Blow-dry bars are not the only booming business models in the world of hair and beauty. With the global appeal of beards, new barbershop concepts are also gaining popularity in the Middle East, where male clients are often just as particular about their appearance as women are.
Nidal Rafiq Malaeb has been a barber for 15 years, and works at the new 1847 VIP Room in Jumeirah Emirates Towers.
“It has become culturally acceptable [for men] to take pride in their looks just as much as women,” he says. “Not only is there a religious and cultural aspect as it is seen as a sign of maturity, but it is fashionable to have a well-groomed beard in a cool shape … first impression is everything.”
Dressed in a black T-shirt and grey skinny jeans cropped just above the ankle, his face framed by round glasses and a substantial, but by no means unkempt, beard, Leith Matthews radiates cool, hipster vibes.
It’s a style movement that has steadily grown around the world.
Many view this to be a trend, and thus, a temporary fixation, but Matthews insists there’s nothing fad-like about men grooming and growing their beards.
“We don’t like to think of this as a trend: we look at it as more essential than that,” he explains.
In September of 2015, Matthews opened Akin Barber & Shop in Dubai. When he first moved here, he took advantage of the city’s inexpensive barbershops.
“Dubai has got a really well established street-level barber shop culture, where it’s really affordable, it’s very much authentic, and I found myself going to these sort of street-level places for my beard trims.”
But he quickly noticed these barbers were accustomed to dealing with a very particular type of beard.
“They, for a long time, have been catering to a primarily Emirati market, which is a very precise beard, with lines which sometimes they use a ruler to get the precision and corners,” he explains.
Matthews opened Akin to create a new brand identity that speaks to the no-longer-niche community of artistic, independent individuals who seek out hair services and products that are convenient and personalised.
“We’re the first ones in Dubai that can help you grow your beard, and get you through that awkward in-between stage of a shorter beard and longer beard. We think about what products are required to give health and shape to the beard as it grows longer,” adds Matthews.
He explains that beard oils and balms are necessary to keep beards from looking too wiry or dry. “They’re almost like conditioner for the hair and the skin. They smell good, and help you to shave better and not look as wild, which is really important once you get to any sort of length, otherwise you just look feral,” he adds, also highlighting the importance of wax, which is especially useful for keeping moustache hair from sitting on the lips.
One brand stocked at Akin is Dubai-based Organic Beard Co, which was founded early last year by Paul Wagenaar, who started the business when he couldn’t find any products in the UAE to soothe the itchiness he experienced during his first week growing a beard.
The company specialises in 100 per cent organic beard oils, which are sourced abroad and bottled here in the UAE. Of the five different fragrances: oud, mint, lavender, manuka and wood, the latter is his bestseller.
“After a shower, dry off your beard, and apply one to two pumps of the oil, depending on the length of your beard,” advises Wagenaar.
“Massage it into your beard all the way to the roots – really get in there, don’t just apply it to the top layer of your beard. Then, comb it out to help with oil equal distribution and styling.”
According to Malaeb, his 1847 VIP Room clients often ask to emulate the beards of famous actors and athletes.
“George Clooney is quite popular for a clean shaven look, David Beckham for a natural beard and Brad Pitt for the goatee look,” he says.
Matthews adds that Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds are other celebrity inspirations. “Especially with the Instagram culture, guys have references now, for hair and for beard,“ he says.
Abu Dhabi-based Emirati Mohamed Alzarooni has lived in the UAE for most of his life, and only started growing his beard 18 months ago.
The 31-year-old explains that for Arabs, beards have cultural and religious connotations, and are not simply fashion statements.
“The Prophet always kept a beard and so with that it carried on in the Arab world,” he explains.
Alzarooni visits his barber weekly. “I prefer not doing it myself since I have messed up a few times, and then had to remove it all.”
For beard enthusiasts, the prospect of shaving it all off, after the hard work it took to grow it can be heartbreaking.
Alzarooni admits that if somebody played a joke and shaved his beard off while he was sleeping, he wouldn’t be happy.
“But I’d live to grow it another day,” he says optimistically, reflecting the attitude of many beard-growers – that it isn’t necessarily about the final, flawless image, but about the journey to grow, nurture and maintain it.
Room to grow
Make a booking for your beard in one of these cool UAE barbershops:
Akin Barber & Shop
Burj Al Salam, Dubai, akinbarbershop.com
Urban Male Lounge
The Galleria Mall, Abu Dhabi, urbanmalelounge.com
Emirates Palace Spa, Abu Dhabi, gentlemenstonic.com
Chaps & Co
JLT, Dubai, chapsandco.ae
1847 VIP Room
Jumeirah Emirates Towers, Dubai, 1847uae.com