By Guy Wilkinson
Hotel industry consultant Guy Wilkinson takes a look at the history of dry hotels in the region, and examines how contemporary brands are giving a new lease of life to an age-old concept.
The Middle East's hotel market is unusual in that the religious convictions of a) governments and b) hotel owners can result in hotels being operated without bar service. In Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE emirate of Sharjah, alcohol is banned per se (i.e. anywhere, not just in hotels) and therefore for these countries, the idea of ‘dry' hotels and chains is far from new.
In Iran for example, the Foundation for War Victims and the Dispossessed (Bunyad Mostafazan e Janbazan), a huge semi-government conglomerate, owns a country-wide chain of 24 imperial-era hotels, including Tehran's leading Azadi and Etseghlal (former Hyatt and Hilton) properties. The other
main chain is the Iran Air-owned Homa Group, which owns five luxury hotels in Tehran, Shiraz, Bandar Abbas and Mashad (which has two).
Iran, of course, once had a Western-style regime under the Shah, in which bars and even casinos were allowed (there was a famous casino hotel on Kish Island) and only became dry after Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic Revolution in 1979. Most of the five-star hotels in Iran date back to pre-1979, and have what were evidently bars that have now been converted to genteel tea shops or staid meeting rooms.
The same can be seen in the older Sharjah hotels, such as the Oceanic (former Holiday Inn) in Khor Fakkan on the UAE's East Coast, which boasts an iconic circular room at the top of the building, which must once have made a great bar, but has now been converted to a buffet restaurant.
Indeed Sharjah was well on its way to becoming a regional resort destination as long ago as the early 1970s (ironically, well before Dubai), until the government banned alcohol in 1983 and the hotel chains that were operating there (including InterContinental, Holiday Inn, Le Meridien and Novotel) all pulled out. Only the return of Holiday Inn to manage the former Sharjah Continental Hotel (originally an InterContinental and now the Radisson SAS) in 1996 heralded the resurgence of the emirate's tourism sector, which is now a popular lure for CIS tourists - who are known to buy their alcohol from the neighbouring Emirate of Ajman and consume it in their rooms.
In these countries in which alcohol is fully banned, newer hotels are generally designed in a slightly different way than in alcohol-consuming countries. The images of hotels that make them such a ‘home from home' in the West, such as cosy pubs with wood panelling, or ‘swim-up' pool bars patronised by bikini-clad beauties, are anathema in these countries and hence such amenities are not provided.
Despite these apparent disadvantages, there are a number of new chains that are enthusiastically creating a new trendy niche for dry hotels in wet markets.
Strangely, perhaps, it is in the UAE - a well-known wet market, with the exception of Sharjah - that dry chains have been really catching on. Coral International of Sharjah, which is now expanding with its Coral, Corp and Ecos brands, and the Dubai's Flora Group of Hotels are both committed dry chains with multiple existing properties.
Grand Serai Hotels & Resorts, backed by Dubai's Abraaj Capital and headed up by former Starwood regional director Sami Zoghbi will be a fully Sharia-compliant chain offering four brands (five- and three-star) featuring Arabic/Islamic architecture and interiors.
Shaza Hotels & Resorts, an alcohol-free five-star hotel concept with modern Arabic-influenced design launched in 2006, is the result of a partnership between international financial firm Guidance Financial Group and German hotel operator Kempinski. Shaza will open seven dry properties within the next three years.
Sharaf Protea Middle East, a UAE-South African joint venture, and Tamani Hotels & Resorts, part of the Al Rostamani business empire, are both Dubai-based dry chains created by Muslim owners with strong beliefs.
The latest dry chains to be announced are Samaya Hotels & Resorts and a chain by Dubai's Almulla group, owners of existing Ritz-Carlton, Sheraton Deira and Ramada Dubai hotels. This group will reportedly operate up to 40 hotels under three brands across the region.
Such chains are betting not only on gaining preference among the Muslim markets, but also on appealing to anyone - regardless of their faith - who is attracted by Arabian design or who likes health-conscious, clean living, free from the unwelcome intrusion of lager louts, and other unsavoury characters.For all the latest travel news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.