The Al Shaab car service station, previously known as Al Awda, has served generations of customers in Doha.
When 21-year-old Samir Deeb Issa departed the Marka Airport in Jordan in 1960, he kept a promise to his mother.
“When my mum came to tell me her goodbyes at the airport she told me ‘my son don’t leave me for so long’. I then told her that I would only be gone for two years,” a much older Issa told Doha News.
Two years passed and years turned to decades. Now, in 2021, Issa is deemed one of the most prominent businessmen in Qatar whose success stems back to his role in setting up the country’s first ever car services station.
Established in 1962 by Issa at only 21 years of age, Al Awda – which translates to ‘The Return’ in Arabic – was the first automatic car wash station in Qatar, providing various services for vehicles, including polishing, oil changing and maintenance.
“The name Al Awda goes back to the war in 1967 [Naksa] and it helped me stay closer to home [Palestine], because people were hoping to return to their lands,” the now 88-year-old says.
The station opened modestly, equipped only with few tools and car lifters. However, after years of hard work in the 70’s, it soon developed into a fully-operational automatic car wash station boasting advanced machines imported from the United States.
With plenty of achievements under his belt, Issa was able to establish Al Shaab Group and renamed his prized possession Al Shaab Station.
Every hour, the service station would cater to some 45 cars. Workers, including Issa himself, would work tirelessly throughout the day to ensure every customer left satisfied.
“Back then, cars meant more to their owners as they were fairly new. No one was able to buy a car fresh out the factory, they were all second-hand cars,” he said.
Setting up such a business at a fairly young age was no easy feat and Issa was left to his own devices to to attract as many customers as possible. At the start of the journey, the young man tapped into the prevalent pride that was attached to cars and offered a bargain deal to thrilled owners.
For only QR 14, customers were able to check and change their oil as well as get their cars cleaned and polished. These same services now cost hundreds.
“Everyone, all members of society visited us. Back in the day, people were happy and lived such simple lives. People would bring their cars themselves early in the morning, go to work and then come back to pick their cars up,” he said.
For Issa himself, cars are a life-long passion.
At the tender age of 12, Issa joined the Jordanian military where he enrolled into a mechanics programme. During his two-year course, he was able to visit several car manufacturing stations and went on to work as a mechanic for four years.
“Over the course of the four years, I gained a significant amount of experience due to the passion I have for the profession…I then got tired from the military, it was exhausting and at the same time it wasn’t easy for me to leave. It was very difficult,” he said.
Despite the ever-evolving changes in people’s demands, as well as the technological advancements of vehicles, the decades-old station still stands in the heart of the Qatari capital and now serves the children and grandchildren of its prior customers.
“Our good reputation kept us going. It has been good for all those years because I’ve worked with my own hands. I cleaned the cars myself and wiped them on my own,” he said. “Of course I no longer have the same energy, so I brought more people to help me. But from 1963 until the 90’s, I did all the work myself.”
“It is the first, it is the foundation for all our profit and it has its own, prominent place in society.”
More than sixty years since he first left his home country, Issa now sits behind a grand wooden desk at his station. The 88-year-old’s office stands a museum to reflect his life: black and white images from Palestine hang on his wall, shelves jam packed with framed photos of his family and a golden plaque proudly identifies him as the managing director.
It’s clear to anyone that this white-haired man with tired hands grafted to sit at this desk.
“We had no air conditioning, fridges or cars…people in the past were more independent and relied on no one but themselves,” he said.
In comparison, “everything was served to this generation on a silver platter, everything was already there when they were born,” he added.
Though humble in nature, Issa boasts a vastly successful career that expands beyond Qatar’s borders. He also founded the Dahdah amusement park in Tunisia – the biggest in Africa at the time and went on to introduce Qatar’s first ever indoor amusement park, Doha Toys Town.
In Jordan, Issa also founded the Hussain Luna Park in Amman and established the Jordanian school in the Qatari capital.
“You have to remember where you came from,” he said.
When asked about the secret to his success, he took a long pause.
“You also have to be honest to people. If you’re not honest with people, you won’t succeed either. Work and luxuries do not mix. Until now, at 88, I go to work at 7:15. With God’s help, I’ve been working for 58 years in Qatar. All my life, I would always put work first,” he said.