A drop of water was luxury: Galfar Mohamed Ali on his early days in Oman

Over the past 50 years, P Mohamed Ali built his construction empire, the largest in the Gulf. Photo: MFAR/Manorama Online

He looked around from a vantage point. Shadows have started lengthening, gradually darkening most of the gallery of the Al-Bayt Stadium in Qatar's Al Khor.

The rectangular stadium's roof resembles the traditional tent-like dwellings of the Bedouin, the nomads. There is a reason as well: The Bedouin's tents are known as bayt al-shar, and the stadium has a roof resembling the nomads' tents.

Chairs have been arranged, and people could be seen busy working at several places in the stadium, getting ready to host the inaugural match of the FIFA World Cup in the second half of November 2022.

The stadium will be the cynosure of all eyes. World leaders and royals will descend on the playground, besides thousands of people from across the globe. As many as 8,000 people toiled to ready the stadium ahead of the kickoff of the beautiful tournament.

Half a century ago, he had slept on the cargo hold of the tipper van in the desert. The same man, P Mohamed Ali, has won the contract to construct the Rs 8,000-crore stadium.

He slowly climbed down the stairs. The workers were unaware that their employer was like one of them some 50 years ago, working hard and gradually climbing the steps of success in life.

Galfar Mohamed Ali's father paid for his passport and visa and reached Dubai in 1970. Photo: Manorama

The Qatar administration issued a souvenir, a currency note, to immortalise the World Cup-2022. A picture of the Al-Bayt Stadium is featured in the souvenir — a rare honour for the hard work of a contractor.

Many of us might have seen him alone at airports or other places. The name P Mohamed Ali may not be familiar to many, but not Galfar Mohamed Ali, who keeps a low profile, far from the crowds.

Over the past 50 years, he built his construction empire, the largest in the Gulf. He narrated his tale, of a journey that started from Valapad in Thrissur to the top of the world at Al-Bayt.

This is the first part of an interview with Galfar Muhamed Ali.

Galfar Mohamed Ali was recruited to the Border Security Force (BSF) soon after he passed the Diploma Course in Civil Engineering from Sree Rama Polytechnic at Valapad. Photo: Manorama Online

What made you opt for the construction sector despite being born into a middle-class farmer's family?
I was recruited to the Border Security Force (BSF) soon after I passed the Diploma Course in Civil Engineering from Sree Rama Polytechnic at Valapad. That job then was a huge achievement in Valapad. I have engaged in road construction work for three years since 1967. Life was tough with scant water in harsh climatic conditions. Only soldiers could undertake such work in such conditions. My father paid for my passport and visa and reached Dubai in 1970.

Did you come to Dubai for construction work?
Those days, we don't come after landing a job. We have to find one after reaching Dubai. Fortunately, I got a job with the Bank of Oman the day I arrived. My acquaintance was close to an Arab family that ran the bank.

Why didn't you continue in the banking sector?
Even then, I was more interested in construction work. I was searching for one such job. I intended to get a job that would surprise even me. I didn't feel that the job at the bank could do so. Later, I joined the Dubai harbour as an engineering supervisor. Still, I continued searching for jobs.

I reached Oman in 1972 along with a friend. The then-new administration was seriously considering developing the country. Additionally, I was then daring to take up any risk.

How were your formative days in Oman?
Oman then did not have power lines, water, or roads. Its only asphalted road was a five-kilometre stretch. I started Galfar along with a partner and four employees. I used to travel a lot looking for minor contracts. Even such contracts were not available. The first contract was for 30,000 rials. Each material should be brought from Mumbai (then Bombay). Oman did not have steel or cement. I didn't have a permanent residence. I used to sleep in my old car at the work site itself. There were days on which I worked for 20 hours.

I stayed at my partner's place for a few days. Later I shifted to a single-room residence, which had plywood for walls. Still, my heart kept telling me that I could manage here. I did not consider returning to the comfort of my home in Kerala — not even once.

Meanwhile, my partner faced some legal issues and he had to leave. I was forced to work alone. The situation was such that I had to borrow money from several places daily to continue the work.

So it was a tough struggle?
I had lost my way in the desert under the scorching sun. And I was sure that I would die. Even a single drop of water was a luxury. But I survived due to divine intervention. It is easy to die, to survive is tough.

Galfar Mohamed Ali's first contract was for 30,000 rials. Photo: Manorama Online

How did you get the name Galfar?
That place was then called Jalfar. My initial plan was to name the company after the place. But I named it Galfar in 1972 itself. I did so thinking I could make it big one day.

When did you realise that the company will flourish?
India's Central Public Works Department (CPWD) was then executing all public works in Oman. The Oman government lacked the wherewithal to carry out such works. The CPWD deputed one of its senior officials, AC Mukherjee, to Oman. He gave me work, and money in advance. Those were the first steps towards progress. Oman trusted me from day one. Though my partner had left the company, I gave his family his shares and rights, though several people discouraged me. But it gave me a huge positive image.

We started growing in 1976. Big contracts came our way. Oman found petroleum and started selling it in 1980, fuelling the country's growth. We gained expertise in constructing oil fields. Galfar became active in building and road construction works. The European and American firms that came in the 1990s could not compete with us. Galfar did a major share of construction works that ran into crores of rupees. We were the service providers for all petroleum companies. In 1990, Galfar launched its oil rig. We were on our toes between 1980 and 2010. We forayed into all sectors. We brought in experts from all parts of the world. We felt that Galfar stood a chance in any sector.

Galfar is a team, not just an individual called P Mohamed Ali. By 1985, Galfar did not require the services of Mohamed Ali. The company was growing and I can't claim my work was behind it. We got a contract for 1 million Rials to develop a township in 1980. There was a huge celebration when Galfar entered the OMR 10 lakh club. It was one of our golden moments. We started investing in road works in 1990. We were involved in constructing highways and superhighways in Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar.

Galfar Mohamed Ali started Galfar along with a partner and four employees. Photo: Manorama Online

When we reached Oman, the Sultanate's only road was just five-kilometer long. Later, we constructed thousands of kilometers of roads. We started collaborating with companies in other countries in the 1990s. We still follow the same model. We won't reveal the number of companies, the volume of work, or the revenue. Each achievement is not just ours — it's of our collaborators also. We grew due to the expertise of our collaborators. We did not flourish alone.

It was your father who suggested shifting to the Middle East. How did he see your growth?
My father passed away in 1992. He viewed my growth as an opportunity to help others, God has opened up. He had shelled out Rs 4,500 for my visa at a time a sovereign of gold could be bought for just Rs 50. He knew the difficulty of sending me abroad. So when the opportunity came, he sent several people to our company from my native place. They all loved my father who did not charge them a single penny. Several of them later left Galfar and became industrialists. Seeing them grow was a pleasant experience. My father founded schools and helped several children to pursue education. He believed that imparting knowledge was the biggest thing one could do.

You are also teaching 18,000 children in Oman?
Not me. Galfar is teaching them. We founded Oman's first private medical and engineering colleges and an international school. We equipped thousands of children for the job market. We even took them to a polytechnic in Kerala. These are all not big deals. I am mentioning it since we could do them.

Was your father your role model?
Possibly. I haven't thought about it. I was daring even as a child. Going to the shop at night across the graveyard was not an issue for me. Other children used to call me whenever they were scared to do something. I always knew there is a solution for every problem. That belief made me quit my job in India and leave for Oman, and while sleeping on the tipper's cargo hold. These are the lessons I learned from my father.

Have your parents visited Galfar?
They were unaware of Galfar's size or its assets. I have never explained it to them either. My mother was an ordinary housewife. If I tell her that I had purchased land or an oilfield, her response would be about the number of coconuts I would get there or if cows could be reared there. That was her world. She had visited Oman several times, but we never discussed Galfar.

Aren't you close to the royal family?
It is natural to establish a relationship when we take up large projects that help in the development of a country — or any country for that matter. Some of the relationships will be personal and others professional. Many of us grew together. We were witness to, or part of, the growth of several countries. They help us grow also. The Chairman of the Joint Omanisation Committee was the finance minister, and I held the Vice-Chairman's position. I got the responsibility of several organisations, such as the Oman Petroleum Alliance, the Oman Society of Contractors, etc. I consider such responsibilities as their love towards us.

What made you foray into Oman's educational sector?
The Sree Rama Polytechnic, founded by the people and the government, in a small village like Valapad helped several youngsters grow and hold higher positions. The same polytechnic made me what I am today. Otherwise, I would have ended up with a small job after learning to typewrite. I have realised the changes an educational institution could usher in. And that is why I founded educational institutions. 

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