Stepping foot inside a giant pyramid-shaped structure, I settle on to a plush red velvet chair. Tranquil music wafts around as I sip on a cocoa-dusted cappuccino, taking in the highly-polished marble and stone walls that lead out towards mammoth columns inscribed with hieroglyphics.
The sound of running water — something that was a crucial source of sustenance for ancient Egypt — offers a soothing hum while vases shaped like canopic jars line the floor-to-ceiling windows.
Perhaps surprisingly, I'm not in Egypt — I’m in the heart of Dubai, at Raffles Dubai. The hotel first opened on November 21, 2007 and was the first Raffles property outside of Asia. Today, it's marking 15 years of operations.
“The opening day was such a momentous occasion. Back then, it was seen as the new benchmark for ultra-luxury and it really set a new standard in the city at that time,” says Afif Salibi, the hotel's general manager.
“Raffles in Singapore is our flagship property and is more than a century old. We wanted to create the same, but in Dubai — a place that can last for another hundred years or more.”
Placing a giant pyramid designed on the same scale as Egypt's historic landmarks in the heart of a bustling city might not have been everyone’s vision for a new hotel, but it was the driving force of this property from the outset.
“The company wanted to build something just like the pyramids of Egypt that could last for thousands of years,” explains Salibi, who returned to the hotel last year after first joining during its pre-opening 15 years ago.
That’s something that Mohamed Mora, director of food and beverage, agrees with.
“Everything is very precise when it comes to the ancient Egyptian civilisation,” he says. “It's all done in the right way — the building is the same size as the pyramids, the drawings on the walls are real — the company brought a specialist from the Ministry of Tourism in Egypt to draw them, and if you can read the ancient language, you can read it.”
Hailing from Egypt himself and having been with the hotel since 2007, Mora says Raffles offers a nice touch of home, for himself and guests checking in.
“A lot of our visitors come to stay here because they’ve previously been to Egypt and it reminds them of their time there — it’s unique. To be honest, I did not know when I accepted the job that the hotel was a pyramid shape, so when I came here and saw it — I knew it was the perfect fit for me.”
The hotel has also been a constant for Salibi. He joined as assistant front office manager and has progressed through the ranks to be made general manager in March last year, taking the reins at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The major challenge when I returned after stints in Canada, Cambodia and Morocco was to navigate through the challenges that the pandemic brought in terms of operating in and providing guests with a safe environment,” he explains.
Having helped steer the hotel through the financial and business challenges that the travel industry faced during that time, the Lebanese-Canadian hotelier is now looking to the future.
“The hard part is done now, and we’re looking forward with a lot more confidence as we enter our 15th year of operations. The hotel has really matured, it's established and well known in the city, country and region.”
A Dubai landmark and the city's largest rooms
Not only close to many of Dubai’s best-loved landmarks, Raffles Dubai has almost become a landmark in its own right.
Its distinctive pyramid shape merges Asian style with an Egyptian aesthetic, and guests flock to it for its space — the hotel still has the biggest standard rooms in the city at an impressive 70 square metres — the impeccable service and its location as a quiet haven in the heart of bustling Dubai.
“Guests love this location. They can go to the old souqs, immerse themselves in the sights, sounds and smells there, or shop in some of the world’s busiest malls, but then come back and find this peaceful haven.”
Raffles Dubai must be doing something right. Today, it's entirely sold out. “You simply can’t find a room for tonight,” says Salibi.
It’s quite an achievement given Dubai’s ever-changing hospitality landscape. Today, there are nearly 800 hotels and apartments in the emirate, according to the latest figures from Dubai Statistics Centre. Back in 2007, it was another story.
“At that time, Dubai was very busy but there weren’t as many hotels as there are today. We opened our doors in November, typically high season — and on our first night we had more than 80 per cent occupancy.”
Nicki Minaj, Amr Diab and the president of Singapore check-in
To date, the hotel has welcomed more than 1.5 million overnight guests.
Among them have been some recognisable faces including pop’s Nicki Minaj, Egyptian legends Amr Diab and Mohamed Ramadan, and several heads of states and prime ministers, including the president of Singapore and many members of Dubai’s ruling family.
Nearly 45 per cent of guests checking in are repeat visitors, which, for Ronald Almazan, the hotel’s airport concierge, is something that has helped make his time with Raffles extra special.
“I’ve been here since the preopening and there are a lot of guests who came here then and they come back again. And when they see me they greet me by name, and I remember their names too, and they’re flattered,” he smiles.
Salibi says it’s the hyper-personalisation that Raffles Dubai offers guests that keeps people returning.
“Our mission statement is that at Raffles hotel, you arrive as a guest, you leave as a friend and you return as family. We’ve seen babies born in the hospitals in nearby [Dubai] Healthcare City, then come here and we see them grow up over the years. We’ve seen people getting married, they leave and then when they come back again, they have children in tow."
Despite its age, the property doesn’t feel old. The red chair I’m sitting on is apparently still the same piece of furniture from the opening day, but it looks almost brand new.
“The marble also gets polished every day. There’s so much marble in this hotel — even the walls are made out of marble and stone — and we polish it every day. There’s a team of six people working nearly 12 hours every day and their sole job is to polish marble in this hotel.” Salibi says.
Today, Raffles Dubai has a staff of more than 300, and several of the team have been there since day one. That includes Randy Munlawin, head of housekeeping, who says he has survived two crises during his time at Raffles — the first being the recession in 2008 and then the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I’m from the Philippines but have been in the UAE for almost 20 years and most of it has been in Raffles. Working with Raffles is not like having a normal job — I’ve seen how the hotel has grown over the last 15 years, and the company has a lot of respect for their people, and all the different cultures. During the crisis nobody lost their job, they really care about us.”
Looking to the future
Raffles Dubai was instrumental in helping expand the footprint of Raffles hotels and recently the brand opened a second property in Dubai — the Middle East's first Raffles resort on Dubai's Palm Jumeirah. And there's more development in store.
“We have one hotel coming soon in Bahrain, another one in Jeddah, and there are now talks of one in Cairo and Sharm El Sheikh. There’s also one that recently opened in Istanbul that was heavily influenced by Raffles Dubai,” says Salibi.
When it opened 15 years ago, the hotel was very unique — and the good news, the general manager says, is that despite the city's development, “there’s still only one pyramid in Dubai”.
“As we move closer to 2022, there are some works going on behind the scenes in terms of renovations and introducing some exciting new food and beverage concepts. We’re also reopening our nightclub. That's all I can say now, but in a few months, I’ll be able to share more. In this city, you have to keep evolving.”