It all began in the desert. Famous English explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger crossed the Rub’ al Khali by camel and became the first entrepreneur to reap the benefits of Gulf trade. Or so the story goes. Traversing The Empty Quarter desert in the mid-twentieth century, Thesiger forged new colonial trade routes from Muscat in Oman to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – and a new cultural exchange was born.
Dressed in a flowing white thawb robe, the Englishman held meetings with Bedouin tribesmen, Bahraini pearl divers and Omani frankincense traders under the relentless desert sun and – in doing so – opened up an entirely unknown region to the West and Far East. As masters of hospitality, his Arabian hosts have never looked back.
To this day, the Gulf remains an important trade route and meeting place between Europe and Asia. In turn, Arabian hospitality has become legendary and this is an area that the meetings and incentives industry has been quick to capitalise on. Boasting four of the world’s best airlines – Emirates, Etihad Airways, Qatar Airways and Gulf Air – the Gulf States have become a transcontinental hub for business, meetings, conferences, exhibitions and incentive groups.
Forging new commercial industries from their recent boom years as oil rich states and key shipping routes, the UAE, Qatar and Oman in particular, have become famous for the wow-factor of their world-class exhibition centres, ultra-luxurious resorts and self-proclaimed “seven star” hotels. As English is widely spoken and is the business lingua franca of the Gulf, business etiquette is the same in Bahrain and Muscat as it is in Bangkok or Manila. Whilst Islamic law requires alcohol to be served only in hotels, business event organisers are extended special treatment and can arrange for special events to be held in tented camps in the heart of the sweeping deserts.
Marketed as the transport hub for the region, Dubai has seen a significant increase in passengers to and from Asia (25 percent) and Australasia (14 percent) and currently welcomes in more than 120 leading airlines. “Growth continues from the very strong base that was established last year and is largely the result of the broadening of Emirates’ already impressive network,” says Paul Griffiths, the chief executive of Dubai Airport. “Over the past 12 months, we have seen our rolling passenger total rise to 45 million, which puts us on track to meet our projection for 46 million passengers this year.” In testament to this, Dubai Airport reported a 6.8 percent year-on-year rise in international passenger traffic as of August this year.
Although the meetings and incentives industry is in its formative years, the Gulf is a region with enormous potential for destination management companies (DMCs). According to research from the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), annual travel and tourism revenues in the region will increase by 89 per cent over the next 10 years and will be worth some US$279 billion by 2016 alone. A growing part of this success, the business events industry is embracing the investment boom with open arms, welcoming pots of steaming khawa coffee and plates of freshly-picked sticky dates.
“During the past decade, we have arranged more than a thousand tailor-made meetings, incentives, conferences and events, [which] have been successfully managed for groups from 10 up to 4,000 participants in Dubai, the UAE and Oman,” says a spokesman for pan-regional destination management company Gulf Dunes, one of the industry’s early pioneers.
Despite a wealth of attractions on offer, however, the Gulf is not a region that can be branded so easily. The economic powerhouses of the northern Gulf rim each have their own defining attributes and each should be taken on its own terms.
Opulence in Dubai
The United Arab Emirates is the undoubted glamour model of the region: home to the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa tower, several iconic “seven star” destination hotels, including the Emirates Palace and the Burj Dubai, and the world’s most acclaimed F1 race track, it is a juggernaut of foreign investment and million-dollar business deals. With a robust economy and strong exchange rate, it is an attractive trans-continental meeting hub for Asian business groups.
As the region’s most successful events destination, Dubai has a history of hosting a number of colossal events and has a superior corporate infrastructure in place. In 2003, the city was truly put on the global business map when it played host to more than 16,000 delegates as host of the Annual Meetings of the Board of Governors of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank and it hasn’t looked back. Since then, the Emirate has welcomed more than 2,500 international visitors for the 53rd World Association of Cooks Societies World Congress and some 10,000 visitors for the Annual World Dental Congress, among others.
Yet the desert state is not resting on its laurels: the World Diabetes Congress will take place in 2011 for 5,000 delegates at the Dubai International Conference and Exhibition Centre (DICEC) and the 59th UITP Conference & Exhibition (International Association of Public Transport) will see the arrival of some 7,000 delegates. Building on this anticipated passenger and stop-over surge, plans are also afoot to build the world’s biggest airport in Jebel Ali and a number of exclusive golf and spa resorts for worn-out executives. One of these will be Tiger Woods’ first ever signature golf course.
As a backdrop to these events, Dubai is now home to a growing number of group activities designed with the event organiser in mind. Falconry lessons, hot air balloon rides across the desert, 4×4 dune-bashing safaris and sunset cruises regularly top the business traveller’s most wanted list. In particular, Arabian Adventures specialises in exclusive off-road desert trips (see Insider verdict).
Despite Dubai in particular being hit hard by the recession, when its domestic property market crashed, its “Las Vegas of the desert” tag is well deserved. Unlike Europe or the US, it has quickly become a world leader in destination hotels and nearly all chains offer inclusive meeting and event packages. Consequently, with invaluable support networks supplied by the Dubai Convention Bureau, the question most event organisers now ask, is not when they are going to the UAE, but how they will choose where to stay?
Of late, new offerings include Jumeirah’s 285-room The Meydan (see Hotel highlights), the 196-suite The Address in Downtown Dubai – its Symphony Ballroom alone can accommodate up to 550 corporate guests – and the long awaited 160-room Armani Hotel inside the Burj Khalifa. The first hotel in the Armani portfolio, this new executive hub has an exclusive in-hotel Armani/SPA, offering 12,000sqft of treatment rooms, thermal suites, a fitness centre and an outdoor swimming pool for post-event chill outs. Outside, the record-breaking 150-metre-high Dubai fountain splits the sky every night like clockwork fireworks.
Located in Dubai Marina, a 30-minute trip from the airport, The Address Dubai Marina is also one of the city’s newest business focal points. “Our meeting and events facilities come replete with state-of-the-art amenities,” explains general manager Oliver Key. “The ballroom foyer is the ideal choice for a wide range of events – and offers an outdoor terrace providing the perfect pre-function backdrop. Overlooking Dubai Marina and featuring floor-to-ceiling windows that accentuate natural light, the ballroom can accommodate up to 1,000 guests and has sound-proof ceiling to floor partitions.”
Meanwhile, The Emirates Towers, the Business Traveller Hotel of the Year in the Middle East for the past eight consecutive years, has also been significantly renovated. Inside, beyond its 12 boardrooms, it can host lavish business functions and events in its Godolphin Ballroom, which can accommodate 600 guests for a banquet or 1,000 for cocktails. Like all Dubai hotels, of course, it is opulent in the extreme and no decadence has been spared. Luxury and superior quality are at the heart of Dubai’s business event promise.
Fast-changing Abu Dhabi
Holding the strings to the multi-billion dollar sovereign purse, Abu Dhabi – only 90 minutes away by road – won’t be outdone either. The city has recently seen the 369-room Fairmont Bab Al Bahr, the 499-room Yas Hotel, Gary Player’s Saadiyat Beach Golf Club, and Anantara’s 140-room Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort and Spa (see Hotel highlights) grace the Emirate. For the coming season, the capital’s Yas Island will also open Ferrari World, the world’s largest indoor theme park, beside its pioneering Formula One (F1) race track. For a once-in-a-lifetime experience, the circuit offers a number of adrenalin-fuelled behind-the-wheel group packages for F1 and drag racing.
Indeed, underlining its attractive business potential on the world stage of business events, the sovereign owners of the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (ADNEC) now hold the front door keys to the largest exhibition venue in the Middle East. With 12 halls totalling 55,000 square metres, ADNEC hosts events as diverse as IDEX (International Defence Exhibition & Conference), ADIPEC (Abu Dhabi International Petroleum Exhibition and Conference) and the Abu Dhabi Yacht Show. The UAE has come a long way since it was the sleepy enclave that Wilfred Thesiger once encountered, that’s for sure; he wouldn’t even recognise the place now.
Sophistication in Oman
Neighbouring Oman, in contrast, is the adventure tourism capital of the region. With a more laid-back approach to self-promotion and excess, the capital Muscat has built on its maritime heritage. Local fishermen have pioneered Arabian dolphin trips and off-shore wreck diving and the Omani capital now showcases itself as a cultural rather than commercial staging post. A number of museums also trace this influential history, including the Bait Al-Baranda heritage museum, Mutrah Fort, and traders still pitch their sea wares at the romantic Mutrah Souq.
Whilst new hotel developments are opening up, in particular the city’s US$15 billion Blue City marina, near Al Sawadi, Oman’s landmark freehold development is The Wave, a US$800 million luxury hotel and residential project that includes the Sultanate’s first sea-facing PGA Links golf course, designed by Greg Norman. “Having the opportunity to draw from the expertise and experience of one of the most prominent and successful golfers in the world paves the way in our quest to provide the Sultanate with the ultimate golfing experience,” enthuses Michael Lenarduzzi, chief executive of The Wave, Muscat. “This is a reflection of our high delivery standards, as we create a truly integrated lifestyle brand where residential, leisure, entertainment and sports facilities are centralised in the heart of the capital.”
Blending traditional architecture with contemporary style, the hotels of Muscat are also of the highest international standards. The Al Bustan Palace, a former home to Omani Sultan Qaboos ibn Sa’id, can cater to business events groups in its 13 magnificent banqueting and reception rooms. Elsewhere, The Chedi, the Grand Hyatt, the Intercontinental Hotel and the spectacular Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa are all set along the city’s sultana-coloured coastline. In particular, the Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah ballroom has space for 850 delegates and offers nearly 20 reception-, function- and boardrooms. Away from the capital, countless wadis (Arabian canyons) and caves also offer group opportunities for off-road driving, abseiling, caving and desert camping trips.
Marsalama! Arrive at Doha International Airport followed by VIP airport service for visas, meet and assist, baggage collection, customs clearance and transfer to the hotel in air-conditioned luxury coaches with multi-lingual tour guides. Check-in at the hotel and time to rest.
3PM to 7PM
Board a luxury bus and see Doha with a multi-lingual tour guide. You will end the city tour at Souq Waqaf with its quaint cobble stone streets and old architecture and dine in a local restaurant. Browse the traditional shops for gifts and souvenirs, buy fresh spices, jewellery or perfume from the little shops with friendly shop-keepers. Our luxury bus will bring you back to the hotel.
Morning tour to see the Oryx Farm, followed by a visit to the Sheikh Faisal Museum. The tour continues to the camel-racing track with the robot jockeys and returns to Doha to dine in a classical Arabic restaurant.
Desert safari with exciting dune-bashing and team-building activities, such as sand skiing, camel riding, swimming in the inland sea, sword dancing and other activities. Get a henna tattoo from a henna lady or have your future charted by our fortune teller. Eat a delicious, sumptuous, BBQ dinner with exotic Arabian hors d’oeuvres of stuffed vine-leaves and tabbouleh. For a quiet moment, lie back on the sand and watch the million stars in the desert sky unfold. Our camp is environmentally friendly, comfortable and welcoming.
Optional tours available include golfing, sailing and fishing. There’s a gala dinner on a traditional Arabian dhow (sailing boat) in the Gulf waters with a sumptuous buffet and music to your liking. An Arabian oud (a musical instrument) player is available on request. End the evening and tour with prize announcements for the competition winners of your incentive group.
Emirates, Etihad Airways, Qatar Airways, Gulf Air and Oman Air have daily connections to every major city in Asia.
From November to March, the Gulf States’ cities bask in glorious 25 degree temperatures and from May to August the dry desert heat can hit 45 to 50 degrees.
Citizens of most countries are issued with a free visa when arriving at any major Gulf international airport. For visa requirements, please see the individual country websites below.
Arabic is the official language, but English is widely spoken and is the lingua franca for business.
FREDERIC BARDIN, SENIOR VICE-PRESIDENT, ARABIAN ADVENTURES (UAE)
“Dubai and the UAE, in general, remain extremely popular [for] a wide variety of visitors. Dubai, for example, is the only place in the world where you can ski on water, sand and snow, all in the same day. Over three million customers have now experienced one or more of our events or excursions since we started in 1987, which says a great deal about the quality of service that we offer. This figure is growing by well over 200,000 every year.
We provide an eclectic mix of things for people to do. We are forever looking at ways to broaden our appeal to an ever-growing range of clients within our traditional core markets
in the Middle East, Europe and Russia, as well as attracting further interest across emerging markets such as China, Korea and Brazil.
New options for 2010 include an adrenalin-fuelled boating adventure, catamaran cruises, trekking, rock climbing or kayaking, and the ever popular dune-bashing safaris. In addition to English, brochures are published in different languages, including German, French, Italian, Russian, Korean and Mandarin.
Arabian Adventures has always had a pioneering spirit. As the first local tour operator in Dubai, we have grown significantly over the past few years. Our new operations centre will allow us to consolidate our existing facilities into one new purpose-built centre. We are predicting an annual increase in business of 10 to 15 per cent.”
Established more than 20 years ago, Arabian Adventures, the region’s largest destination management company, employs a dedicated team of close to 400 multi-lingual and multi-cultural guides and experts.
Qatar International Adventures
Gulf Dunes Dubai
Jumeirah The Meydan
Positioned at the epicentre of one of the Middle East’s most exciting business developments, The Meydan Hotel is Dubai’s newest events destination. The brainchild of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE vice president and prime minister and ruler of Dubai, the Jumeirah-managed luxury hotel flanks the final furlong of the famous Meydan Grandstand and Racecourse, home to the world’s richest horse race, the Dubai World Cup.
The hotel forms part of a much larger-scale initiative, which will see the creation of a new eco-friendly city with shopping malls, business parks and apartments soon to be completed. Inside, the building features a 460sqm ballroom, which can comfortably accommodate 240 guests for a banquet dinner or 400 guests for a cocktail reception.
“The Meydan has many fantastic features,” explains Gerald Lawless, executive chairman of the Jumeirah Group. “It has proximity to the heart of Dubai, quality of service and rooms, and, of course, its iconic location at the Meydan Racecourse.”
Bab Al Shams Desert Resort
Just 60 minutes from Dubai International Airport, yet also in the heart of the Dubai desert, the Bab Al Shams Desert Resort and Spa is another Jumeirah-managed property, built with an eye on the business events market. With a total of 22 meeting rooms and an event capacity for up to 5,000 people, the resort offers a wide range of team-building exercises, with authentic Arabian activities ranging from camel riding to desert exploring, and can be combined with a stay at
Qasr al Sarab Desert Resort
In neighbouring Abu Dhabi, the Anantara-managed Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort and Spa is perhaps one of the most unusual meetings and conference venues on Earth. Perched on the edge of the rolling Rub’ Al Khali sand dunes, the hotel combines the best of Arabian culture and heritage with world-class business and conference facilities. Pitching unique group camel trips
and desert cocktail parties to business events organisers, only the setting sun will cast any shadows over a successful corporate event.