By Edward Attwood
The easy money for the Gulf’s plastic surgeons may have gone, but that gap is being filled by a new generation of cash-rich image-conscious men.
“Looks are power,” says Gail Clough. “Looks are a huge commodity, and men have finally cottoned onto what’s going on around them.”
Clough should know; as the manager of the dubaisurgery.com website, she has been advising both medical tourists to the UAE and residents of the Gulf on their plastic surgery needs for years. The biggest trend in the regional aesthetic surgery hub of Dubai is, she says, that requests from men have really been picking up the slack left by fewer female appointments during the recession.
“Women have had magazines like Cosmopolitan and Harpers Bazaar for decades, and similar magazines are now being targeted towards men as well,” Clough adds. “The media has really pushed this change, and men are now saying: ‘we have more cash than women, and we’re going to spend it’.”
Right now, Clough says she is receiving more calls from men than women, many of them Arabs, although with a healthy cross-section across all the nationalities.
Plastic surgery is big business in the Gulf, although regional data is hard to come by. Elsewhere, around $10bn was spent on cosmetic procedures in the US during 2009, a three percent drop on the previous year, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.
While there appears to have been a dip in demand for procedures, elsewhere in the world, anecdotal evidence suggests that plastic surgery in the Gulf, and specifically Dubai, is retaining its attractions.
“For sure, we have not seen any dip in business as our colleagues in the US and Europe have,” says Dr Jaffer Khan, the Dubai-based CEO of Aesthetics International. “I think the expats here as well as being on tax free salaries have more disposable income. At the end of the day we live in a status- and appearance-conscious society here in Dubai and hence there is priority on maintenance.”
Khan says that his practice saw a ten percent increase in business for non-surgical procedures in 2010, which was balanced out by a ten percent drop in surgical procedures. The most popular non-surgical procedures were Botox and ‘filler materials’ for the face, although ‘rejuvenating light sources’ — or laser treatments, have also proved popular.
“Treatment for pigmentation continues to be popular, but largely because there is no one treatment that always works and many people have it again,” he adds. “In my practice, aesthetic breast surgery and upper eyelid surgery remain the most popular surgical procedures but I do a lot of rhinoplasties and abdominoplasties as well.”
However, Khan’s practice is not seeing a significant rise in men requesting surgery, with only one man to every eight women. He does admit that more men are opting for cosmetic procedures, though, suggesting that this is due both to higher awareness combined with a degree of prodding from their wives or partners.
That percentage seems to be replicated at other Dubai practices. Professor Luiz Toledo, who practises at the International Modern Hospital, says that in 2008, fifteen percent of his patients were male. The American British Surgical and Medical Centre’s Dr Mendhy Khan, who hails from the UK and is one of a new breed of plastic surgeons who moved to Dubai very recently, says that fully 90 percent of his patients are female.
“In London, you would generally see around fifteen to 20 percent of men requesting surgery in the 1980s and 1990s, but that has risen to 40 percent recently,” says Edwina Viel, who works with her husband, Dr Maurizio Viel, at the London Centre for Aesthetic Surgery (LCAS) in Dubai Healthcare City. “In Dubai, it’s still the case that only around 20 percent of our patients are male, although this is certainly increasing.”
The Viels set up their clinic at the height of the recession, in 2009, but she believes that while local clinics were affected by the downturn, the advent of a new wave of professionals has kept business on an even keel.
“It’s fair to say a lot of the ‘easy’ money for plastic surgeons has now gone, but there are still people with money coming in,” she points out. “Of course Dubai has had some issues from an economic perspective, but what part of the world hasn’t? What we’re seeing is more ‘real’ money from new bankers and new lawyers in the region, as opposed to what I would call ‘hot’ money, which was the case previously.”
Viel’s belief is that Gulf residents have retained their disposable incomes, but that the recession has simply made them nervous of spending. When times are tough, plastic surgery is not seen as a priority.
But practitioners elsewhere around the world have seen anecdotal evidence that downturns have seen an increase in their business. Dr Christophe Luino, the CEO of EuroMediCom — a Paris-based organisation that organises conferences and training courses on aesthetic and anti-aging surgery — says that the anti-aging market is increasing by 20 percent globally every year. In 2008, the toughest point of the credit crunch for many Western markets, the sector grew by 25 percent.
“I think it’s linked to the fact that even during tough times, people can feel relieved about having a budget for themselves,” Luino says. “I was very recently speaking to the head of one of France’s cosmetic houses, who told me: ‘I don’t know why, but whenever there is a downturn in the economy, I always see an increase in business’.”
Luino, whose firm is running an anti-aging event in Dubai in November, is another who has seen a clear increase in men being bitten by the plastic surgery bug. He says that this has been helped by recent changes in the industry that ensure that any surgical treatments are less obvious than they might once have been.
“Changes in surgery mean that techniques are much more soft and non-invasive, there’s more ‘lifting’ and the look is much more natural,” he adds. “There’s an overall ‘youth trend’.”
Back in Dubai, and LCAS’ Viel says that men have largely been hit by what she refers to as the rise of the ‘CEO body’.
“Guys get to 40 or 50, they have bigger incomes, and they are eating more and richer food,” she points out. “In no time at all, the belly pops out. What many people fail to understand is that men can get really depressed about this.”
But it’s not just the bankers’ and their liquid lunches that are driving this trend. Viel’s clinic has also seen a noticeable increase in ex-soldiers from the US and the UK, who are now plying their trade as private security contractors in Iraq.
“These guys used to be professional soldiers, and as such their bodies reflected the intense exercise that comes with that,” she adds. “Now, in some cases, they have moved into management and are stuck behind a desk, while at the same time being surrounded by younger, fitter men — and it’s not easy for them.”
Dubai’s clinics are helped not only by resident interest — from both expats and nationals — but also by medical tourism. EuroMediCom’s Luino says that Dubai is the favoured overseas stop for French surgeons due to the six-hour flying time, good organisation, and well-heeled local clientele. It works both ways as well.
“We also see a lot of Gulf nationals opting to fly to Europe for their treatments as well,” he says. “It’s certainly not the case that clinics in the Middle East are not up to scratch, but I suspect that some Gulf nationals want, and can afford, to travel and make that choice to decide between a number of well-established clinics in the West.”
Different nationalities tend to have different surgical needs as well. While some of those decisions may be cultural — South Asian expats tend to spend heavily on hair-loss replacement procedures, for example — others are due to the genetic make-up of the various residents, some of which are new to the harsh desert environment of the Gulf.
“Arab men and women have absolutely fantastic skin – which means they don’t need facelifts,” says LCAS’ Viel. “We’ve seen local ladies in their 60s and 70s, who have had five children, and they still don’t need Botox. But they do tend to have bigger weight issues, so they go for more liposuction.”
Conversely, Western expats, especially blondes, have thinner skin, which therefore tend to age quicker. However, the ratio of liposuction to facelifts in the region is heavily skewed towards the former, as most expats tend to be shipped back home before they have aged enough to need a facelift. Viel estimates that around 60-80 percent of the treatments her clinic will dish out in any given week will be for liposuction.
LCAS is seeing an increased amount of business from Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and Oman, and even from as far afield as Canada on rare occasions. Aesthetics International’s Khan says he is seeing a lot more demand from Russia and the CIS countries.
But it is also fair to see that the plastic surgery business isn’t quite the moneyspinner that it once was. Dubai Surgery’s Clough points out that while prices have generally remained the same, most local surgeons are now open to a little haggling over the cost of treatment. Part of the problem has been increased competition, not just in Dubai, but around the world. Los Angeles and New York are saturated with clinics, and LCAS’ Viel says that when she and her husband recently worked in South Korea, there were two or three surgeries in every office block.
“We’re ok — it’s a comfortable living, but ten or twelve years ago you could really make a lot of money out of this profession,” she says. “Normal doctors are taking courses to help them carry out non-invasive surgeries, and we’re also seeing dentists doing Botox – it’s really cannibalised the business. But on the plus side for the clients, we now have vasoliposuction patients that walk out of the clinic on the same day. There have been huge advances in technology, and treatments are far more affordable than they once were.”
Good article! It is good to learn that medical tourism has sustained it's growth even during the recession times, especially elective surgeries.
Dubai is one of the most tourist friendly places on the earth which also makes it a great medical tourism destination.
Medical tourisum, something not right about that leaves a bad taste in my mouth for sure, but what does friendy have to do with it unless these treatments are free .