From Sharjah ruling family to restaurateur, my fight to change perceptions about veganism

Founder of Nabati vegan venues in the UAE says he caters for everyone

Ahmed Al Qasimi founded plant-based restaurant Nabati after a bad dining experience in the UAE. Photo: Ahmed Al Qasimi
Powered by automated translation

Most diners who go to Ahmed Al Qasimi’s restaurant usually eat meat. Nabati, which exclusively serves vegan fast food, has, perhaps surprisingly, become most popular among non-vegans.

But this is exactly what he was aiming for, as it’s pointless marketing to vegans, he says. “They have limited options anyway, so Nabati is always going to be on their list,” he tells The National. “But it really isn’t just for people trying to follow a plant-based diet.”

The restaurant, which has a takeaway-only cloud kitchen in Abu Dhabi and a branch in Arjan in Dubai, serves a range of burgers, tacos, burritos, sandwiches, wraps and other fast-food classics inspired by the likes of McDonald's and KFC.

For the “meat”, he uses Impossible patties, but he also has options with whole foods, such as tofu and jackfruit.

Al Qasimi, a member of the Sharjah ruling family, who went to university in the US and now lives in Abu Dhabi, spends every weekend in his Dubai restaurant. And he loves talking to his customers about their impressions of the food, but also about veganism.

“When I have a discussion with someone who’s not vegan, I’d say eight times out of 10, when I say, ‘Close your eyes and picture a vegan’, they picture a woman who does yoga or some really skinny guy who’s deficient in vitamins and minerals,” he says with a laugh.

“And I don’t blame them, because so many vegans are paint-throwing Peta people who are just in your face,” he adds, referring to the notorious vegan group from the US, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Ever since he turned vegan seven years ago, however – after his wife opened his eyes to the horrors of factory farming – he’s wanted to pass on that education to others.

“And not from a position of ‘I know better than you’, but maybe from the position of, they might not have been exposed to this,” he says.

It’s also important to him to make sure the food is affordable. After all, the whole reason he started Nabati in July 2022 was because he had a terrible, overpriced vegan burger. “I thought it was absolutely unacceptable and ridiculous,” he said.

At the time, he’d been planning to open a vegan bakery at some point in his life, when he had the time and freedom, and the world wasn’t in a pandemic. “But the experience in that restaurant was so bad, I just thought, I need to do this now.”

It ended up taking him all of six months from that one dinner to opening his own restaurant in Abu Dhabi. In November, he branched out to Dubai, and in December he launched a series of exclusive dinners, during which he showcases the potential of vegan food in a more fine-dining format.

The series began on UAE's Union Day, when he served a Levantine dinner to raise funds for Gaza, a cause particularly close to his heart as his mother is from Palestine.

Each month he focuses on a new cuisine, and this weekend it's Japanese in the spotlight, with sushi, ramen, tempura, black sesame ice cream and mochi on the menu. “Eventually I want to have different branches of Nabati serving different cuisines,” he says.

He does all of this in his spare time, while working a full-time job in the capital and raising a child. Somehow, he also finds time to amass a large following on social media thanks to his part-time gig as a comedian. Soon, he’d like to merge his interests by also introducing stand-up comedy nights at Nabati.

“I just find it very rewarding to feed people and to make people laugh. People come together with comedy,” he says.

“We’re all people at the end of the day. We all bleed the same, we breathe the same, we all just have differing opinions, and those opinions are based off of whatever limited knowledge we have. I think comedy can be another form of education and enlightenment.”

For now, he’s busy perfecting his current menu before making any other big commitments, he says. His ultimate goal, however, would be to start an Emirati-style cafeteria serving veganised versions of what he grew up eating, from harees to balaleet and karak chai – and open a restaurant in Sharjah.

“I do plan to eventually move back,” he says. “I'd like to raise my kids in Sharjah. There's something very calming about it, something that just puts me at ease and at peace when I'm there.”

His family, who have close ties to Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, the Ruler of Sharjah, have been supportive of his veganism so far, he says. “They don’t shame me or anything,” he says. “People are willing to listen, they sit down and have the conversation … but the last thing I want to do is take away an Arab’s meat,” he jokes. “I’m just like, this is my choice, my opinion, this is what I do and it works for me. It might not work for you.”

Education is key, he says. “We just all need to be more tolerant of other people’s choices. You can’t force anyone to do anything or make different decisions. It’s all through understanding, through knowledge, that we advance as a society and as people.”

Updated: February 26, 2024, 7:26 AM