Why Arabs love London

The cosmopolitan capital has been a magnet for Arab visitors for centuries. John Kelleher meets a new generation who call London home.

16-year-old Salma Mohammed, centre, is one Saudi Arabian who likes to visit the Serpentine lake in Hyde Park.
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When the world arrives at London's 2012 Olympics site, one of the first buildings visitors will see is the Aquatics Centre - a beautiful structure designed by one of London's most illustrious Arab citizens.
Zaha Hadid, born in Baghdad, is renowned as the greatest architect to emerge from the Middle East since the Ottoman mosque builder Sinan - and is adept at building bridges that are both physical and metaphorical.
Hadid's canvas is global. Residents of Abu Dhabi using the new Sheikh Zayed Bridge can see her remarkable design skills every day, and she is behind the performing arts centre being built on Saadiyat Island. But she is also one of the architects of a deeper bridge of understanding between Arab nations and the rest of the world.
Hadid is one of more than 300,000 Arabs who live in London, with more than half a million across the UK. Numbers are boosted in the summer months by up to a million and a half visitors from the Middle East, mainly the Gulf. For many, the city's cosmopolitan appeal is the magnet.
"London is fantastic. There is nowhere like it in the world," says Sulayman Al Bassam, a British-Kuwaiti theatre director and playwright. "It is everything and anything to anyone."
Al Bassam, whose trilogy of plays inspired by Shakespeare is nearing completion, has lived and worked in the UK for almost two decades. His production of Richard III was the first Arabic-language production staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Building cultural bridges is at the heart of Shubbak - the name means "window" in Arabic - the capital's first celebration of contemporary Arab culture. The three-week festival is showcasing the work of more than 100 creative figures at 30 venues across the city.
"Shubbak is an opportunity to see the world through new eyes and to strengthen the relations between artists working in London and across the Arab world," says London's mayor, Boris Johnson. "It also celebrates the influence of London's significant Arab population in our city today and demonstrates the importance of London as a capital of international cultural exchange."
Karima Al-Shomely is an Emirati artist in London for Shubbak. "I love being here," she says. "Back home in Sharjah in the summer, it is too hot to go outdoors much. Here you can walk in the streets, all over the place, and enjoy things."
She is working with Khalid Mezaia, a graphic artist and illustrator from Dubai, on a project called Shopopolis that engages with the staff at Westfield, London's largest shopping mall. Mezaia says: "In Dubai the art scene is really young and anyone can be an artist. But in London there is a long tradition."
Arabs have been visiting Britain for centuries; Phoenicians and other ancestors of Arabs came as traders before the Roman invasion. But the first significant Arab community was established when Yemeni seamen settled in London's docklands.
The flow was two-way. Westerners had made forays into the Arab world since the dawn of Islam. One of the first was an Anglo-Saxon pilgrim named Willibald who died in 787 after spending several years in the Middle East.
Medieval religious writing abounds with references to Saracens and Arabs, but the first notable Arab character in English literature was Othello in William Shakespeare's tragedy. The playwright is believed to have been inspired after joining crowds thronging London's streets to witness a delegation from Morocco led by Abd El-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun to the Court of Queen Elizabeth I.
Few great Arabs came to London after that until more modern times - not even the great traveller Ibn Battuta, though the Ottoman traveller Evliya çelebi, inspired by a dream, did visit in the 17th century.
Some who have arrived more recently have included dissidents, political exiles, resistance figures and radicals outlawed at home. Palestinian groups have long used London as a base, as have such radical Islamist groups as Hizb ut-Tahrir, banned across most of the Middle East but still a shadowy presence in London. The government has expelled other radical Arab clerics such as the Egyptian Abu Hamza and Abu Qatada from Jordan, judging them a security threat.
Politics and culture often intersect. Shadia Mansour, who was born in South London but is of Palestinian descent, is acclaimed the "first lady of Arab hip-hop". She is an active voice in opposing Israel's occupation of Palestine. "My music sometimes sounds hostile. It's my anger coming out. It's non-violent resistance, " she says. "It's about showing support and that there are Palestinians in the diaspora who want to promote their identity and culture."
Political issues often arise for younger Arabs when they meet non-Arab friends. Nadia, a Bahraini who has lived in London for more than three years, first as a student and then pursuing a career in the media, says: "I find a lot of mixed attitudes to me as a young Arab and Bahraini - but I enjoy listening carefully to the opinions people have of what is going on in Bahrain. There isn't much prejudice. I've moved around quite a lot in my life, but London seems to be perfect."
ondon is a global city, but Arabs often fall back on old colonial and linguistic connections when settling in Europe - Algerians or Tunisians choosing France or Moroccans heading for Spain. The bulk of Britain's resident Arabs come from Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon and the Gulf - which also provides the majority of visitors, especially Saudi Arabians.
"Arabs from the Gulf come only to London when they visit Britain," says Said Chaarawi, a Lebanese businessman. "You'll hardly ever find them travelling to places such as Manchester or Birmingham. They feel London is the ultimate luxury destination. They may visit Paris or New York but spend much longer here. It's partly to do with language and history and, these days, with tightened security. It is harder to visit the US."
Chaarawi recently established Understanding Arabia, a consultancy that schools retailers in the etiquette of handling Arab customers. These visitors are important. Up to a third of retail revenue in London's West End comes from Arab customers, who spend about £1.5 billion (Dh8.85 billion) a year.
Chaarawai worked at Harrods and saw the often innocent blunders salespeople can make with Arab customers: "If I am an Arab, quite religious let's say, and I have my wife with me and I came to buy a watch for her, I wouldn't be really happy if the salesperson was a man and he tried to put the watch on her wrist. The Arab etiquette is to give the watch to the husband and the husband would help his wife."
Saudi Arabians remain the biggest customers for London properties - and spend fortunes on homes they may occupy only during the summer. The estate agents Hamptons says the Arab Spring has led to an upsurge of Arab investment in the capital.
And the spending power is vast. Some buy properties that range from £30 million (Dh177mn) to £100 million (Dh590mn), mostly in such upmarket areas as Belgravia, Chelsea, Kensington, Knightsbridge and Holland Park.
"The likely buyer of one property I am handling will probably use it herself for only about three months a year, but other family members will also visit and, for instance, her son will be marrying this summer and they plan a big party," says Mandy Craig from Hamptons.
Another palatial property near Hyde Park with parking for 30 cars was sold to a Saudi princess years ago but has stood empty ever since. Even so, it remains fully staffed and thousands are spent on filling it each week with fresh flowers - just in case its owner visits.
Such images of the oil-rich distort the wider picture and promote envy. But older clichés also abound. The Piccadilly department store Fortnum & Mason presently has an Arabian Nights-inspired window display replete with bejewelled emirs and turbaned djinns.
The Libyan-born writer Nahla Al-Ageli is frustrated by such stereotypes, especially images of Arab men sitting in shisha cafes in the Edgware Road and ogling passing women, even though its coffee shops and delicatessens are a magnet to generations of Arabs.
"This is so wrong," says Al-Ageli. "The beauty of London is its cosmopolitan nature. People come from all over the world and I have British friends, Arab friends, people who are Christian and Muslim and Jewish and Hindu. That's why I love it."
But many Europeans and Arabs are challenging these stereotypes, preferring to reveal our cultural interconnectedness and the deep debt western civilisation owes to the Arab and Islamic world.
The Swiss-born Egyptian intellectual Tariq Ramadan, grandson of the Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan Al Banna and now a professor in the UK, argues that Arab and Muslim culture should not be seen as something new in Europe, but instead as an intrinsic part of European heritage.
The Iraqi-born professor of theoretical physics, Jim Al-Khalili, one of the UK's premier science popularisers, highlighted the essential role played by Arab science and scholarship in the development of modern civilisation in a book and TV series.
"What is remarkable, for instance, is that for over 700 years the international language of science was Arabic," he says. "One of the greatest rulers the Islamic world has ever seen was the ninth-century Abbasid caliph of Baghdad, Abu Ja'far Abdullah Al-Ma'mun, who came to power in 813AD, and who was to truly launch the golden age of Arabic science. His lifelong thirst for knowledge was such an obsession that he was to create in Baghdad the greatest centre of learning the world has ever seen, known throughout history simply as Bayt Al-Hikma: the House of Wisdom.
"At a time of increased cultural and religious tensions, misunderstandings and intolerance, the West needs to see the Islamic world through new eyes. And, possibly more important, the Islamic world needs to see itself through new eyes and take pride in its rich and impressive heritage."
Shubbak's mission is to open eyes, too. Munira Mirza, the director of arts and culture for the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, says: "The aim is to surprise people, to give them a new perspective on what the Arab world is like. And it is more timely to be having it in the current climate. Arab artists were thinking about political change long before the politicians were."
Change is happening at grass-roots levels. Bahraini Amal Khalaf, a London resident for 11 years, works to promote art by British Arabs and is part of the Edgware Road project featured in Shubbak. She has a wide range of Arab and other friends. "I like people from everywhere," she says. "I love living in London and feel very lucky. It is a great, transient city."
Arab culture is visible throughout the capital and increasingly knitted into its multicultural fabric - from Lebanese kebab shops to the clubbing and music scene and the pervasive Emirates football shirts worn everywhere by fans of Arsenal, the North London football club that agreed to a £100 million sponsorship deal with the Dubai airline in 2004.
The global coffee shop culture has its roots in the Middle East, and for London's Arab visitors and residents there is an expanding range of sophisticated Middle Eastern and North African restaurants. One of the most fashionable is Momo in the West End, started by Mourad Mazouz, the son of an Algerian Berber. He also has restaurants in Paris, Dubai and Beirut.
Mazouz says that when he first arrived in London he rode around on a scooter looking for the sort of food he loved back home, but couldn't find it anywhere. So he started a little restaurant. It has become one of the most fashionable in London. He still uses the scooter to get around town.
On his journeys Mazouz will pass newsagents overflowing with Arab-language newspapers, many published here. London has long been a media hub for the Middle East, hosting dissident voices and exiled critics. One long-established publication is the Maghreb Review, founded in 1976 by the Algerian-born writer and bookseller Mohamed Ben-Madani. He is one of the foremost Arab commentators in London and has been in constant demand since the Arab Spring.
London was the first home for the Saudi-owned Middle East Broadcasting Company. Al Jazeera has a bureau here, as does Al-Arabiya, and there are many home-grown Islamic broadcasters. And of course the BBC is now running an Arabic Radio and TV operation.
Film production companies such as the Saudi-owned ORTV in Soho are a part of London's vibrant creative scene. Its founder and chairman is Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed, who is also general manager of Al-Arabiya. ORTV produces films for British and Gulf broadcasters. Its output includes a profile of King Abdulaziz, and a documentary about German Cold War politics.
London has many organisations that aim to support the disparate threads of the Arab community. One of the newest is the British Arab Association, founded in 2009 by the Palestinian-born businessman Atallah Said.
"British Arabs have come to recognise the UK as a home, for us and our families," he says. "That is why we believe in integration in the communities in which we live. We have to recognise that Britain is our future and we should become active participants in its civic and political life."
The Shubbak festival runs until tomorrow. To learn more, go to www.london.gov.uk/shubbak.