Great Britain’s immeasurable influence on Dubai dates back nearly 200 years. It was in 1820 that the British grouped neighbouring sheikhdoms to create the Trucial States. These sheikhdoms formed the independent United Arab Emirates in 1971, and thousands of British expats have continued to shape Dubai ever since. Even the city’s oldest pub, the Chelsea Arms in Deira, is Brit-inspired and dates back to 1978.
Admittedly, history is never the fuel for cool, but Dubai now appears to be in the midst of a brand new British invasion, with a wave of culinary and nightlife trends arriving direct from London. Brands such as The Ivy, Rivington Grill, Gaucho, Mahiki and Movida have all opened their first branches outside the British capital in Dubai, most of them less than a year old. And with the Olympics now upon us, things show no sign of slowing. Or so says Mirzo Hafizov, the Uzbek manager of The Ivy, which opened at Jumeirah Emirates Towers just over a year ago. ‘British culture has had a good year, first with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and now the Olympics. Everyone is looking at London right now,’ says the 27-year-old. ‘There’s a real hunger for these brands in Dubai.’
But such transplantation can come at a price, warns 25-year-old Harry Santa-Olalla, who recently left his position as head of marketing at Mahiki, yet remains a regular at both Dubai’s and London’s top clubs. ‘There’s an insatiable appetite for these brands right now,’ he explains. ‘But where half of the premium clubs have stayed true to the brand, some are just trading off the name and treating consumers like they’re stupid. All these venues are young, and it will be interesting to see which stand the test of time. [I think] half of them won’t be here in three years.’
Whether the British invasion is a fleeting fad or just the tip of an iceberg, the next significant chapter in the two cities’ relationship will come later this year, when Japanese restaurant Okku opens in Mayfair – the first time a Dubai-grown restaurant brand has launched in Britain.