(March 19, 2023) Dr Zulekha Daud, founder and chairperson of Zulekha Healthcare Group in Dubai and Sharjah, is known affectionately by her moniker, ‘Mama Zulekha’. She began her career in 1964, as a 23-year-old and went on to create an unparalleled legacy, after having facilitated the delivery of more than 20,000 babies and building a healthcare empire of her own. She has been a favourite with pregnant women and their families during her 60-year career, often making home visits in keeping with Dubai’s conservative society.
Regardless of her fame and professional growth in the UAE, first as a doctor and then as a businesswoman in the healthcare sector, Daud has always remained connected to her hometown Nagpur. “Home is where the heart is. I owe it to my roots,” she had said during the inauguration of her super-speciality hospital, Alexis, in Nagpur.
The doctor, businesswoman and philanthropist also established Zed – a vocational and training center and a charitable trust in Nagpur, and has made relentless efforts to facilitate access to safe drinking water in the district.
In 2019, Daud was honoured with the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman for her services. The octogenarian continues to be active in her service of people and dedicated to leading a life of purpose. She has earned several awards and accolades along the way, including the Dubai Quality Award by the Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, and recognition by Forbes Middle East as the top 100 women leaders in UAE. Recently Zulekha Hospital got honored with the Sharjah Excellence Award by the deputy ruler of Sharjah.
As a child, Daud watched her parents battle orthodoxy to educate their daughters as much as their sons. Her father, Sadiq Vali, was in the construction business, while her mother, Bilkis, was a home-maker. In an interview with ET Magazine, Daud recounted that her parents had not been educated as much as they would have liked. So, they were determined to give all the Vali kids the best Nagpur could offer by way of education.
Their determination sowed the seeds of Daud’s own go-getter attitude. She broke stereotypes by becoming the first female Indian doctor to practice in the UAE and is one of the most influential Indian-origin business people in the Gulf.
Creating her identity in UAE
In 1962, Zulekha moved to Kuwait with her ophthalmologist husband, Iqbal Daud. Two years later, in 1964, the doctor couple were sent to UAE to work for the Kuwait Mission Hospitals in Dubai and Sharjah. In those days, a stethoscope and a BP apparatus were the only things gynaecologists had in terms of equipment. “Access was remote, and we travelled through deserts in a Range Rover. Most deliveries took place at home, as women were averse to visiting to hospitals,” shared Daud.
There weren’t many lady doctors in UAE in those days, and Daud became a household name, always welcomed with open arms into the homes she visited. She worked hard to make healthcare accessible to women, often playing the role of not just a gynaecologist but also a general physician and sometimes a vet – even during her own pregnancies.
A deep sense of purpose has driven the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman awardee for 60 yeras. “Wealth creation is just a concurrent process. Our upbringing taught us to give,” she said. She has passed on the spirit of giving back to her children, who are now at the helm of their mother’s healthcare empire. “Throughout my life, I have had to sacrifice a lot, but that has only helped me grow and learn as an individual. Every human life is important to me,” Daud remarked.
For more than a decade, the Dauds have been providing free PAP tests, mammograms, and FOBT tests to underprivileged women of the country. They also offer free consultation to people who cannot afford it.
Apart from Alexis in Nagpur, Zulekha Healthcare Group runs two other multidisciplinary hospitals in Dubai and Sharjah, and three UAE medical centres providing specialised treatments in over 30 disciplines. It also runs three pharmacies.
During the pandemic, the healthcare group provided relentless service to people – from regular and emergency care to free mental wellness counselling sessions, webinars on safety, recovery, and free second opinions to thousands of people.