Pic 1. Entrance to “Angelina” in Dubai Mall. Source: buro247.me
About a week ago, I received another photo of an entrance to “Angelina,” a famous originally French tearoom, this time located in Dubai Mall. It seems that somehow every one of my close friends feels “obliged” to do so once they see this place anywhere around the world. Frankly, every time I am rather flattered by the token of appreciation to my name and, at the same time, by the fact that this place is an elegant and luxurious restaurant with a long history and not a fast food chain with greasy chicken nuggets.
Contemplating about luxury in general and particularly in food, few ideas, or rather questions/assumptions, appeared to me. I reflected on the fine dining and luxury coffee shops and restaurants around the UAE and realized they all have something in common. Despite their French, American, Belgian, etc. origins, they all have embraced parts of the Arab hospitality style. Be it smells of amber, musk, and oud, traditional coffee offerings, dates, staff clothes, or seating arrangements, every visitor, immersing herself in rue de Rivoli, does not forget that she is still in Dubai. Commercial hospitality can be truly talented and exceptional in its offering, especially in the Gulf region. (McNeil’s work (2016) becomes especially relevant if one searches more, plunging into the peripetia of luxury in the region and beyond, portraying fast-growing commercialization through globalization and the rapidly increased wealth of certain countries.)
Sobh, Belk, and Wilson (2013, p.444) argue that “commercial outsourcing of a stylized version of Arab hospitality does extend to wealthier foreigners, but it is performed primarily by non-Qataris and non-Emirates.” Being a Dubai expat and a participant in “commercial Arab hospitality,” I am skeptical about such claims. Naturally, we are all prone to associate and gravitate towards “our own worlds,” and local citizens in the UAE or any other Gulf country are no exception. Although luxury in Arabic way, be it overall hospitality or particular goods, certainly attracts tourists from around the world, local citizens, Emiratis, are still active agents and beneficiaries of luxury commercial hospitality. This industry adopts and, in fact, is inspired by Arab culture and traditions. Even the marketing of luxury products in the UAE is inspired by local social and cultural factors proven to work when marketed to UAE residents and citizens. Luxury buying, in effect, is an important aspect and part of personal agency in Emirati society. (Vel, Captain, Al-Abbas, Al Hashemi, 2011)
Arab hospitality, particularly in the Gulf, has been long known and cherished (Kanafani-Zahar, 1983; Sobh et al., 2013; Stephenson & Nazia, 2019). “These [hospitality] rituals are, if anything, stronger today than ever before.” (Sobh et al., 2013). Arab “commercial” hospitality, which a person experiences in luxury hotels and fine dining, derives significantly from private Arab hospitality, practiced at home and based on the ideas of comfort, entertainment, and security. These ideas firmly hold the position to provide indulgence and high-end luxury experiences.
Sobh et al. (2013) further identify the following common hospitality traits: explicit use of spatial boundaries, such as family and individually separated locations; women-only spas, swimming pools, and sports facilities, etc.; greeting rituals, such as personalized welcoming for each guest to provide the highest level of comfort. Offerings of Arabic coffee and dates are also signatures of many hotels around the UAE. These arrangements have less to do with the fact that all guests are served by non-Arabs and hence are not significantly impacted by it, as cautiously pointed out in several studies (Sobh et al., 2013; Stephenson & Nazia, 2019). At first sight, no matter an expat or a local citizen, everyone feels shrouded under the magic of 1001 night.
Pic 2. Pic 3.
Even international hotel chains adopt the notions of Arabic style, offering guests unique and local experiences.
Pic 2. Ritz Carlton lobby area in Dubai. Source: Agoda agoda.com
Pic 3. Ritz Carlton lobby area in Berlin. Source: ritzcarlton.com
Perfumes and traditional scents here deserve a separate paragraph. The Middle East, in general, is well known for its appreciation of aromas (Pillai, Hamid, Rajan, Vijay, Babu, 2009); the UAE, valuing elegance and luxury, has a special admiration for the sophisticated blend of tradition and indulgence. During Beautyworld Middle East, General Manager of Düllberg Konzentra, Nawin Arenja, described their offerings: “We created a fragrance that captures the vibrant elements of Dubai and incorporates the region’s classic, luxurious notes paired with subtle European elegance.” (Gulf News, 2021). Clearly, traditional scents of amber, musk, sandalwood, oud, and a few others specific to the region scents influence and tempt, inspire, and govern not only fragrance producers in the Middle East but also those who create ambiances around us. Someone can call it the capitalization of traditions, but I would instead address it as cultural immersion. Nevertheless, the dominance of these perfumes in Arab hospitality is undeniable and has become a part of the luxury experience that lures not only foreign visitors. Their roots and culture make local Emirati citizens appreciate and favor such ambiances, not less.
Authors have long researched dining practices and associated hospitality worldwide. Observing methods of food selection, preparation, serving, and consumption, as well as cultural traditions of hospitality, anthropologists comprise a meaning and describe these acts following (or not) ideas of cultural relativism. The food practices in the Arab world are not an exclusion, often taking even a central place, integrating cultural aspects throughout the entire consumption cycle. In her book, “Aesthetics and Ritual in the United Arab Emirates,” Kanafani-Zahar (1983) focuses on smells, textures, and tastes that thrive and captivate, revealing cultural aspects in their full beauty. Several studies have also focused on Arab hospitality in the Gulf region through guest-receiving practices and various related entertainments. (Sobh et. al, 2013). These practices have strong cultural roots that have historically grown and been adapted to modern living standards through commercial hospitality, attracting guests of the Gulf region and its local citizens.
To my knowledge, not many academic studies have focused on commercial hospitality and its roots in traditional Arab Bedouin culture. However, most of the existing ones have focused on the notions of local minorities and the “nostalgic re-enactment of that which has been lost” (Sobh et al., 2013, p. 459). Despite the importance of such angles, I do propose another perspective. Future research focused on local citizens’ experiences as participants in commercial hospitality have the potential to reveal a more modern view. Further research conducted with local citizens as active agents has the potential to understand better the consequences of such a “process of commoditizing culture” (Sobh, Belk, Wilson, and Ginena, 2012, p. 6). Hence, the hypothesis should instead begin with the perspective of living experiences, such as entertainment and pleasure through luxury consumption, rather than grievances about giving up local culture to the general audience.
“Beautyworld Middle East in Dubai: Visitors Can Vote for 17 Perfume Houses in Competition,” Gulf News, October 5, 2021, http://www.proquest.com/docview/2579069521/citation/C4ACCBE7F3864B40PQ/1
Kanafani-Zahar, Aida. Aesthetics and Ritual in the United Arab Emirates : the Anthropology of Food and Personal Adornment Among Arabian Women. Beirut: American University of Beirut. 1983
Stephenson, Marcus L, and Nazia Ali. “Deciphering ‘Arab Hospitality’.” In Routledge Handbook on Tourism in the Middle East and North Africa, 1st ed., 1:71–82. ABINGDON: Routledge. 2019 https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315624525-6
Sobh, Rana, Belk, Russell, Wilson, Jonathan, and Ginena, Karim. “Home and Commercial Hospitality Rituals in Arab Gulf Countries.” In Advances in Consumer Research, 40:5. Urbana: Association for Consumer Research. 2012
Sobh, Rana, Belk, Russell, Wilson, Jonathan. “Islamic Arab Hospitality and Multiculturalism,” Marketing Theory 13, no. 4. December 1, 2013, 443–63, https://doi.org/10.1177/1470593113499695
Pillai, Rajasekharan, Febina, Babu, Hameed, Hana, Rajan, Remya, and Vijay, Shiji. “How Fragrant Are Perfumes? A Micro Perspective from Middle East.” IDEAS Working Paper Series from RePEc. 2009
Vel, K.Prakash, Captain, Alia, Al-Abbas, Rabab, and Al Hashemi, Balqees. Luxury buying in the United Arab Emirates. 2011, 145-160. https://ro.uow.edu.au/dubaipapers/409