by Moojan Momenpublished in Encyclopaedia Iranica
New York: Columbia University, 2015
SABET, HABIB (b. Tehran, 1903; d., Los Angeles, 1 Esfand, 1368/20 February 1990), Bahai entrepreneur and industrialist, who rose from humble beginnings to become one of the wealthiest and most influential men in Iran in the late Pahlavi period. He owned, wholly or in partnership, some forty of the largest companies in Iran, in which more than ten thousand people were employed (for the companies founded by him, see Sabet, pp. 284-85). He also played a major role in introducing the accoutrements of modernity to Iran.
Both his maternal and paternal families were of Jewish heritage who were converted to the Bahai faith. They were of the city of Kashan for several generations. Ḥabib’s father, ʿAbd-Allāh Sabet, was born in Tehran. He was an uneducated but astute and hard-working cloth-merchant. His mother, Kešvar Arjomand, was from a family of prominent physicians. Although the family had modest means, his father scraped enough together to send Ḥabib and his sister to the Bahai Tarbiat School. From the age of 13, Ḥabib attended the St Louis School (see FRANCE xv) in Tehran, tutoring his fellow-pupil, Ḡolām-Ḥosayn, the son of Moḥammad Moṣaddeq (the future prime minister), to help pay for his own education (Sabet, pp. 1, 28-31).
Sabet appears to have shown a skill for business from a young age. As a child, one of his uncles used to give him a coin to go out and buy his tobacco. Ḥabib then realised that he could make a profit by buying the tobacco in bulk and selling it to his uncle in parts at the usual retail price (Sabet, pp. 9-13). While still at school, Sabet began spending time at a bicycle repair shop, where he became one of the earliest Iranians to gain a knowledge of the workings of motorcycles and cars. It was at his suggestion that the owner of the shop, Moḥammad-Taqi Tām, used a converted truck to set up the first bus service carrying passengers from the Maydān-e Tupkāna to Qolhak and Tajriš in about 1918 (Sabet, pp. 38-41, 45, 47 ff.). Many people would go out from Tehran to the resort areas of Tajriš and Qolhak during the summer weekends. So Sabet persuaded Tām to set up a bicycle shop in Qolhak under Sabet’s management. At the end of the weekend, the shop would hire out bicycles that people could ride downhill all the way back to Tehran. They would deliver the bicycles to Tām’s shop there and these were then transported back to Qolhak by truck ready for the next weekend. This proved a popular and profitable enterprise during the summer months of the school. For the rest of the year, Sabet earned money at weekends as the driver of a Willys Overland car that Āṣaf-al-Salṭana had purchased (Sabet, pp. 575-59).
At the age of 18, while still at school, Sabet had saved enough money to purchase a second-hand Ford car for 500 tumans, and he began a taxi service to Qolhak and Tajriš at weekends. In the first three days, he made 100 tumans in fares. After a time, he began carrying passengers further afield, to Bandar Anzali, Qom, Isfahan, Shiraz, and Baghdad. In 1925, he journeyed to Beirut, where he purchased a new Ford car. He took the opportunity to visit Haifa and meet there with Shoghi Effendi, the head of the Bahai faith (Sabet, pp. 66 ff.). He then drove back with paying passengers to Tehran, where he sold the new Ford for almost twice the purchase price. He repeated this enterprise several times, purchasing more cars each time. He became a partner in the Auto Tehran Company, which was established by the Kattāna brothers of Beirut, with the franchise for importing Dodge and Chrysler cars. Competition in importing cars was increasing so, after a while, Sabet travelled to France and Italy to familiarize himself with the automotive market. A good example of his imaginative and enterprising mind was the fact that, on his way back from this journey, he watched an English circus in Baghdad and came to an arrangement with the owner for 20 percent of the profits of the show in Tehran. He transported the whole circus to Tehran in the two Berliet trucks and the large Fiat car that he was bringing back. This was the first time that a circus had performed in Iran (Sabet, pp. 103-5).
With the vehicles now at his disposal, Sabet set up the Sabet Transport Company (Edāra-ye Ḥaml o Naql-e Sabet), the first such company in Iran. Through his maternal uncle Raḥim Arjomand, deputy to minister of post and telegraph, Qāsem Ṣur Esrāfil, he was able to procure a contract to carry Iran’s post to Mazandaran, the first time that the post was carried by motorized transport. So successful was this that within a short time the company obtained contracts to transport the post to other parts of Iran. In 1928, Sabet contracted to transport rails for the construction of a railway across Iran. Soon the number of trucks owned by his company reached twenty (Sabet, pp. 105 ff.).
In 1929, Sabet married Bāhera, the daughter of Sayyed Aḥmad Ḵamsi, a wealthy landowner and businessman (his uncle Sayyed Naṣrollāh Bāqerof owned the Grand Hotel in Tehran, where the family were staying when Sābet was introduced to them). That a self-made man from a humble Jewish background would even think of marriage into a prominent and wealthy sayyed family in the Iran of 1929 was in itself remarkable evidence of the ability of the Bahai Faith to overcome deeply-held prejudices. Sābet was accepted as son-in-law for the family. They were survived by two sons, Iraj (b. 1931) and Hormoz (b. 1936).
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