Dubai: Capital of Kerala

During a visit to Dubai, it was hard to ignore the people from the state of Kerala in India. They were everywhere from the hotel lounge to the shops we visited – why our program has 3 people too (including me)! You turn on the radio, you hear at least 3 radio channels playing malayalam songs (malayalam is the language spoken by the people of Kerala).

The Touristy Stuff: To those who came in late, Kerala is in the southernmost part of India; it literally means the “Land of Coconut Trees” and when you land into Kochi (the most popular city in Kerala) you would not be surprised why it is called so – it’s almost like a carpet of coconut trees as far as the eye can see (see pic). The tropical conditions here are due to the relatively abundant rainfall (retative to the rest of India). Kerala is home to some very scenic spots like the Punnamada Lake in Alleppey to the Tea Gardens in hilly area of Munnar. Being a coastal state, it boasts of a lot of beaches – the best being Kovalam Beach. But a visit to Kerala is one of paradoxes – Temples, Churches, Mosques along side red communist flags and pictures of Marx, Lenin and Che Guevara.

A Bit of History & Culture: Kerala was in a sense one of early gateways to the subcontinent; the place where Vasco Da Gama landed in India and started the spice trade; the place purportedly where Kung Fu was originated and was taken to China; the place that was probably the earliest user of chinese goods – the chinese fishing nets! The arts flourished here with the dance forms such as Kathakali (see pic) and Mohiniattam. Even some of the major religions in the world found a home – Hinduism always existed here, but this was also the place where Christianity, Islam and Judaism has been flourishing in India since they were formed (Christianity since AD 42 after St. Thomas, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus, landed here; Judaism since BC 7; Islam since about AD 600). These religions still thrive in Kerala except Judaism since majority of the Jews have left Kerala to live in Israel in the last century. After Independence of India, official state of Kerala was formed from the merger of 2 kingdoms in the region with the same language. Like any other place in India, Kerala too suffered from ills of social discrimination. As a result of this, there were a lot of social uprisings and this gave birth to the popularity of communism.

Dubai Connection: It is strange to think why people of this state would leave their homes behind but the truth is that this state has the most number of people living outside the state, in fact mostly outside India. Communism rose in Kerala mainly due to the social inequality (caste system) but as a result of this industries could not survive in Kerala – a lot of factories shut down because of frequent strikes.This had to do with the fact Kerala, back in 60s and 70s, not only suffered from unemployment but also labor issues due to it’s leftist leanings (these issues still exist but has been alleviated considerably by the tourism, IT and fisheries industries).  It was the discovery of oil in the persian gulf in late 60s that saved the people tiny state in India – what is called as the Gulf Boom. The middle east needed cheap labour and found that aplenty in the people from this state (highest during the 70s and 80s). I guess Indians are by nature adaptive but must have been really heartbreaking for many of the families to let their children off to the Gulf for the hardship. As we went through our residency in Dubai, we heard stories of these labor camps; like 10 people living in 1 room and earning very low monthly wages. Of course, being from Kerala, I knew of most of this and had heard stories of this from my childhood. But it wasn’t always the jobs with hardship – in fact a lot of engineers, doctors and nursing staff found a lot of well paying jobs (chauffeurs et al) in the Gulf region. In fact of late, the interest in Gulf among the people of Kerala is on the wane – most prefer to work in the US or UK for high paying jobs. Or work at home in an IT or a BPO company. An increased wealth and increasingly educated labor force that was mainly funded by a lot of money coming from the Gulf region was probably responsible for this.

How about this for statistics. 80% of population in Dubai is expatriates. 80% of these are Indian. 80% of the Indians are from Kerala. No wonder that I kept thinking that Dubai is the capital of Kerala. There are more people from Kerala in Dubai than in the actual capital of Kerala.


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6 comments to Dubai: Capital of Kerala

  • Thanks for the detailed analysis Shailesh! This is great information for me; in my ignorance, I’ve only recently learned that there really isn’t a homogenous “Indian” people, that each state/region in India is quite distinct in language in culture.

    It’s interesting to me that 80% of the Indian’s in Dubai are from Kerala. Just from looking at a map, southern India is the furthest away from Dubai. While the explanation of civil unrest and labor issues certainly make sense as to why Keralans (?) would leave, it seems like a land of opportunity would’ve drawn more people from the parts of India closer to Dubai.

  • Shailesh Nair

    Well I guess there is a bit of “in-group collectivism” that happened – a lot of the malayalees/keralites support each other; bring the malayalee brother to the gulf to help him out. It becomes a exponential growth if you think about it. Maybe the weather had something to do with it. Kerala has been lucky with the rains – which the other states have not been so lucky; maybe this changes the psyche of people. I can guess at best – an anthropologist may have a better answer.

  • Ah, the family issue, wasn’t thinking about that. When one person gets settled and brings four (or many more) people, that will lead to a pretty large population inflow fairly quickly.

  • Suresh Ayyanveedu

    Shailesh – great article about Keralites in Dubai.
    Randy – I would add a couple of facts out of history. Remember Tom Standage presentation about Europeans trying to reach India directly? Before this happened, Arabs were the middle men in spice trading. Kerala was spice capital of the world. So you can connect the dots. Long history of Kerala with the Arab world made it very familiar for each other. The place had moderate climate, lots of fresh water, fertile and green and hence rich.

    Fast forward a few years – The British ruled, and after independance, India with huge population and other factors had a huge number of people below the poverty line. Kerala, which held a guinness record of 100% literacy at one point, was lagging behind even the national standards in Industrialization. The first ever democratically elected Communist government did not help its image as anti-indunstry/pro-union. So pleople had to go out of the comfort zone of their beautifully green land to all over the world – mostly to the Middle East.

    Looooong history in as short words I could come up with!

  • Thanks Suresh, that makes perfect sense about the familiarity in the cultures. The story is all coming together now!

    I’ve really got to take some time and learn about the history of India. It sounds like there’s a lot of fascinating history.

  • Abe Mathews

    Shailesh, This is good information. Do you happen to have any statistics about the percnetage of men vs women of Kerala living in Dubai? It would also be of interest to know if most of these Keralites in Dubai live as families there. I have met many men from Kerala in the Gulf countries including Dubai but quite a few of them said their families live in Kerala. I wounder if you have details of this situation.