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The Arakkal Kettu Museum is the former residence of the Arakkal royal family. Photo: Handout

Two Indian families are fighting over 19th century shipping magnate’s US$1 billion fortune and Saudi Arabia doesn’t know who to give it to

  • Two Indian families, who live within a few miles of each other in Kerala, both claim to be the rightful heirs of the 19th century Muslim spice trader Mayankutty Keyi, who built a guest house for pilgrims to Mecca
  • The money has been lying in a coffer for decades as neither the Saudi nor Indian governments seem able to adjudicate between the claims of the 1,500-strong Keyi family and the formerly royal Arakkals
A US$1 billion fortune left behind by a 19th century Muslim shipping magnate who built a guest house for pilgrims to Mecca is being fought over by two feuding families in India.
The money has been lying in a Saudi Arabian coffer for decades due to the inability of both the Saudi and Indian governments to adjudicate which of the two families, who live within a few miles of each other in Kannur, Kerala, has the rightful claim.

At the heart of the dispute between the Keyi family, who number around 1,500, and the formerly royal Arakkals, is whether the Muslim spice trader Mayankutty Keyi – who married into the Arakkal family – had any children or not.

Both families have been lobbying the Saudi government for the money but the Saudis, confused by the conflicting claims, have had to ask government after government in India whose claim is genuine. New Delhi, for its part, has been unable to help as it is equally baffled.

The dispute reaches back to the 1870s, when Mayankutty Keyi lived in and ran fleets of ships from the Malabar Coast of Kerala. The culture of north Kerala is predominantly Muslim and embodies many Arab traditions because of the long-standing trade links between the Malabar Coast and West Asia. Muslims in the area are known as Mappilas.

When Keyi went to Mecca to perform haj, the pilgrimage that every devout Muslim seeks to perform, he was appalled to find there was no decent place to stay. Keyi used his own money to build a rubath, or rest home, near the Kaaba specifically for pilgrims from Kerala.

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Family legend has it that he transported wood and laterite from Kerala in ships that sailed across the Arabian Sea for the seven-bedroom bungalow with a huge hall that was to be the Keyi Rubath. This tradition was taken up by other Indian Muslim rulers who built properties in Mecca to house pilgrims from their state, both as a way of helping pilgrims and for status.

For half a century, pilgrims from Kerala stayed at the rest house but what happened to Keyi himself is not clear, apart from that he married into the royal Arrakal family. Did he stay in Mecca and die there? Or did he die in Kerala?

Muslim pilgrims circle the Kaaba, the cubic building at the Grand Mosque in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Photo: AP

As to whether he had heirs, that is the crux of the feud between the two families who are fighting, not over ownership of the rubath because it no longer exists, but over the money the Saudi government has paid for it. Around the late 1950s, the Saudis wanted to expand the area around the Kaaba in Mecca and demolished the rubath, which stood in the way. At that time the Keyi Rubath was valued at US$100 million. In addition to paying compensation for demolishing the building, the Saudi government also gave the estate a substitute building.

In the early 1970s, the substitute building was demolished too and the compensation given for it has remained with the Saudi government all this time because of the lack of clarity over who is the rightful heir.

Splitting heirs

The Keyi clan insist that the shipping magnate had no children and therefore two great-grandnephews – C.V. Aluppy Keyi and C.V. Moidu Keyi – are the heirs, along with the battalion of relatives.

“There is actually no dispute. We can prove that Keyi died childless. We have the documents. The Arakkals are lying when they say that Keyi had a son and a daughter,” said K. P. Nisar, secretary of the Keyi Rubath Action Committee.

Equally adamant are the Arakkals, the family of Mayankutty Keyi’s wife, who say they are the descendants of the magnate’s son and daughter. The Arrakals are the only royal Muslim family in Kerala and trace their lineage back to the 17th century, perhaps even earlier.

Like the Hindus of Kerala, they follow the matrilineal system in which property is passed on through the mother and female relatives. The head of the dynasty has often been a woman, known as “Beevi”. The current head is octogenarian Cheriya Bikkunhu Beevi, who was formally appointed as the head of the family in 2019. The grand durbar, or court, of the family palace on the coast was turned into a museum in 2005.

The Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Photo: Getty Images

With both families putting forth contesting claims, the Saudi government turned to New Delhi for help to find the legal heir but every minister who tried encountered the same quagmire of competing claims. Letters were sent from Delhi to Kerala seeking evidence. Committees were formed. The story became a local legend. Yet no indisputable heir emerged.

The Narendra Modi administration renewed government attempts to figure out the true heir after coming to power in 2014. Both families unleashed a fusillade of claims. New Delhi retreated, none the wiser.

Ashraf Ali, 62, one of the relatives of the two great-grandnephews on the Keyi side who has lived most of his life in Dubai working for HSBC, told This Week in Asia that although he personally did not need the money, sections of the vast clan were anxious to get it as they were no longer as rich as they once had been.

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“We have decided to set up a trust and 40 per cent of the amount will be devoted to philanthropy. This will be in accordance with Islamic law. We are planning to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi soon to argue our case and resolve this matter,” Ali said.

This Week in Asia was unable to speak to any member of the Arakkal family despite several attempts.

However, P. V. Sainuddeen, a retired Kannur dignitary who has been a neutral observer of the dispute and is a member of the local Waqf Board (which looks after Islamic properties and land), suggested a third option.

“There is no need to trace who the heirs are, if any. Neither family should claim the money as it is personal property. Let the Saudi Waqf Board use the money for pious and charitable purposes in Saudi Arabia. Using the money that way will be an honour for Indian Muslims,” Sainuddeen said.

Whether the two families embrace that solution, after half a century of bad blood, remains to be seen.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Confusion reigns over heirs to US$1 billion fortune