The Gulf between us

WITH summer upon us London is awash with visitors from the Middle East, and especially the Gulf, smoking their shishas outside cafes on the Edgware Road or labouring under the burden of Harrods and Selfridges carrier bags.

By Nesrine Malik

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Published: Tue 12 Aug 2008, 9:43 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:12 PM

Having previously lived in Saudi Arabia myself, I recall the quiet on the streets of Riyadh as the summer exodus to foreign climes began. Now, on the other side of the holiday divide, I find myself strangely exercised by the throngs from the Gulf.

What is it that irritates Londoners so much about Gulf tourists? To start with, many of them are easily identifiable: burqa/designer bag accompanied sometimes by a male in unfortunate sunglasses and/or an Asian maid (I am not stereotyping selectively here; if I saw a tourist in khaki shorts, white trainers and a fanny bag, I would assume he was American, so at worst I am stereotyping comprehensively). There may well be thousands of Middle Eastern tourists who blend in and go about their business inconspicuously but the garb and, more significantly, the ostentatious flamboyance of the Gulf tourist is at odds with the more reserved and understated British attitudes towards dress and transportation.

Red Ferraris with Middle East licence plates screeching down the King's Road and yellow Hummers recklessly parked in Mayfair attack Londonders' sensibilities. The disrespect that some Middle Eastern tourists display towards traffic laws in London is positively regal. The other week in Mayfair I witnessed a group of Saudi men who had parked their Hummer in front of a cafe and left its music blasting away as they sipped coffee nearby. A traffic warden approached and challenged their positioning of the vehicle (half on, half off the pavement) — at which one of them slapped him heartily on the back with the words: "Relax, my friend! Have a break, have a Kit Kat!"

Another dimension of the Gulf-London tourist scene is the ostensibly disparate holiday experience of men and women. Many of the men go out of their way to appear as westernised in attire and demeanour as possible as they frequent the bars and clubs of Soho and the West End, while the women seem to disappear at sunset, pretty much emulating the patterns of segregated entertainment followed in their home countries. The hotels of Mayfair also house Gulf businessmen who remain in their rooms and summon the delights of London up to their quarters without venturing outside to experience it in the real world. Everything from room service to discreetly-coded requests for "an extra pillow" (the human variety).

The cultural bankruptcy of the average Gulf traveller's jaunts in London also grates. Designer goods are readily available in the Middle East but there's a cachet in being able to declare that the item in question was bought in London. To holiday and shop in London remains a badge of prestige, a legacy of the time when London was indeed the destination of the mega-rich before everyone among the Gulf middle class could afford to do it. Women in particular are very proud of their wardrobes, so they eschew museums, galleries and Michelin-starred restaurants in favour of marathon shopping expeditions and a quick bite at the nearest Lebanese falafel bar.

Japanese tourists, in contrast, are almost humbling in their appreciation of both London and British heritage. Much as we may joke about their camera-at-the-ready happy-snapping habits, they are flatteringly fascinated by everything from architecture to London buses. No self-respecting Gulf tourist would even dream of boarding a London bus — indeed, many of them regard Britain's capital as a dirty city, regularly besmirched by alcohol-fuelled evacuations and blighted by a defunct transport system.

Having said that, the antics of the British abroad mirror this arrogance and cultural rigidity — whole stretches of Anglicised beach in Spain testify to their urge to stick with the sounds and smells of familiarity. I am not advocating immersing oneself entirely in the local culture (there is nothing more annoying than British tourists going native the moment they alight on foreign soil) but a better balance.

What London offers visitors from the Gulf is spontaneity, the possibility of an experience that might blow away the dust that settles during a year in Arabia, of some unexpected occurrence that breaks the rigidity and ennui of living in such a uniform society. Surely that is what a holiday is for.

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