Monday, September 22, 2008

Ramadan tent owners curry favour with Dubai residents

Restaurant and hotel owners in Dubai are in hot competition during the month of Ramadan to attract a top-notch clientele to "tents" that have proved a hit in the bustling Gulf emirate.

"Dubai has over the years become one of the most cosmopolitan places and I have an international clientele," said Rami Shehada, who runs one of around 35 Ramadan tents strewn across Dubai.
"Ramadan sets the right atmosphere for our business and we take advantage of it," he said, adding he was one of the first to bring the tents concept to the UAE from places such as Egypt and Lebanon.

For Shehada and other restaurant managers, it is perfectly normal that the month should be yet another occasion to make money in a city driven by a business ethos and basking in ostentatious luxury.

Shehada's tent, set up in a park surrounded by brand new buildings, can accommodate up to 600 people for the sundown fast-breaking meal known as "iftar".
Customers pick and choose from an Oriental buffet and spend the evening with friends for around Dh100 per head.

But they usually run up much higher bills as they select their favourite dishes from a separate menu and puff on hubble-bubbles, which are increasingly popular in Dubai despite government efforts to reduce smoking.
Tents set up aboard cruise ships charge as much as Dh600 per person, providing a stark contrast with free iftar meals offered by religious associations, philanthropists and big firms in the city streets and around mosques.

A handful of dates, a plate of rice with meat or chicken and juice make up the menu of the charity iftars.

"I sometimes have to turn down clients, especially over the weekend," said Shehada, boasting that his tent, sponsored by a property developer, is "the most elegant in town".
With music blaring out of flat television screens, his customers relax on spotless white couches in the air-conditioned tent festooned with plants.

The ambiance is similar at a more luxurious tent in a nearby five-star hotel. There, the tent has been erected around a swimming pool surrounded by some of the skyscrapers that have mushroomed in Dubai over the past few years.

The 300 available places have been booked throughout the fasting month, which began on September 1, by firms hosting iftars for their staff or clients. The menu is even richer, with Japanese sushi and Indian curry dishes complementing an assortment of Lebanese hors d'oeuvres.

"I didn't expect to do so well," said Ashok Subba, the tent's Indian manager.

"We are fully booked from iftar until suhur," the dawn meal preceding the start of the daily fast, he said as a band prepared to play Arabic classics and waiters scurried to serve the 300 guests of a leading property developer.

Ramadan is high season for restaurants, confirmed Hamad Mohammad Hareb, an Emirati owner of a restaurant chain.
"Business is better this year despite the rise in the price of foodstuffs," he said, attributing the success of Ramadan tents to the fact that "Dubai keeps attracting people, meaning potential customers".
Hareb was more worried by competition than by the possible impact of the global financial crisis.

"Would you believe that 180 restaurants are going to open in the commercial centre being built around Burj Dubai alone?" he said, referring to the tower which has already become the world's tallest building.

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