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London’s calling: Arab playground, or is ‘eighth emirate’ losing appeal?

Eman El-Shenawi

Published: Updated:

Heard of the ‘Ramadan Rush?’ What about the ‘Supercar Sweep?’ The terms, used copiously by international press in recent years, have described the flood of Arab tourists travelling to London, a favorite holiday destination, particularly during the peak summer months.

With parts of London being labeled a charming oasis for Arab visitors, the British capital’s allure has hit the headlines every year, bolstered by upbeat Gulf tourist purchase figures and record visit numbers from the GCC, which boosted UK tourism in 2013.

This year, however, may hit a sour note. Two separate attacks on UAE nationals visiting London in the past month have sent shockwaves around the Gulf. This week, an Al Arabiya News/ YouGov poll has found that a third of Emiratis are much less likely to visit the UK because of the recent attacks.

But what is it about London’s culture that has incessantly appealed to Gulf tourists in previous years? Can the British capital London still cling on to its magic?

‘City of Fog’

In Arabic, London has been casually dubbed the “City of Fog” for decades now. This might not sound appealing, but the city’s cosmopolitan bustle has been the major magnet.

“There is a vibrancy about the city that derives in large part from the many communities that live in London - over 300 languages are spoken here – each bringing an extra facet to our city,” Munira Mirza, deputy mayor of London for education and culture, told Al Arabiya News.

“Let's not forget the historic ties between London and the Gulf region, something we have been keen to strengthen, for example with the Shubbak festival, which the Mayor of London first established in 2011. This is a wonderful and wide-ranging biennial showcase of contemporary arts and culture from the Arab world, which has been a huge success,” Mirza added.

The capital encapsulates a “second home” feel for Arab tourists visiting London regularly, which may partly owe to the thriving multi-generation Arab community living in the capital. But it is the show of luxury that been the staple trademark Arabs have left on the streets of London’s central Knightsbridge district and Edgware Road in particular – areas dubbed the capital’s Little Arabias.

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“London is special for Arabs,” said Jocelyne Elia, travel editor of pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat.

“You find people from all over the world and everyone is accepted here. Society is extremely tolerant; you can dress up the way you like – if you want to cover up, you can; if you don’t, you can.

“Many of them own houses and apartments in London; so they really feel that this is their second home,” Elia added.

Freedom to ‘play’

Recent summers have seen the streets of London throb with the plush roars of Lamborghinis and Bugattis. Now known as the “Ramadan Rush,” the cars are usually seen before the holy month of fasting, when tourists head to London to beat the heat and indulge in shopping, before heading back to spend Ramadan with their families.

Brandishing Dubai, Qatar or Saudi registration plates, the supercars vrooming around the streets of London last year included a Ferrari swathed in velvet, a metallic Bugatti Veyron, and brighter neon alternatives.

“They feel they can play their games here, which is why you see them bringing their cars and go to high-end areas of London; Knightsbridge, Sloane Square, where they like to be seen and see each other there,” Elia said.

“The city caters well for Arabs. You find lots of halal restaurants, and a noticeable Arab influence as the Middle Eastern community is big in London. Even the TV in most of the Arab cafes and restaurants show Arabic channels. Shopping centers even cater for them; many have prayer rooms,” she added.

Meanwhile, department stores in and around central London are flooded with Gulf visitors - most prominently, the Qatari-owned Harrods sees a regular influx of tourists during the peak months.

Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi, a UAE-based writer, says London has now become a familiar face for many Gulf visitors.

“The familiarity of the streets and venues, and that multiple generations have been visiting London,” make London special, Qassemi told Al Arabiya News, adding that language isn’t a barrier for most Arab tourists in the UK, unlike in other European cities where it could be.

London, the ‘eighth emirate’

Mayor of London Boris Johnson quipped during a visit to the UAE that he was the mayor of the “eighth emirate,” a reference to the large number of Gulf citizens residing in or visiting the British capital.

“I am amazed to see how many UAE and GCC nationals have made London their home, so I can safely call myself the mayor of the eighth emirate!” Johnson said in April 2013 as it was announced that more than 50,000 Emiratis visit the UK each year.

But will the recent attacks stain London’s cosmopolitan cultural charm for Gulf tourists? The results of the YouGov / Al Arabiya News poll certainly suggest that Arabs in the UAE are reluctant to visit in the UK in the wake of the attacks.

London and Partners – the official authority responsible for London’s tourism marketing – has urged visitors to not be deterred from visiting the capital.

“London has a friendly multi-cultural population and one of the top police forces in the world keeping our streets safe meaning that crimes against visitors are rare.

“Figures released this week show crime is falling in London and that burglary and robbery are at their lowest rates for many years,” the statement said.

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Still, despite the cultural plus points, Qassemi has warned of a “domino effect” distracting tourists from visiting.

“The fact that so many Arabs travel there is a self-perpetuating plus; it encourages more Arabs to go. They [Britain] shouldn’t allow this domino effect to be reversed. So if I am discouraged to go, the chances are that I will discourage a friend, that friend might discourage his/ her friend.”