I spoke with Ameen Talib in Singapore recently. Ameen is Singaporean, but also an ethnic-Hadrami. The Hadramis originate from Yemen, on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, and rank among the world’s great traders. I first encountered Hadrami traders in China buying goods for export to Saudi Arabia. Ameen is a fascinating individual and a major figure in Singapore’s Hadrami community. He is also responsible for the revitalization of the city’s Arab quarter having opened a number of Arabic restaurants in the Sultan Mosque area. We met at his first restaurant Café Le Caire and talked about Singapore’s Hadrami community and the importance of ethnic networks.
What is the status of the Hadrami community?
As a community we are trying to rebuild. Let me give you an example. I opened this restaurant in 2001. It was like a ghost town around here [in the Sultan Mosque area]. So I opened the restaurant with the objective of reestablishing an Arab quarter. As soon as we have an Arab quarter, then there is recognition that an ethnic group exists. In the 1980s and 1990s a lot of the younger generation didn’t even know of the existence of an Arab community in Singapore. So, we have had some success in getting recognition at a mass level.
Are the Hadramis still migrating to Singapore?
It is slow now. The migration that takes place is mainly for family purposes. Occasionally a cousin might join his family. But it’s not mass migration. It’s not like the olden days. It’s basically because of the 60s, after South Yemen became Communist and Hadramis were not allowed to travel. Very few Hadramis travelled abroad as a result of the restrictions. And very few Hadramis travelled to Yemen from Singapore.
How important are ethnic networks to trade?
Ethnic networks are such strong networks. But governments are not capitalizing on them. Let me give you the example of Singapore. A few years ago, when the government first wanted to engage with the Middle East, it didn’t look at the fact there had already been a long engagement between the Middle East and Singapore’s Arab community. In the 1980s, a lot of Saudis used to come down to Singapore and do business. In fact, a lot of Hadrami traders enjoyed their boom period in the 1980s while trading with the Saudis. It isn’t the only example. Singapore is also still considered the centre of the Aoud business. [Aoud is a fragrant wood]. Ok, it’s a small business. But the network is established and we are not capitalizing on.
So what are your views on globalization?
Today’s globalization, I call it transient globalization. Because of technology and speed of travel, we are global, but global from home. In the olden days, we were genuinely global. There was real interaction between different groups.