From the Palm Jumeirah to Emirates Hills, demand for British-trained valets and Mary Poppins-style governesses is on the rise. With some paid more than Dhs580,000 per year, we find out more about the butler boom in Dubai
‘People have always looked to England for their domestic staff. In Britain we have been doing it for hundreds of years so we have the prestige,’ boasts William Hanson, a tutor at The English Manner, a British company that trains butlers and domestic staff and also offers protocol and etiquette classes. With a rise in demand for professionally trained staff in Dubai, the company recently set up an office in the emirate.
‘The international markets like to have a British butler to show off to their friends. Britain is perceived to be the best: if you want ice you go to Iceland, if you want good [home] staff you go to Britain.’
The English Manner was established in 2001 by Alexandra Messervy, who has 25 years’ experience in etiquette, protocol and event planning. She began her career in the British Royal Household of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, where she held the job of ‘organising every aspect of the Queen’s personal life, from dinner gifts to royal weddings’. Being at the service of the British monarch is certainly one situation where it is imperative that things run smoothly, but of course, no-one is immune to accidents. ‘On one occasion, when curtsying to the Queen, I accidentally kicked one of the corgis – it didn’t bite me back, thankfully,’ confesses one former housekeeper.
William also has more than 20 years’ experience. In addition to working with British royalty, VIPs and celebrities, he recently worked on the hit UK costume drama Downton Abbey, creating a guide on how to act like a Downton gentleman.
With the popularity of Downton Abbey bringing the traditional image of domestic staff back into the public consciousness, Sara Vestin Rahmani, director and founder of London’s Bespoke Bureau British Butler and Housekeeper Academy, has seen a huge rise in demand, especially in the Middle East.
Last year her agency placed 430 British-trained butlers around the world – a 100 percent increase on the previous year, and four times as many as three years ago.
‘Demand is growing in the Middle East, but it is bigger than the supply. It is a fine balance as we don’t want to just churn out numbers.’
Training takes place at The Grosvenor Hotel in London’s Victoria area and at Hatfield House, the 400-year-old ancestral home of the Marquess of Salisbury. The course includes valeting, silver service, cooking and flower arranging.
The agency has also seen demand from five-star hotels in the Gulf. ‘The hotels come to us and ask us to train their household staff or have their staff British butler trained.’ So in demand are these services, Sara now spends nearly half the year shuttling to Dubai to meet clients.
‘We have a waiting list from private houses and hotels in the Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Competition seems to be getting harder for most industries in Dubai apart from ours.’
Training courses for staff start from £800 (Dhs4,492) for two days and up to £6,000 (Dhs33,698) for a six-week course. Once trained, Sara and William point out that the job is not nine to five and warn that it can be a taxing occupation.
‘Our butlers get weird requests, like “make me a Burger King burger, in the middle of the night, in the desert,”’ says Sara. ‘I’ve known butlers to fly in food at odd hours when not able to make it themselves.’
William has high praise for Arabic bosses. The rewards of a job for life can also be quite lucrative. ‘Bonuses, tax-free salaries, perks, cars, private jet travel, yachts and so on,’ he explains.
‘Our highest paid butler is on US$160,000 [Dhs587,700] a year, [with an] apartment, car, mobile, lots of holiday and also bonuses,’ says Sara. ‘One butler with us inherited his boss’s fortune when he died. He served him for nine years and got the lot.’
Another Dubai-based butler we spoke to anonymously had high opinions of his employers. ‘I have been honoured and touched by the humanity and kindness of extremely powerful people, including royalty, heads of state and billionaire business people responsible for the livelihoods of thousands of employees and interests of investors.’
While he has noticed an increase in demand for services, our Dubai-based butler doesn’t believe it’s down to the current hype generated by the popular depictions on TV.
‘I have seen interest from the general population who sadly think they now have an understanding of the profession. Downton Abbey is brilliantly researched and written, but it is taking place in the early part of the last century. I would say it’s no more relevant to 2013 than Sherlock Holmes.’
Sara also places Mary Poppins-style governesses in Dubai, and this was how she first got into the industry. ‘I decided there was a gap in the market for good au-pairs and nannies and set up Peek-a-boo from my living room. I then started the Bespoke Bureau ten years ago and this year we set up the Exclusive Yacht Training School in Antibes [on the French Riviera].’
Sara’s clients now include 15 of the top 50 richest individuals in the world, but when we push for names she reverts back to the top three traits that are so fundamental to the butler and governess service: discretion, discretion and discretion.
‘You have got to be an incredibly hard worker,’ William points out as he makes his polite goodbyes to go and meet his next recruits on the firm’s introductory course. ‘You work very hard hours. You could get up at 6am and finish at 11pm. It is not for the faint-hearted.’
With demand rising in exclusive areas such as the Palm Jumeirah, in the Burj Khalifa and Emirates Hills, those starting in the industry are likely to find a wealth of opportunity here in Dubai.
The English Manner Middle East offers staff training and etiquette classes for ladies and gentlemen. www.theenglishmanner.ae (050 850 8459). Bespoke Bureau offers training, candidates and vacancies for butlers and yacht staff, www.bespokebureau.co.uk (+44 203 167 0925). Peek-a-boo runs a nanny and au pair placement service for parents around the world, www.peekaboochildcare.com (+44 203 167 0926).
Etiquette advice from a top butler
Never give your business card first if you are a guest in a meeting – wait to be given theirs, or else you will look pushy.
Sending flowers to your host ahead of a dinner party is the smartest way to do a hostess gift. You can turn up with a bottle of something, chocolates, guest soaps or the like, but if you get a bouquet sent before the party the hostess will be able to display it ready for the evening.
Never cut bread. If you are given a roll with soup, or the like, then break a small chunk off with your hands, butter, and then eat. This dates back to the medieval times when men would have been using their daggers to eat – daggers that would have had traces of blood on them.