Society’s fascination with furry felines has reached a fever pitch, amplified by daily online viral videos, fanciful Twitter feeds and celebrity kitties including the film star Grumpy Cat and Karl Lagerfeld’s Choupette, who has her own Instagram account.
But while the UAE has a steady stream of stray cats to adopt and an obsessive national love of coffee, the country has been so far left out of the latest trend, which combines the love of animals with cafe culture. That is all about to change in Dubai, where Saudi-born sisters Iman and Allaa Ahmed Al Aulaqi are opening Ailuromania Cafe – the UAE’s first cat cafe – at the end of the month.
In the meantime, Iman is introducing a few of her core team members, ET (sphynx), Mocha (Siamese), Snow, Mo and Jumbo (Persians), to their new home in Jumeirah, where she hopes to attract the kind of fanatical devotion found in cat cafes in other locations, including Paris, Portland, San Diego, New York and Yokohama, Japan.
“I’ve only chosen cats that are sociable, ones that will adapt to the surroundings easily,” says Iman, 23, as she lifts the green-eyed sphynx that is wearing a snugly pink sweater. The cat struggles free from her embrace and leaps onto a fully wrapped couch in the still-unfurnished cafe.
“We call him ET because he looks like the character from the movie,” says Iman. “Sphynx tend to feel very cold, so she wears a sweater. And she loves to snuggle around the neck to keep warm. She is like a parrot.”
The young entrepreneur, who recently graduated from American University in Dubai, has five cats of her own and has fostered more than 12 in the past two years.
Last year, when she was contemplating a start-up, a friend sent her images of a cat cafe in Korea and that struck her as the perfect match for her career goals.
“I’m just combining my obsession with cats with my desire to be a businesswoman,” says the finance graduate. “It’s what I’ve always wanted to do.”
Iman began following and researching similar cafes around the world and flew to the United Kingdom to check out Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium, the first cat cafe in London, which had a two-month waiting list when it opened in March.
“I wasn’t allowed in because it was only on a booking basis. I pleaded but it didn’t help. I waited outside for 30 minutes, watching the cats from the window. I was so disappointed.”
She hopes for similar enthusiasm from residents here. At Ailuromania Cafe, the menu will take a back seat as regulars will be queuing up to play with the 12 rescue cats.
“I think it’ll be a hit with residents who adore cats but can’t keep one because of family members who are allergic or disapprove, or people who live in small apartments. This is where they’ll come to fulfil that want.”
The story of each cat will be posted in the cafe alongside their portrait.
Iman shares the story of Bob, a 7-year-old Himalayan. “We found him wandering around in Barsha and [he] had a severely infected eye,” she says. “So I took him to a vet and called the owners, but they said they couldn’t take him back.
“Bob isn’t much of a player, but he loves people and will enjoy being petted.”
The sisters had to jump through a lot of hoops to make their dream business a reality, especially with the health and safety department.
“We won’t be preparing the food at the cafe because of health and safety regulations,” says Iman. “So our cold drinks, snacks, sandwiches, pasta and desserts will be prepared by suppliers and transported and stocked fresh in the cafe every morning. We will, of course, brew the coffee at the venue.”
That’s not the only problem they had to face. The unprecedented combination of pets and food in a public space posed a unique set of challenges for the authorities as well.
“They had to make new rules for us because this hasn’t been attempted before,” says Iman.
“So, apart from the strict policy of not preparing the food here, we have secured the pantry and serving counter so that the cats can’t come through.”
The owners also had to give the authorities a clean bill of health for each pet.
“They are all neutered, vaccinated and microchipped.”
The cafe will have a cat room fitted with a double bunk bed, litter boxes, food dispensers, toy box and scratching post so the felines have a place to “relax”. Visitors can interact with them in the common seating area, in one-hour blocks, with prior reservations online.
“Even with the interaction, we have a set of rules that customers need to follow,” says Iman.
“You cannot be forceful with the cats. If they aren’t ready to be petted, you need to let them be.”
Children will be closely monitored and customers need to sanitise their hands before and after interacting with the cats. The pets can be fed, but only with treats approved by the cafe crew. Toys, including feathers, balls and plastic mice, will be available for play.
Initially, the cats won’t be up for adoption, as is the tradition in some of the other cat cafes around the world.
“It’s expensive to maintain and train the cat to get used to this atmosphere,” says Iman.
“But we will certainly be teaming up with rescue organisations to promote their work.”