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Saudi Arabia Trends

Sharia-compliant hotels: The next big thing in Arabia

Hazel Heyer, Special to eTN  Jul 03, 2008

The so-called Sharia-compliant hotels or the Islamic hospitality market is pegged to be one of the fastest growing hotel segments in the Middle East and elsewhere today.

The Dubai-based hospitality group Almulla Hospitality recently launched its Sharia-compliant hotel portfolio, comprising three brand tiers. The group has also cited plans to target developments in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Jordan, Egypt and Malaysia in the first instance, with Thailand and Europe following closely behind.

Abdulla Almulla, chairman of Almulla Hospitality said that the demand for Sharia-compliant accommodation is on the increase and represents 10 percent of the world tourism market. “In less than a decade, the Middle East leaders have transformed the landscape and created one of the world’s fastest growing regions with hospitality investment at its core,” said Almulla, adding, “The United Arab Emirates travelers alone spend more than $4.9 million on travel annually and the Islamic hotel product will be in high demand, certainly reaching 10 percent in the short-term.” Almulla joins other Emirates-based players including Shaza hotels from Kempinski and Tamani Hotels & Suites from KM Group. Rotana has also jumped on the bandwagon with its recent launch of Rayhaan Hotels & Resorts with offer-specific no-alcohol label.

As to who makes the decision whether a hotel can be Sharia-compliant or not is a tricky thing. “We see more hotels undergo Islamization but they aren’t really Sharia-compliant,” said Almulla. “On top, there is also a demand issue. If we are all in this industry, it’s hard to convince others to be fully compliant in the real sense of the word.”

There are proven markets where these hoteliers have gone out and delivered the concept. People will accept Shariah-compliance, said Almulla without the shadow of a doubt.

However, there are no forthcoming guidelines or certification in place yet. The field is completely wide open; no checklist has been drawn up. Chris Hartley, CEO of Shaza Hotels (Shaza is a joint venture and development effort between Kempinski and Shaza Hospitality), said: “The real opportunity for Sharia hotels does not lie in travels from Europe, but travels to the Middle East, from the Gulf and through the Gulf. The opportunity lies in the product that reflects the lifestyle, expectations, culture and history of this region, the same way as what the Marriott’s and the Hilton’s have done several years ago catering to the American travelers to the region.”

“Today, the Middle East is expanding. Alone, the region is very strong. People are traveling more within the region. They have expectations for products and services. We want to create a product that differentiates itself from all others, while seeking the opportunity to reflect the needs of the region. But if one misuses the concept of Sharia, one misrepresents the drive for hospitality and opportunity,” added Hartley.

The misconception and misrepresentation usually comes from Dubai media in search of wrong angles and stories that are more exciting than they actually are, said Hartley. “Arabian hospitality has started even before Western or American hospitality. It has a history of over thousands of years, backed by rich traditions and very welcoming and hospitable folks. The word ‘alcohol’ in Sharia is what the media wants to focus on. Let’s talk about cigarettes -- when 60 years ago we thought smoking was a cool habit. I think the media just needs to highlight it for story’s sake. But this truly goes beyond the word Sharia - reflecting the values of the region without us injecting angles the press want to publish regarding Sharia,” added Hartley.

The number one region today where people travel for family leisure offers a culturally-diversified experience. Today, there’s brand development in the region on the cultural front, echoed the Sharia developers. Mohmood Al Koofi, CEO of REEF, said: “I don’t believe there is a Sharia-compliant industry yet, because industries usually have standards. Until today, nobody has taken the initiative to deliver the standards. The biggest challenge in this field is developing and the delivery of Sharia hotels. The economic viability is also in question, as well as equity delivered over a period of time to replace the existing brands currently making money in the market”

Koofi added: “Like Islamic banking, we look back in the late 1970s, when it was starting to grow. The need for Sharia banking compliance was not really strong at the time, but was there however. Over the years, it gained strength. We have our own needs and so the product that caters to our values and beliefs, we choose… such had Islamic banking provided at the time.”

Al Mulla said: “Why would I want to see alcohol in my room when I am paying for my stay at the hotel anyway? For me, this is very offensive.”

Hotels in Saudi Arabia are definitely compliant. “Saudi is the largest exporter of tourists to the world. Literally none has catered to this segment in the last years after Islamic banking proved great success. From an economic point of view, I ask why we have not thought about the largest market exporting tourists to the world?” asked Koofi.

The Muslim greeting “Assalam wa Alaikum” (or “Peace be upon you”) has a deeper meaning to it than it is a greeting in Islam, contend the Sharia hoteliers. “There must be something about our religion. Islam is all about wealth and health obtained in the right way. Unfortunately politics has distorted the image of Islam. According to the last report by Meryll Lynch, there are 300,000 millionaires in the Middle East with a combined wealth of over $1.5 trillion. This means there’s plenty of opportunity here. Shariah just means we cannot make money from money. The religion says you cannot take other people’s money to make money. Islam says we need to pay with our money to make money. It’s healthier rather than just taking other’s people’s cash,” said Sayed Al Alawai, CEO of Al Hayat.

Airlines, for instance, have banned smoking. “So what’s wrong with a hotel that’s Sharia-compliant? There are people who don’t want the smell of alcohol. What’s wrong with that? Just as there must be for a reason for banning smoking or drinking at a certain age or drinking and driving, there must also be a reason why we reject alcohol in hotels. One can buy alcohol, take it with him, drink it and harm himself as long as he doesn’t harm others! It’s like terrorism. Why is there terrorism? It’s a question of respect for life and health and rejecting the idea of healthy living,” said Koofi.

With all there hotels coming online, where are our tourists going to come from? The Middle East will stay in the region. Koofi said Arab Muslims will love to stay there if they find accommodation that fits their religion. “Most hotels in the Middle East show the direction of the Kaaba. European hotels have started to do the same. When the Marriott can have the bible in the room, so can Muslim hotels today have the Quran in both Arabic and English in the rooms. Today, it’s all about our region, Arabia. There’s so much wealth in the region due to our oil. We can take the concept globally and launch Sharia hotels everywhere, regardless of country. When I know that my family, my wife and children can check into Sharia properties with nothing to worry about when it comes to alcohol, that is true Sharia… It is a way of life which all have to accept. Period,” Koofi said.

Nasseem Javed, president of ABC Nameback, said, “Anywhere you go, there is fundamental control and order. In the US especially, there’s so much tight control. You go to France, Germany, Indonesia, anywhere, you follow a controlled environment in the name of civility, ethics, manners, culture and class. Every society has its own set of rules. Sharia-compliance is the classic revival of a few hundred year-old tradition of living the Islamic way.”

Sharia-compliant hotels: The next big thing in Arabia
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