Comment: Arabic versus Arabesque
How culturally sensitive should the Arabic brand be?
Before I moved to the Middle East, Arabesque was to me the name of a ballet posture that I never quite mastered. Now, it’s a word I expect to hear when discussing the design of nine out of 10 hotels in the Middle East.
Descended from Italian arabesco meaning ‘in the Arabic style’, this makes sense; hoteliers often adapt designs to the influences of their location.
But with the number of self-proclaimed Arabic-inspired brands gradually growing, can being Arabesque suffice in the fight to stand out? Or, should these brands encapsulate Arabic culture and heritage, including a ban on serving alcohol?
Shaza Hotels, a brand CEO Simon Coombs says has been “created to have a very distinct, individual personality based on the Middle Eastern cultures and values”, has taken a very strong stance on the latter.
No matter where a Shaza hotel is located, it will not serve alcohol. Coombs is also clear that Shaza Hotels will offer an entire experience reflecting the rich backdrop of the Silk Route, rather than highlighting a few elements of its heritage only.
He says: “The Muslim tourism market spend, even excluding Umrah and Hajj, is estimated to reach US $181 billion by 2018 according to figures produced by Thomson Reuters. I read recently that some of the global brands have identified the market potential, and are now putting prayer carpets and copies of the Quran into rooms, but catering to this market is not only about that.
“I can only say that Shaza Hotels sincerely represents and belongs to the people of the region, and our vision is to ensure a complete guest experience for these travellers, an authentic celebration of their cultures, and to create a strong sense of belonging and engagement in a setting of luxury.”
Two new hotel concepts inspired by Arabic culture are taking a seemingly less strict approach. Accor’s upscale brand, Majlis Grand Mercure, is designed to offer Middle East investors the opportunity to develop a localised Arabic-inspired brand with the backing of an international hotel chain.
The brand is tailor-made to the needs of Middle East consumers, but also aims to reach overseas visitors looking for local culture. It will serve alcohol, as will Emaar Hospitality Group’s Manzil, a “modern boutique hotel brand that celebrates authentic Arabesque design aesthetics and culinary flavours”.
Emaar Hospitality Group COO Philippe Zuber suggests that as long as alcohol is served discreetly and with respect to all guests, there should be no issue with an Arabic-inspired brand serving it. He says it is important that Manzil hotels can “host different kinds of clientele”.
Revenues from alcohol sales are significant for hotels and I suspect there are limited numbers of owners and operators willing to sacrifice this, meaning the focus will likely remain on the Arabesque rather than the Arabic.
But in the Middle East, there is also a clear business argument for brands that target a very specific audience — namely GCC travellers and Muslim tourists that would prefer an alcohol-free environment.