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The Middle East @ Work

A Glimpse

Richard Core Mar 10, 2008

Up at 6:40 or so, couldn’t bare the cheese/processed meat/grapefruit breakfast again so
I had yogurt with frosted flakes in it. (They didn’t have any granola.) Helmut Mackleburg didn’t have any breakfast, just coffee. He’s the General Manager of the Taj Palace Hotel in Deira — the first and longest standing sharia-compliant hotel in Dubai. He’s a large man presiding over a large place – massive ceilings (the hotel I mean), four restaurants, beauty salon, pharmacy, etc. And like the other sharia-compliant hotels I visited it had those same framed drawings of the president, the former president and the vice president of the UAE. behind the concierge desk. Most of the female guests in the lobby wore abayas. Some had their faces fully covered, tucking fork-fulls of eggs under their veils at the balcony cafe. . . .

Helmut is a busy man and I had to wait for him. I was worried, as I’d told the cab driver to come back at exactly 11:20 so I could get to my noon appointment at Dubai Healthcare City. But it was worth the wait. Helmut is as warm and insightful as he is enormous – a German guy who converted to Islam in order to get married, a self-professed student of history and geopolitics who talked as much off tape about various global issues as he did on tape about his hotel. The Taj Hotel was the first five-star sharia-compliant hotel in Dubai. It’s been there seven years. And now there are other brands – Tamani, Shaza, Almulla – that are or will be following in its footsteps.

“Just being sharia-compliant doesn’t mean that you are going to be full,” Helmut said, “You have to have the standards you have to have the service. You have to do the same thing that other hotels do. Eventually even a little bit better because you’re under the… how do you call it? The viewfinder.”

I asked Helmut if he there were any guests he knew of who would want to talk about why they stay at his hotel or hotels like it. He paused for a moment and thought, then called for his receptionist. She was in the room in moments.

“Get Mr. Kanani on the line, yeah?” he said. A few minutes later the phone rang. And after some brief words he led me downstairs, saying “This is the kind of relationship we have with our guests.”

Shams Kanani was sitting on one of the plush couches in the lobby. He’s Kenyan, handsome with a trimmed back beard and wearing a long black dishdasha. He and Helmut greeted each other with easy affection, touching cheeks and almost whispering their hellos. As it happened, Kanani was the first ever guest of the Taj Hotel in Dubai. And he’s been staying there every since. “When I heard that this Taj is going to be slightly different in the sense that it’s going to be… sharia-compliant… I immediately came here to see it,” he said, “I’m sure you must have noticed that when you entered the lobby here. You will see that most of the ladies who are here…” he interrupted himself and started again. “Dubai has now unfortunately become a center for illicit business. But when you come here you will see that you will not find any of those type of women around and we feel at home that it is like a… family hotel. You can bring in your family.”

After a few more questions I raced out of there to meet my driver, and spent the next few hours at Dubai Healthcare City, part of which was spent trying to convince a construction company to let me photograph an enormous hole in the ground. (You have to go through the proper channels, they said.)

From there I rode to the offices of Damac, which bills itself as the largest master developer in the Middle East. My meeting was at 5:00 PM. I was an hour and a half early. I got a coffee at the Starbucks next door and collapsed into a comfy chair on the second level, forcing myself to come up with questions for Damac CEO Peter Riddoch. But my mind kept wandering to the sharia-compliant hotel story, and to how the Arab world is changing, as evidenced by Dubai. A friend tells me the leader of Saudi Arabia is planning on building seven Dubais, and that young people in Saudi are now driving up and down the street, messaging each other on their Bluetooth phones in order to date.

In Dubai, I saw a woman who had her pony-tail sticking out of the back of her hijab. I met a Saudi man who wishes his wife wouldn’t wear the veil, but she chooses to anyway. I saw a woman marching around an important Saudi sheikh’s office with her abaya completely open and off of her head, revealing a gray sweatshirt and jeans. (Why she still had the abaya on at all I have no idea.) I saw a white woman in tight pants with her head covered. There is every iteration of Islamic observance here. There is NONE and there is FULL but, mostly, there are a billion shades of gray in between. And I was thinking about all of this when Frank Sinatra began to croon through the ceiling speakers of that Starbucks in Dubai, “In olden days a glimpse of stockin’ / was looked on as something shockin’ / Now, heaven knows / anything goes.”

— Sean Cole

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