I have something to confess. Despite our industry’s invariable and commendable efforts to prevent travelers from lumping all countries of a particular region under the same umbrella, violence in parts of the Middle East had a small part of me nervous traveling to Dubai for the Arabian Hotel Investment Conference this week.
Any worry about sticking out like a sore thumb as a white American among the Arabic and Muslim cultures was slightly heightened Monday when I saw TV coverage of Osama bin Laden’s death while eating breakfast in the culturally rich Holiday Inn Dubai-Al Barsha.
I’m home now. Safe, sound and severely jet-lagged. I return not only awed by the grandeur of the United Arab Emirates, but with a new respect for a hospitality culture I’ve seen nowhere else. I’m ashamed that I was even the slightest bit skeptical.
Without a doubt the people of Dubai—whether they were natives or ex-pats—were the most humble, helpful and respectful locals I’ve encountered in an unfamiliar territory. On the metro, an above-ground train that runs the length of Dubai, I had no trouble asking for and receiving direction to various places. A colleague who has been to Dubai multiple times assured me by saying she—even as a white, western woman—has always felt safe in the Emirate.
It’s no wonder luxury hospitality has had such enormous success in Dubai. Not chase-after-high-maintenance-requests-from-fake-people-with-too-much-money luxury, but anticipate-your-needs-eliminate-your-worries-and-provide-ultimate-comfort luxury. Not Real Housewives luxury, but Princess Diana luxury.
That’s not to say Dubai isn’t over the top. Within 30 miles, I visited a man-made island in the shape of a Palm Tree; the tallest building in the world that costs about US$15 just to get in the lobby; a hotel shaped like a ship sail where rooms start about US$1,000; a shopping mall with a waterfall and an underwater zoo; and another mall that houses its own indoor ski mountain. All of those projects are at least partially funded or promoted by Dubai's government, ruled by the Al Maktoum family.
If neighboring Emirates and surrounding countries head in the direction most heavyweights at AHIC expect them to, the Middle East will have plenty more to boast about within the next 10 years. Political turmoil is the wildcard, but to most it’s a speed bump, even a catapult to an even greater future in the region.
Abu Dhabi, a neighboring emirate following not far behind Dubai, has nearly 30,000 hotel rooms in the construction pipeline, according to data from STR Global, a sister company of HotelNewsNow.com. Saudi Arabia is expecting enormous growth due to the sheer size and population of the country, coupled with the hospitality needs of religious groups on the move. And the government in Qatar hopes to add 70,000 luxury hotel rooms by the time the country hosts the World Cup in 2022.
Perhaps the most compelling amenity the region has to offer, though, is its culture. I was lucky enough to catch Saudi Arabian dancers performing the Al Ardha, a folk ritual where drummers beat out a rhythm while men dance with swords. The décor is incredibly ornate and mostly handmade. And, as I said earlier, the personal attention to detail provides a hospitality service like no other.
Needless to say, I’m looking forward to a return visit to the Middle East. If all goes as planned, there will plenty of new regions and immaculate hotels to discover.