh Muhammed Saeed was more ambitious than his siblings. As soon as he was 21 years old he sailed to Mumbai, and spent days scouring the streets for business. At Mumbai’s famed Mohammed Ali Road, he struck gold when a large perfume retailer offered their goods on commission – and on credit.
Armed with bottles of attars and perfumes, he returned to Dubai and soon established Dhamma Trading Company LLC with his father. Dubai Economy dates it back to 1963, as one of the first trade licenses issued in the emirate.
“My grandfather was a jovial, portly man and his nickname was Dhamma. My father chose to honour him by naming our first company after him, and we have been known as Dhammas for many decades. In turn, I have honoured my father by naming our holding company as a tribute to his memory.”
This memory is stamped with many stories of his tenacity and fortitude. Although late Shaikh Muhammed Saeed took great risks in business, he was extremely careful about how he spent his money, and zealous about safeguarding it.
As a young lad who had just received his first driver’s license, Muhammed Ali was elated. He expected his father to gift him an expensive car. However, after a stern talk on the importance of modesty, humility and hard work, he did receive a set of new keys, but of another kind. “I asked my father for a BMW, but after his lecture, I settled for a bicycle instead,” he smiles.
“My father believed in hard work, and he did not like extravagance — two virtues that stood him so well. On one of his many sailings, his bed was a sheaf of banana leaves stacked together. He then started paying for his passage by buying fresh produce and essential products, and selling them to fellow passengers.”
When aviation took off, he became one the most prolific air travellers of that time, flying to Jakarta, Mombasa, Nairobi and Abidjan, selling perfumes and establishing a distributor network.
His son now maintains a trove of documents and deeds that trace the lineage of his family, and their presence and participation in the UAE’s growth story.
With the earnestness of a historian, he displays handwritten letters signed by Shaikh Rashid, Majid Al Ghurair and other prominent people, bearing testament to their long relationships with the Dhamma organisation.
Carefully preserved debit and credit ledgers date back to 1975, with the British Bank of the Middle East’s Al Bathi branch cresting its yellow and pink pages. Another treasured item is a driving licence issued in 1962, without a driving test. There are photo albums as well, with Indian film legends like Amitabh Bachchan, Zeenat Aman and Shahrukh Khan, and Pakistani celebrities such as the late Nazia Hassan and current prime minister Imran Khan.
“My father had so many firsts to his credit, we are still trying to count them all. In the 1970s, he was the first to import Japanese perfumes to the UAE; the small bottles were priced a dollar each. In the 1980s, he introduced India to celebrity and film star-endorsed perfumes. He was one of the first to set up a perfume retail store in the UAE, and supply essential oils to other retailers.
“He built a distribution network across Europe and Africa in the 1970s and 80s when most people would have deemed it impossible. Thanks to him we are now one of the largest distributors of French perfumes in the Middle East,” says Muhammed Ali.
Muhammed Ali took over the family business when his father passed away in 2009.
“I had done all my education in Dubai, and I was enrolled for a Master’s degree at SP Jain College. Suddenly, I was faced with looking after my extended family and helming a business that was already 40 years old. At the age of 26, it was not easy, he admits, but filial determination and ambition was at the fore. He now oversees a perfume empire that spans 50 countries, with three factories in the UAE. My father believed that what makes a man great is not the business he manages to build up, but the many relationships he continues to build,” Muhammed Ali recants.
A visit to his offices and stores at Murshid Bazar rouses the fragrances of a truly forgotten era. It also reveals how determined men built empires out of emptiness, with small but steady steps.
Scents that withstand time
Perfumery is deeply engrained in the culture of the Arabian Peninsula. Arab polymath Abu Yusuf Yaqub bin Ishaaq al Kindi (801–873) is credited with writing The Book of the Chemistry of Perfume and Distillations, with more than 100 recipes for fragrant oils, salves and aromatic waters, and 107 methods for perfume-making.
“The Arab world has been long associated with perfume. My father had the foresight to realise its impact and importance in Dubai, at a time when even bathing was a luxury here,” explains Muhammed Ali, as he lists some of the quaint ingredients that go into the making of modern fragrances. “Ambergris is one of the most valuable and valued ingredients in the perfume business,” he explains.
“When it is fresh, it smells quite horrible, but as it ages it acquires a sweet smell.” The solid, waxy substance that is created in the digestive track of sperm whales acts as a ‘fixative’ in perfumery, enabling scents to last longer. Another expensive fixative, musk, is obtained from the glandular secretions of the musk deer.
“In 2004, someone brought my father a news article clipped out of an old Australian newspaper. The story described a rare, extremely large piece of ambergris found off the coast of the Maldives. Diligent as my father was, he made calls, sent letters, and contacted everyone he knew. Three months later, he managed to locate that expensive piece – and purchased it.”
Agarwood, also known as aloeswood and eaglewood is revered as oud in the Arab world, and used in a variety of incenses and perfumes. Agarwood is hard to come by, as it is formed on wild lign-aloe trees only when they get infected with mould, he explains. Aromas vary based on species, location and length of infection.
Muhammed Ali is conscious and conscientious about what goes into every bottle of perfume and perfume oil, and every can of deodorant and room freshener, manufactured at his factories in Sharjah and Dubai.
“We were early to invest in a gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GC/MS) machine, and we use it not just in manufacturing perfume but also to separate, identify and quantify the compounds within any perfume sample provided to us.”
The success of their operations can be seen at the Al Hunaidi stores in Dubai and Sharjah and soon expanding to many regions across the UAE, where customers come in to stock up on favourite brands, book customised orders, and blend their personalised scents.
It is visible through the purchases made on their online sales portal. It can be heard in the stories narrated by long-serving employees, many of whom have completed 25 years of service. It can be seen in the orders placed by European perfume giants and retailers from around the world. And of course, it can be smelled in aromas that seem to soothe the soul.
Dhammasons & Dhamma perfumes is our registered trademark and we have all rights registered.
For more information visit https://shaikhsaeed.com/