Cigar smokers hold fierce to tradition in the UAE

Cigar smoking, the businessman’s luxury, is diminishing in the West. However, it still has a place here in the UAE.

Dr Steven Hughes enjoys a cigar at the Havana Club at the Emirates Palaces in Abu  Dhabi. Sammy Dallal / The National
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Doctors do not tend to endorse the pleasures of smoking. But Dr Steven Hughes, orthopaedic surgeon at Al Noor Hospital in Abu Dhabi, is proud to be a cigar aficionado in the UAE. “It’s a luxury habit – but at least it’s a lot cheaper than a Ferrari,” he says.

Dr Hughes has spent enough evenings over the past four years at Emirates Palace Havana Club that staff there have rewarded him with a personalised brass plaque on his complimentary humidor, which contains his personal stash of Cuba’s finest.

While cigarette and shisha smoking has caught the eye of UAE legislators, cigar smoking has been left alone. And the popularity of cigars shows no signs of waning yet.

Every year, more than three million premium hand-rolled Cuban cigars are sold in the UAE, lifting the country into the top 10 in Havana sales worldwide. In the past year, luxury hotel chains such as the Conrad, Sofitel, the Fairmont and Marriott Marquis have launched cigar bars, aspiring to an elite and wealthy clientele.

But back in Dr Hughes’s homeland of the UK, cigar consumption has fallen by a fifth in the past five years, triggered by a 2007 ban on smoking in enclosed workplaces.

The days when deals in the City of London were sealed over a cigar in a gentlemen’s club are long gone. Imperial Tobacco, the nation’s second largest tobacco company, says there are now 300,000 regular cigar smokers in Britain compared to 700,000 10 years ago.

“The smoking regulations have killed the UK cigar industry,” says Dr Hughes. “I used to be in the army and at our regimental dinners brandy and cigars after the meal was part of the tradition. Now, I have to stand outside – but a cigar takes me 45 minutes to smoke; it’s not like a cigarette that you can puff quickly. A cigar should be savoured. The fact you can smoke indoors in the UAE makes it much more comfortable.”

And there’s more to Dr Hughes’s habit than pleasure alone.

“People don’t always come to Havana Club for the cigars,” he says. “I come here with friends from work, and none of them smoke. We do business here.”

At La Casa Del Habano’s cigar lounge in Dubai’s Jumeirah Beach Residence, the emphasis is very much on business.

The venue boasts the biggest collection of Cuban cigars in the UAE; it does not serve alcohol (hence is a lounge rather than a bar), and includes a meeting room with free Wi-Fi for members.

“Cigars are becoming more popular because people are changing from smoking cigarettes to cigars,” says La Casa Del Habano’s cigar someilier Olesia Burlachenko.

“But the days when people toasted a business deal with a celebratory cigar are gone – now our clientele are men who smoke a cigar while working on their laptops.”

La Casa Del Habano is part of the Baqer Mohebi group, sole licensees in the UAE for Habanos Cigars, the Cuban state-owned tobacco manufacturer, distributor and marketer. The group dominates the cigar market in the UAE, with a 77 per cent share.

At The Capital Club in DIFC, the general manager Emma Cullen hosts weekly cigar evenings, and says their cigar sales have increased 30 per cent in the past 12 months.

“Cigar smoking reduced in popularity during the financial crisis, but we have definitely seen an increase recently,” says Ms Cullen.

The luxury lifestyle magazine Virtuozity also hosts cigar evenings at venues around Dubai, allowing gentlemen to sample the highest quality cigars on the market.

Patrick Brais, its publisher, says throughout history cigars have been associated with a luxury lifestyle.

“The cigar is a passion not a habit, and this is what makes it different from a cigarette,” he says. “Dubai being a hub for luxury has played an instrumental role in increasing cigar aficionados. The learning curves are increasing, with the increase of brands introduced to the market.”

For Dr Hughes, who now only smokes cigars when he is at Havana Club, the atmosphere of the cigar bar is as important as the smoking itself.

“I could smoke in my apartment but it’s not the same feeling,” he says. “My wife thinks it’s disgusting. It’s nice to go somewhere where the staff know my name and what I like. When I come here, I feel like I’m coming home. I have a strong allegiance to this place.”

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