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The Burj Al Arab
Does it Really Work?
by Barry Napier, May 2007

Dubai is famous for its gold retailers. It is also famed for gold properties, like the Burj Al Arab. Though Dubai has 22 luxurious five-star hotels, the Burj Al Arab stands above all the others. Literally, at 321 metres tall, it could look down on the tip of the Eiffel Tower.

Famed for its sail-shape, a unique design feature from W. S. Atkins, who also project-managed the whole Jumeirah coastal development, the Burj is the gold crown on the head of the Jumeirah Property portfolio. It is now about ten years old, but still shimmers white in the mid-day heat, the tallest hotel in the world. Inside this shimmering building are 1642 employees from 60 nations.

The Burj is not in Dubai itself but is sited 15 kms south, on a man-made island reached by its own slender bridge, defended tooth and nail by guards. A psychological reminder that this is something rather exclusive and separated from ordinary mortals. But, this is only one of Jumeirah’s impressive list of ‘A’ List properties in Dubai.

In terms of economics, there is a particular indicator of what investors should invest in: when everything is mass- produced, that is the time to go in with specialisms. The principle actually applied to car production – hand-built Morgans against machine-made Fords. 

The same principle applies to all sectors of business. In other words, when one end is saturated, simply go the other end where the air is fresher! Where Macdonalds rules, slip in a boutique fresh-made top-quality establishment; when there are enough mass-made toys, sell hand-made stylish modern toys. You get the drift.

Thus, when most hotels are four and five-star, and are pretty much the same, with remarkably similar room charges, that is the time to get into either budget hotels, or, sheer luxury hotels, over-stated and very different, catering only to Mr and Mrs Quite-Otherness. This has nothing to do with principles, but with jumping in quick before anyone else notices a chink in the market.

The case for catering to rich ethereal beings is supported by the fact that more millionaires are born every minute, and, in the UK alone, another 11 billionaires were added to the sable stable in 2007 alone. Even more were born in Russia. They cannot be expected to keep all that loose change in their back pockets – let them spend it on luxury. 

Therefore, there is a ready market for luxury products… but it takes more than a handful of dollars to start up luxury projects! It takes someone who likes risk, which, in business, is really a calculated and almost-certain venture. If it pays off, you are even more rich. Otherwise… put the loss against tax. 

It seems, then, that Jumeirah has done well. If more people are getting rich, it stands to reason that the ‘Jumeirah Effect’ will hold good for a long time to come. (Mind you, something like that was said before the South Sea Bubble burst. A risk is a risk is a risk). 

The Locality

Why is the Burj Al Arab in Dubai? Why not a more established hub of activity? Well, the holding company is Arab for a start, and it wants to diversify from oil. There can be no doubt that most of the world is in the grip of third-phase economy, tourism and leisure. So, ‘local boy makes good’ seems to be the answer.

Dubai is the second largest of seven emirates, but has the largest population. Though formally instituted as an independent city in 1971 following Britain’s loosening of the reigns on the area, it existed millennia before that. Contrary to popular belief, its riches are not from oil, with less than 3% of its U.S. $46 billion revenue coming from petroleum and gas. 

Most of its income is generated by business services, tourism, and the Jebel Ali Free Zone (JAFZ). The JAFZ is of immense interest to corporations, because of its tax incentives. An area within Dubai, it is operated by the Jebel Ali Free Zone Authority (JAFZA), which also runs the port, ranking ninth in terms of world container traffic. Added to this, JAFZ also caters to international warehousing and distribution needs.

London might be the finance capital for now, but with its centrality and finance-friendly services, Dubai has an immense part to play on the international stage. Added to this is ultra-modern real estate dealing, sports and conference events. On the downside Dubai’s increasing popularity in the world of finance has also drawn attention to its alleged human rights issues concerning immigrant workers.

And is Dubai really the new ‘hub’ of business? As with everything else, this claim is being denied by critics as so much hype. “Dubai’s explosive physical growth has been mirrored and, at times outstripped, by the growth of the idea of Dubai as a ‘hub’, a ‘paradise’.” (‘Dubai’s Myth Machine’, Adam Grundey, Nov 2005, 

The same writer says, “… Dubai, it seems, is the place to be. The flip side of all this is the increasingly-heard complaint that this obsession with celebrity make Dubai a bit plasticky, a bit fake. Turns out, sometimes it literally is.” In other words, Dubai is going all-out to say it is the hub, even if it isn’t. Only the immensely rich and powerful really know who runs what. The hidden hands of international business could easily swing world trade and finances towards Dubai, without anyone knowing a thing.

Property is not, by far, on an even keel, especially if you rent. This is because greed grows here just as it does anywhere else where big bucks appear. It is not unusual for rented apartments to rise in rental price 100% every year. 

One property developer who rented a small apartment and furnished it himself was informed that the owner was upping the rent 100% because he was going to furnish it! Whilst hotels like the Burj use the best materials, the same cannot be said for many building projects of a more mundane nature, such as apartments, where shoddy workmanship and materials seem to abound. The problem is that Dubai will quickly become a two-town area, with ultra-rich properties linking arms with substandard. 

Will this scare off qualified people from living, or even working, there? I doubt it, because many wannabees wannabe where the perceived action is. By day they look eminent in silk suits. By night they return to substandard apartments. Their incomes are the healing salve as they sit watching their plasma TV fitted to a wall with plaster falling off!

Air traffic to Dubai Airport has increased by 15% annually since 2001 and will no doubt increase even more as Dubai’s services to the world develop. It is evident that Dubai is not afraid to take risks and show itself to be vibrant. Street-crime is so low as to be almost non-existent and terrorism has not had much of an impact. Will this safety record continue?

Having said all that, however, Dubai is still a city in the desert. Most visitors tend to have a curiosity factor, wanting to see the many gold retailers and the modern architecture. There are virtually no historic ‘must see’ sites, so what a visitor sees is limited. Yet, businessmen of stature say they are drawn by the security and safety of Dubai’s hotels.

Any Complaints?

As one wise old owl said to me, when I worked as her deputy, “If I see there are no complaints from departments, I get very suspicious.” Every business gets complaints. It is ridiculous to claim there are none.

Rolls Royce once had the policy of sending out an unmarked large truck to collect its broken-down prestige cars. A break-down was always hushed-up. I am not sure if the same is done today, but there is an unreality about any business that says it has no complaints and no problems.

If something goes wrong, I am not too concerned. What I watch for is the speed of response and the reparation process. I am never impressed by a problem that arises through lack of interest, poor management, or bad property maintenance. I will certainly get peeved if I learn that the problem has existed for some time and nothing has been done about it. The Burj has  an ongoing maintenance program, plus a speedy response team for any eventuality. It is a reasonable expectation of a gold palace.

I passed my driving test on the second attempt, way back in the 1960’s. For the first attempt I did not drive the car I had learned in, but a hired car. The first time I got into it was when my test examiner got in with me. 

Everything went well until it started to rain. Outwardly I was calm, but inwardly I was in a state of rising panic. My eyes darted back and forth looking for the wiper controls. But I had to be seen to keep my eyes on the road! I was aware of the examiner’s concern as he looked sideways at me. 

The rain increased, and, finally, he asked me if I wanted to turn on the wipers. Now here was a problem – do I admit I know nothing about this car and have no idea where the wipers are, and thus fail… or do I stop to find out, turn them on, and fail anyway?

I said confidently, “No, it’s okay. I can see fine”, though I could barely see anything at all. I reached the test center in one piece, but was failed for not using the wipers.

Next test, I had the car I knew well. But, when asked to reverse around a corner, my car mounted the sidewalk and I knocked over a trash-can. That was it…. Or was it? 

The examiner simply asked me where I had gone wrong. I admitted I fouled up and knew why I had mounted the pavement. He passed me! He said, “The mistake was not an issue. You showed me you knew what to do and how to rectify it.” (Next day I borrowed a company vehicle, proud of my new status as a driver. I scraped the whole side of it on a gate-post! Oh well).

That was a long-winded way of saying that mistakes occur, as do problems. If the original complaint is dealt with promptly, then all is okay. The worse scenario is when a complaint  - perceived or actual - is ignored or not dealt with.


Based on 113 reviews by visitors to the Burj, gives the following information: full marks (out of five) for rooms and their cleanliness, a loss of half a point for service and a full point for value and the pool. Interestingly, the Burj received only one-third recommendations for business travellers; about the same for families with teenagers; almost half for older visitors and couples (for romance, though almost two-thirds thought it was great for honeymoons).

However, one couple, who had stayed at the Burj for the third time, gave a glowing report, calling the visit the “most memorable weeks of our lives” and praising the manager for his help. The couple say they are ‘older travelers’, and give a full five points to the Burj. 

All this proves is that not only do you get what you pay for, but everyone’s perception of the same experience is very different, possibly because of the sheer size and variety of the place. It is also true that some folks will complain about everything, as a matter of principle! Again I point out – it is not mistakes, problems, or even disasters, that matter; what matters is how an establishment responds. 

For me complaints do not raise my hackles much, unless the complaints are all the same about the same problem. When a huge hotel has a large number of complaints, but they are all different and minor, this is within acceptable parameters. I like the décor, you don’t. I loved the main meal, you thought it was awful. The man at the door smiled at me, but he didn’t smile at you. All minor stuff. But, if many people have the same complaint, it becomes more serious. What makes it unacceptable is if management do nothing.

Another interesting fact is that on both tripadvisor and Yahoo Travel, the Burj receives a 4.5 (out of five) rating overall, with very similar ratings for relevant sections, such as a half-point drop in service, location and value, but complete satisfaction with cleanliness.

One user said “It isn’t the right choice if you are looking for class, sophistication, service and friendly staff.” He/she praised the Burj for business meetings, but not for staying longer than one night. A review following immediately after that one gives full marks for everything.  The majority of reviews give a great report of the Burj, so, there you go!

But – and for me it is a big ‘but’ – a consistently expressed half-point drop for ‘service’ is significant. Out of five, it represents 10% dissatisfaction. Whether the dissatisfaction is genuine or badly perceived, all complaints must be examined fully and properly, even though we know that no hotel can please all guests at all times. This is vital where different sources show 10% dissatisfaction over exactly the same thing – ‘service’.

One example of genuine dissatisfaction was of a man who paid to have what he terms a “really good buffet”, but had it spoilt by children allowed to run around screaming and hiding under tables. To me, that’s a reasonable complaint, showing a lack of restaurant supervision – hence poor service. 

Famous people, very used to receiving good service, stay at the Burj. Being powerful and wealthy, they will stand for no nonsense, so are all complaints justified? We must also ask if hotels treat the ultra-wealthy more promptly and better than folks who may have saved for years just for this one experience. From what I have read, the answer is mainly ‘no’ and this concurs with another web-rating of full marks from

Be suspicious of any hotel with no complaints against it! But admire the establishment that has a fast-response team who look into any complaint, big or small, immediately and with obvious attention to detail. 

In my various employments I always examined every complaint personally. Where there appeared to be a gap in my management procedures I drew up a check-list. If necessary I would draw up many of them until all possible routes of error were plugged. This ongoing process reduced the number of complaints, proved a handy reference document, and provided statistics for improvement programs. The best hoteliers, of course, will say I am trying to teach them to suck eggs. So be it – but we all need a reminder to continually monitor what we do.

Burj Al Arab

My contact at the Burj advises that the hotel is officially five-star, but that others place a seven-star rating on it.  (Though one respondent says he has advertising blurb from the Burj, in which the hotel refers to itself as ‘seven star’. To be fair, any hotel would quote such an accolade if it helped). 

So, what makes it more luxurious than other five-star hotels? Is it the helipad on the roof of the 28th floor? The fleet of Rolls Royce’s? Or the restaurant suspended in mid-air, that seems like it could be blown off its moorings by the helicopter rotor downdraft?

Or is it the sail-like frontage made from Teflon-covered fibre-glass, brilliant white by day and lit up by dancing multi-light displays at night?  We must be careful not to confuse real facilities and attitude with design features, none of which help you to sleep at night, or eat good food. 

Comfort (psychological and physical) is the true measure – luxury may, or may not, make one comfortable. Look at the food, bed mattress, the chairs, the bath, shower and toilet. If these are good, then comfort is achieved. Only after these very basic needs are met should we look at peripherals, such as TV’s, plants, views, etc., because there is a definite psychological hierarchy in all service settings. Attitudes of staff are very important, too.

Even before a man walks into an hotel, his eyes and brain work overtime, as these psychological indicators weave one element into another… external features, colours, shapes, spaces, voices, people, attitudes, furniture… until it is all categorised and put into the drawer of experience. If just one element is missing or presented poorly, he will not visit again. Out front is an amazing ‘fire and water’ waterfall, a masterpiece of technology, but not even this could make a man revisit an hotel if everything is not right. Indeed, one commented to me that these wondrous features are not so good after all (see later section).

The Burj PR information says the frontage is a perfect way for customers to start receiving typical Arab hospitality. It is true that hospitality is a major social aspect of all semitic peoples, but I think, really, this is good marketing and PR blurb for ‘professionalism’, my favourite desired qualification, and it is only one element entering the customer’s mind. 

Is that cynical? I don’t think so. The Burj is in Dubai, where there are Arabs. And Arabs do think of good hosting as a matter of pride and honour. So, happily, the blurb meets the truth admirably! In many ways, because hospitality is such an ethnic reality, when it is shown in a professional setting, like an hotel, it is natural and genuine. (However, there is still that worrying 10% dissatisfaction with ‘service’, a vital component in any hotel).

In many other countries, to be hospitality-minded is to be unnatural, and it shows. Staff can be very grudging! It takes just a few seconds for a customer to gauge the professionalism and genuine (or not) character of an hotel. 

As one who has worked in a different ‘front-of-house’ industry – health – I can walk through an hospital or health provision and give you a list of problems. I don’t even need to stop. If I stopped, I would show you many more! And I can usually tell where money is being wasted.

The same can be done in hotels. My eyes are everywhere. I listen, watch and smell everything around me. A sail-like frontage and powerful water-jets might be a great intro to an hotel, but if all the other psychological elements don’t fit as I proceed through the entrance and up to my room, it is all a waste of time.

Usually, a top designer can iron out these elements, as can professional staff, but not always. That is when people say “I can’t put my finger on it, but…”. The problem continues, no-one puts it right because it seems elusive, and people only visit once. So, what else makes the Burj worth a visit? What makes its very existence acceptable?

Burj Features

It has 202 duplex suites, giving it 28 double-height levels. Private reception desks are on every floor and you don’t stand waiting at reception on the ground floor to sign-in. This is done when you get to your room. And if you want them you can make use of a butler, 24 hours. Another critic, however, believes the ‘butler thing is overdone’.

There is a good choice of rooms: 142 single bedroom deluxe suites; 18 single bedroom panoramic suites; 4 single bedroom Club suites; 28 two-bedroom deluxe suites; 6 three-bedroom deluxe suites; 2 presidential suites and 2 royal suites, all ranging from 170 to 780 sq.m floor area. Is there really a need to refer to these suites as ‘deluxe’? Surely, that is a given? Yes, but some marketing hype can be allowed.

All rooms have floor to ceiling windows and state-of-the-art technology, plus that instant requirement of businessmen nowadays – internet access and lap-tops. This is a pity if someone is on vacation. Far better to leave it all silent and to enjoy time away from stress and finances. The TV remote also accesses several other services.

The royal suites have their own elevator to the 25th floor, plus their own cinemas, meeting rooms, huge dressing rooms and, for some reason, rotating beds. Not good for anyone with vertigo!

The Burj has a number of restaurants and bars, all giving an experience ‘out of this world’. Yes, but what’s the food and wine like? It is nice to eat in pleasant surroundings, but it isn’t everything. Once again, critics tell me the food is mediocre! (But, is this one-off, or a widespread complaint?)

One of my favourite restaurants is in the back of beyond in Croatia, a converted farmhouse with one large room and one smaller room overlooking chickens and grass. The owner greets you like a long lost brother; the food and wine are simple but superb and organic. I leave feeling refreshed, fed, and warmly friendly. Now that is an ‘out of this world experience’. No standing on ceremony, no snooty-nosed waiters, no food I don’t really understand. Just excellent service. Is this what the Burj offers?

The Al Muntaha restaurant is 200 metres up with exceptional views, and reached by an express elevator. As with all the Burj restaurants, you have to make a reservation and receive confirmation via text on your mobile. Then, you show the mobile message to the security person, who will allow you to enter the elevator. I didn’t have to do that in Croatia! But, then, I am neither famous or rich enough to be kidnapped, or violent enough to want to blow up a restaurant.

The Al Mahara serves seafood and is under the sea, reached by a simulated submarine ride from the lobby. Listed as one of the top ten restaurants in the world, it is really something. As you eat you can watch the sea life around you, hoping you are not actually eating the son of that angry-looking fish staring at you from the depths. If so, ask to use one of the three private rooms!

If you want the world’s highest atrium, try the Al Iwan Sea View restaurant. Next to the lobby and flanked by tall golden columns, you can look out to the ocean as you eat. The interior is decorated to the highest standard and you will be surrounded by beautiful objects. Or, try the Bab Al Yam (Sea’s Door) café-restaurant, more informal with sea views. How informal? Is it possible to be ‘informal’ in a seven star? Can you loosen your tie or take off your jacket?

Right on the beach is the al fresco Majlis Al Bahar, with Mediterranean and middle-eastern cuisine, with, again, sea views… not too hard to have with an hotel built on an island. A bar is attached to this restaurant, for those who might like to fall off a bar stool in comfort. And when you’ve eaten your fill, relax on sun loungers nearby.

The atrium area, known as Sahn Eddar, is good for morning coffee and sitting next to the 32 metre high water fountain (though one visitor complains that it was constantly buzzing with business calls on mobiles). And there’s more! The Burj also has luxury banqueting and conference facilities, plus the Assawan Spa and Health Club. Seeing as the whole building is only a little shorter than the Empire State, it is not surprising that it contains a vast array of facilities. Indeed, it has to, to make money.

Next to the atrium is a cascade waterfall between two escalators, colourful and worth watching in its own right. Marble is everywhere, though this is not unusual in any hot country, but much is made of it being Statutario, as used by Michelangelo. And to top everything off, the Burj used 8,000 metres of 22 carat gold leaf on the interior. Some features, according to a real estate expert who visited the Burj as part of a business tour, were ‘Disneyesque copies’.

The Burj claims to “set new standards of luxury, service and comfort” for the new millennium. Really, there are no new standards – only age-old standards that, if met, provide a good experience, regardless of external features.

Do people leave the restaurants feeling good? Was the food truly cooked in the finest way? Were staff genuine and warm? Do rooms provide real comfort and not just spectacle and luxury? And, even though customers might be filthy rich, do they get value for money? Do the less-well-off receive an equal welcome?

On the psychological level, is everything woven together like fine linen? Or do some things jar in the brain, causing the mind to reject the luxury and implant a thought of never going back again? As I have already intimated, luxury does not necessarily equal service or good value, and everything must be checked and double-checked to see it all fuses… voices, attitudes, colours, spaces, objects, signage, distances… so many variables and each one essential to success. 

Insider Comments

In response to one of my earlier articles, Rene Kindle, Assistant Outlet Manager of the Al Muntaha restaurant at the Burj, the one just under the helicopter rotor blades, sent me his response.  Due to lack of space I have edited the long email.

“I do share your concerns about overly positive self-appraisals, but I am also grateful that you have carefully commented on (personal views on experiences at) the Burj Al Arab.

“Yes, it is true: Dubai and a few other member countries in the Middle East are counting on megalomania and torrid speed to realise their vision of becoming a focal point in the world, and a centre of attraction for more tourists…to spend their disposable incomes.

“And yes, the Burj does stand for excessiveness. But this is fully intentional, because this is part of its mission statement: ‘To provide the ultimate Arabian hospitality experience.’ The word ‘ultimate’ already connotes exactly… ampleness, plush, excess… but this is part of the Arabian culture. In this region, it is custom to receive guests with ample amounts of food, more than anyone could eat. Ornaments are outrageous, because gold displays pride and wealth in a region where this value is different from that of the Western world.

“Dubai CAN build the Las Vegas of the Middle East, because there is not much heritage to be destroyed by artificiality around here…. The people of Dubai are very proud of what they have been able to establish… and that is why they want to display it to the rest of the world.: ‘Come and see what we can do. Not only Old Europe and the U.S. are capable of these miraculous things. The Burj Al Arab has become the icon of that notion.”

Before dealing with the rest of the email, I make this comment: For all of his life, Mohammed lived a life of low self-esteem. His living standards were just above poor, he lived very simply, and he did not espouse riches. I am not sure if the excesses readily admitted-to square with the person who was the founder of the homogeneous Arabia we see today. Just my opinion! Now, to get back to our manager’s own words:

“Five minutes from the Burj Al Arab towards Dubai Marina is Mina Seyahi (a Le Meridien establishment), which is five-star. It is a very decent hotel and I go there now and then to enjoy food and drinks. They work hard to make your stay pleasant and offer you everything you would expect from a five-star. Yet, if you come to the Burj Al Arab, which is officially awarded five-stars by the Department of Tourism, you will (see why) management has tried to make such a point here. There are obvious differences.

“The materials used for the interior design are among the highest-rated in the world, even if some do not like it being colourful, plush and exorbitant; but, again, it reflects the regional culture and style, which varies greatly from (those in the West).

“Staff clean permanently, looking after you despite the daily masses that arrive at the property; there is friendliness everywhere, and last but not least, there is the service. Considering that most colleagues come from all over the world, from a variety of backgrounds and cultures, the refined technical skills from the Western world might not be instilled into every single soul... but they give you all their heart and all they have been taught and trained in. I believe this is often worth much more than being served by a full professional without a smile, and no sincere apology when things go wrong.

“In none of my visits to any other hotel have I experienced the hospitality and warmth and service that my team and I are giving every day. And that makes the big difference that is worth adding one or two more stars, as compared to  ‘normal’ five-star hotels.

“As you said, every moment is a snap-shot, and there are certainly guests who walk out saying it was not worth the money spent. On the other hand, I serve 200 – 300 a la carte guests a day, and the majority of our guests are overwhelmed and want to come back so badly, if it wasn’t so expensive. Dubai, and especially the Burj, do not come cheaply!”

Rene has been both candid, and proud, of the Burj, and he speaks from the heart. His loyalty is worth even more than the gold on the walls. Living in the UK, there are British hotels I may not particularly like. Or, I find their taste does not equate to my own. But, so what? Everyone is different!

I like different places for different reasons. Some like the Burj and some do not. That is just normal. We can argue the ethics of money used to perpetuate excess until the cows come home, but people with money can spend it however they wish. Some pop stars even think it fun to burn large denomination notes, just to prove they are rich! We can’t answer for the crassness of some. Nor can we force others to live a less ostentatious lifestyle. (Note how the nouveau riche, who win money on the lottery, tend to become lavish themselves?).

For myself, I enjoy a top chef’s meal occasionally. I could not live the life all the time. But the Burj Al Arab is a business, not an ethics campaign. Its investors found a niche in the market and are exploiting it. The costs involved are matched by the fees charged, making it a good investment. 

It has latched on to comments of ‘seven star’. This is the job of alert marketing consultants, who will use it to advantage. That’s their job. And, in the main, employees try to live up to the super-plush image for those who pass over the Burj’s extra-secure bridge. When all things are considered, the Burj is a success and investors are happy. So, it seems, are the majority of visitors. To imply otherwise is perhaps to suffer from a dose of sour grapes.

© Barry Napier

Burj Al Arab:
email: [email protected]

Dubai City Tourism: 
email: [email protected]


Barry Napier
[email protected]



Also See: Jumeirah - Dreamers or Actualisers? / Barry Napier / April 2007
What is the Difference Between a Five-star and a Six or Seven-star Hotel? / Barry Napier / April 2007

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