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Meet the woman who turned gold into golden opportunities in the UAE

Shabana Abdul Razzak, jeweller and entrepreneur talks to Megha Agrawal on her ‘outside the box’ business sense, reinvention of the ARY brand, and living life on her terms

The First Wave

The fourth daughter of the legendary Mr Abdul Razzak Yaqoob, Shabana is every bit as enterprising and tenacious as her father, who encouraged her to break boundaries in a healthy and innovative way. Today she is a successful entrepreneur, a ceiling-breaking jeweller and a visionary businesswoman who turned the strictly patriarchal society she grew up in into a launching pad for personal and professional growth. Her life has been extraordinary, to say the least, and she emerged like phoenix from the ashes that life threw her way.

Shabana’s father, Abdul Razzak Yaqoob, an extremely dynamic, self-made man, built an unprecedented legacy. Coming to Dubai was a matter of chance – chasing a friend to recover a loan, he realized that Dubai was the land of opportunity. He was quick to see the huge potential in importing Pakistani food products, giving immigrants from the subcontinent a taste of home. He registered his company in 1969, under the name ‘ARY’ (the initials of his name), and started to trade in gold, exporting first to Pakistan and then eventually to the Indian subcontinent. ARY grew quickly and expanded into the minting of gold bullion in Dubai, an office in Bangkok followed soon after.

The wonder years

Shabana and her sisters grew up in these affluent circles, but were taught the values of humility and hard work from early on. Growing up in a joint family, they led a simple lifestyle and learned to adjust, share and be respectful of other’s needs.

As a child, a young Shabana was fascinated by her father’s work and often lent a hand in the business by answering calls and assisting on note-taking and administrative duties. She knew from early on that all she wanted to be when she grew up was to be “just like my dad.”

This fascination with her father’s work soon morphed into respect and awe, as she became aware of the extent of her father’s networking and, moreover, his will and drive to help those around him. His policies defined the entire family’s values – that of philanthropy and communal giving. It was these values that kept Shabana grounded and have her the determination to carve out a purpose in her own life, to be more than only a homemaker. Her father was lovingly supportive of this decision and encouraged her to study so that she would carry forward the family legacy.

ARY firsts

With such a visionary leader, ARY forayed into a lot of ‘firsts’ in the UAE, and further beyond. Shabana saw history being made as in a landmark move ARY Gold minted the first official gold coin for the Dubai Shopping Festival in 1996; unsurprisingly, a moment of immense pride.

The innovations continued unabated. They were the first to start the trend of presenting gold medals to Cricket players during the matches between India and Pakistan.

In a first of some distinction, the largest ever gold bullion draw was held by the ARY group, where 28 kgs of gold was given away to winners in a weekly lucky draw.

Abdul Razzak Yaqoob had the vision and foresight that Dubai would one day become the ‘Gold Hub’ of the world. This prescience led to the branding of Dubai as the ‘City of Gold’ which deservedly found favour in high places. The ARY group was awarded land in Dubai by none other than HH Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid himself for the purpose of opening a dedicated gold refinery.

In 1996, the Dubai Gold and Jewellery Group came into being in support of the Dubai Shopping Festival. When the World Gold Council Chief in Dubai approached Abdul Razzak Yaqoob for support, he offered a blank cheque in support of the gold industry.

With a front-row seat to policy changes brought about by her father’s efforts, Shabana reminisces proudly about the changes she saw. “Gold that used to be mined in South Africa was moved to Dubai for minting. Then the bullion was moved to London for LBMA stamping. The stamped bars were then shipped back to Dubai for further selling, especially to the Indian Subcontinent.” Instrumental in Dubai obtaining the LBMA certification, Abdul Razzak changed the gold trading game as this reduced stamping costs and Dubai came to be the centre it is today for gold buyers.

ARY continued to come up with their pioneering innovations. They were the first to launch their own brand of 24 KT wearable gold jewellery in the form of a heart-shaped pendant manufactured in Switzerland with a special technology. This sealed and certified pendant reflected rainbow hues on gold and the “Rainbow Heart” flew off the shelves as fast as they could be made.

Then in 1999, ARY became the first in the region to launch sealed and certified diamond jewellery under the brand name, ‘Cleargem’.

ARY operates ARY Gold Laboratory, an ISO 17025 certified gold testing lab. It is one of the busiest and most trusted of labs in the UAE.

In a first of some distinction, the largest ever gold bullion draw was held by the ARY group, where 28 kgs of gold was given away to winners in a weekly lucky draw.

Life unfolds

Shabana, intent on taking her place in the industry, got her Bachelors in Marketing, and then focussed on pursuing a Masters in the US; against mounting pressure from her extended family who were keen to see her marry and settle down. Sadly, around the same time her father developed a serious complication as a result of his diabetes. Shelving her plans of post graduate study, the determined young girl took over the responsibility of her father’s treatment, flying her family to Houston, making strategic decisions and became the proverbial rock of the family. Her courage and strength at this difficult time helped win the complete confidence of her father. Shortly after this time, her younger sister got married, and this was especially challenging for Shabana as she and her sister were very close and she felt the parting in a singularly profound manner. But being the soldier she was, she marched on and returned to the UAE with a growing need to do something more meaningful with her life. In an unfortunate turn of events, her mother fell sick as well, developing severe arthritis. While helping manage her mother’s alternative treatment, Shabana decided it was time to join her father’s busines. 

The souq experience

Shabana was bursting with new ideas, especially those involving ARY’s retail vertical. While her family took heed of some of her branding suggestions, most of her ideas were shelved, and she had to work hard to be taken seriously.

Teaching her the business from grass roots, Shabana’s father gave her the responsibility of retail sales in their new showroom at Deira City Center. Initially, Shabana helped her friends choose jewellery from ARY, noticing that women were more at ease dealing with salesgirls rather than men, and hired a female sales team. Rising quickly, Shabana then took over complete backend control of the Deira City Center showroom, and unsurprisingly, excelled at it.

Despite her success and hard work, her family still remained dismissive of Shabana as a female family member and took on board a Fine Jewellery Director for ARY’s consultation and branding needs.

Shabana recalls, “My father did not let me throw a tantrum over this. He made me accept the situation and train under the new director, Naheed Anees, to learn everything that she knew.” Being the chairman’s daughter, she was given no special dispensation and had to do secretarial work. In the meanwhile she took courses in diamond and gemstones.

“The universe places you at the right place at the right time, when you are ready,” believes Shabana. Naheed and she were moved to the main head office in the Gold Souq. She completely immersed herself in her work, handling retail marketing.   

In her element

In due course, she realized that ARY’s forte was its gold jewellery but the market trend was going towards diamond jewellery.

Shabana, with her usual acumen, crunched some numbers and decided to hold a diamond jewellery sale, with a 50 to 70% discount. This was a bold and unprecedented move. She decided to go for limited advertising, confident that this would get the word out to the right crowd. She realized that this was her Rubicon to cross – a make or break moment, so to speak.

On the first day of the sale, the father-daughter team reached the showroom to see a long queue snaking outside the doors, waiting for the showroom to open and the sale to begin. By noon, they needed three extra staff to handle the customer rush. The sale days generated millions of dirhams in cash revenue that successfully generated a hefty chunk of liquidity while also creating a unique brand buzz for ARY retail.

Golden ideas

This initiative taught her two lessons – Firstly, jewellery may not always be about the design, but it’s definitely always about affordability. The second was that her father did not praise her often because he expected a lot more from her. This spurred Shabana to try another new, unheard-of sales tactic – a one day ARY gold sale with zero making charges. Sales went through the roof. Shabana continued to storm ahead with her new ideas – like the special ‘Valentine pendant’ – a heart-shaped gold pendant, designed and produced in-house with the catchy marketing slogan of, ‘Be mine’. Once again, they had to work hard to keep pace with sales. Her pendants proved popular well after Valentine’s Day, and Shabana proudly states, “Just like cookies are baked, put in a box and shipped, so were our pendants – literally shipped as fast as we could make them.” 

An unstoppable force now, Shabana next launched luxury watches under the brand name STELLAMARIS crafted from solid gold and diamonds, marketing them as heirloom pieces. Unsurprisingly, the watches soon became a symbol of coveted opulence.

Some customers can find buying jewellery intimidating, unable to share every requirement openly. I want to make the entire process comfortable and happy for them

Peaks and troughs

At the peak of her career, Shabana got married. Her fears of being shackled in domesticity were unfounded as her husband was lovingly supporting and encouraged her to work and pursue her dreams. But it all came to a halt when her beloved father was diagnosed with cancer. Her entire focus shifted to her father and his health. With a supportive staff who kept the business running, and an understanding husband who encouraged her to prioritize her parent’s health, Shabana took charge of her father’s treatments, traveling every three months to the US to be there for him. In 2008, she decided to downsize her operations, maintaining only a one-store presence in the UAE, and moved her father to Pakistan, and then to London. The dynamic gentleman passed away in London in 2014 at just 68, and the loss hit Shabana very hard, as she struggled to find closure. Her mentor, Naheed Anees, and her husband kept her going through these difficult times. Three and half short years later, she then lost her mother and this loss, though also profound, affected Shabana differently. It brought a realization that, “death will come for me one day too. I am the custodian of my father’s legacy, and I cannot give up.”

Continuing the Legacy

It took Shabana 9 years to recover and get the business back in shape. And in the process she realized an important lesson. “Legacy is not the buildings my father bought or the brands he launched. It’s the values that he instilled in us.” Returning to work with renewed vigour, Shabana realized that she had to start anew, to build up brand recall for ARY Gold which was now better associated with ARY Digital – a family owned TV channel. 

Feeling an urgent need to reinvent her brand and business, Shabana decided to rebrand the ARY retail arm, calling it ‘Maison de ARY’, a business for jewellery in 18 and 22 karat gold, silver, platinum, precious and semi-precious stones, diamonds and pearls, as well as crafting one-off designer pieces.

Bespoke, accessible, trustworthy

Integrity, honesty, accessibility are the cornerstones of her business model. “Jewellery is such a personal thing. It is so special, and it is definitely forever. Some customers can find buying jewellery intimidating, unable to share every requirement openly. I want to make the entire process comfortable and happy for them.” Foraying into designing, Shabana is breaking yet another ceiling. She is excited to be designing for the new breed of young women.”Today young women of 20 plus have their own financial independence and know their mind.” Drawing inspiration from her daughter, Shabana has also marketed a range of silver, rhodium-plated jewellery for children.

Her own legacy

Shabana’s daughter, Saleha, shares her mother’s passion for creating jewellery. Her mother encourages her daughter’s enterprising spirit, but also instructs her to work hard and set up her own business when she is older. A big believer of women empowerment and gender equality, Shabana expects to inculcate the same values in her daughter, as her own father did with her.”

“Women should believe in themselves. They are second to none, are strong, wearing many hats in their families. They should look for a purpose in their life, not forget it, and should not allow others to let them forget it either.”

Golden words!

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