How London's top hotels are catering for Gulf tourists during Ramadan and beyond

From Raffles at the Old War Office to The Peninsula, UK capital's newest five-star properties are stepping up their hospitality offerings

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As Muslims around the world mark Ramadan, London's luxury hotels are introducing special services to welcome Gulf tourists during the holy month, with everything from lavish iftars to special cultural training for staff.

At the recently opened five-star Raffles OWO – the historical building used to house offices for Winston Churchill and James Bond author Ian Fleming – managing director Philippe Leboeuf says his team is ready to cater for fasting guests “with a thoughtful touch”.

“We are equipped to accommodate requests as they arise, and we have Qurans, prayer mats, and printed schedules detailing Iftar times available,” he tells The National. “Dates and iftar meals can be arranged by our butlers, including halal options such as biriyani, kibbeh, samosas, kebabs and shish taouk.”

A special Eid break package includes discounted overnight rates and the option to add on bespoke oud-based fragrances.

A 10-minute walk from the hotel, Gulf visitors can explore the Ramadan display of 30,000 lights that illuminate the streets of central London, running from Piccadilly Circus along Coventry Street to Leicester Square.

Guests staying at the five-star InterContinental on Park Lane have near front-row seats to these illuminations and, inside, the hotel has a rotating special menu every evening in its Wellington Lounge for guests breaking their fast. The spread features traditional mezze alongside mains that include roasted baby chicken tagine with warm couscous, an Arabian-style seafood grill with Scottish salmon and rice pudding flavoured with rose water and saffron.

Watch London mayor Sadiq Khan switch on the city's Ramadan lights

Mayor sets off display of Ramadan lights in London

Mayor sets off display of Ramadan lights in London

After the Maghreb prayer each evening, the lobby at The Peninsula – it opened to much fanfare at the end of September last year – is abuzz with the sounds of Arabic and the clink of traditional dallah pots pouring coffee. It is around the corner from the Emirati embassy and Forbes House, one of the UK’s most expensive mansions. Here, staff are trained how to correctly lay prayer mats and how to navigate tricky royal protocol.

Karim Mostafa, the hotel’s Swiss-Egyptian director of sales for the Middle East and its de facto adviser on Arab etiquette, is optimistic that the recent easing of visa rules will lead to a new surge of visitors.

“Applying for a UK visa used to be very complicated – if you even managed to find an appointment,” he says. “But now everyone from the region will be able to come to London without too much planning, which will have a positive impact on the hospitality industry.”

Since February, Emiratis, Bahrainis, Omanis, Kuwaitis and Saudis can apply for a two-year, access-all-areas pass to the UK – with approvals promised in hours rather than days as per the previous process.

Dozens of flights leave the Gulf for London every day, from the Emirates A380s packed with passengers coming from Dubai for leisurely visits to private jets carrying state delegations and high-net-worth executives.

Mostafa notes that increased visitors – particularly from the youth and middle-class segments – will benefit hotels “at all price levels of the market”.

Raffles London at the Old War Office is expecting “significant growth” in visitors from the Middle East, who already make up 30 per cent of hotel guests.

“It's quite remarkable,” says Philippe Leboeuf, the property’s managing director. “Arab guests, who traditionally prefer areas like Mayfair, Park Lane and Knightsbridge [in west London], are increasingly drawn to our location.

“Our unique offerings, including the historical significance of the building and extensive dining options, cater well to high-end guests who prioritise privacy and security.”

The lavish property is in one of the city’s most venerated historical buildings – a stone’s throw from Big Ben, the Prime Minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street and Horse Guards Parade, where tourists try in vain to elicit smiles from the King’s guards on horseback in their towering bearskin hats.

A run through history

The service is bespoke and the concierge team can make pretty much anything happen – “as long as it’s legal, and doesn’t disturb other guests,” adds Leboeuf.

For example, a Kuwaiti guest staying in the Churchill Suite – the imposing wood-panelled room where MI5 and MI6 were formed around a grand conference table that remains there in replica to this day – recently asked if a treadmill could be installed so he could exercise while soaking in the history of the space. Leboeuf says the machine was up and running faster than you could say “shaken, not stirred”.

Raffles has also employed several Arabic-speaking members of staff to make its Gulf guests feel more at home, and the team is exploring opening a high-end patisserie to echo the cafes and bakeries of Mayfair popular with Arab tourists.

Leboeuf adds that recent thefts in Mayfair of valuables, including luxury watches, have driven guests to explore other areas..

“In the past few years there have been quite a few security problems in Mayfair, but here you cannot have that,” he says. “It has played in our favour.”

Although the hotel’s strict code of confidentiality means Leboeuf is tight-lipped on who has stayed there already.

The UK is embracing Middle Eastern tourists, and their notably generous spending habits, in a strategic nod to an economic reality.

Gulf visitors, splashing out an average of £2,578 on each trip – a whopping 200 per cent more than other nationalities – injected more than £945 million into the UK's coffers in the last year alone, according to VisitBritain. Statistics from 2022 show they also tend to stay on average for 16 nights, compared with a marketwide eight.

VisitBritain now predicts 1.2 million visitors will come from Gulf Cooperation Council states to the UK in 2024 and will spend £3 billion on their trips, a rise of 16 per cent on 2019.

The increasing attention paid to high-value guests also comes on the back of hoteliers recognising that token gestures – such as a Holy Quran in the drawers, prayer mats available from the reception and a menu offering halal options – are the basics expected of any five-star hotel.

'Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference'

The goal, says Alex von Ulmenstein, general manager of The Kensington, is no longer to dazzle with gold or offer a generic 'Marhaba'. It's about curating bespoke, quintessentially London experiences that forge a personal connection, celebrate the city's unique character and elevate a stay from merely luxurious to truly memorable.

“We don't subscribe to any sort of tropes,” says von Ulmenstein. “Anticipatory service is a cornerstone of what we do all the time. We try to connect to the needs of our guests as individuals and adapt the service that we have available.

“Of course, we have interconnecting rooms for large family groups and whole menus set up that cater towards halal preferences, but our sole focus is making every guest who walks through the door feel comfortable and special.”

Riyadh-based Khalid Alshahrani, 25, who travels regularly and has been to 35 countries around the world, says small details make all the difference.

It’s much more convenient to stay at a hotel that can arrange everything
Khalid Alshahrani

“London has many restaurants and things to do, so if people are coming for a week from the Gulf it’s much more convenient to stay at a hotel that can arrange everything, even if it costs extra.

“Safety and location are other important points. We are looking for places that are surrounded by all the main things to see but where crime is also low.”

Winston Churchill might have been on to something when he famously mused – perhaps from behind his desk at the Old War Office – that attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.

As London's newest five-star hotels subtly refine their welcome for a new generation of guests from the Gulf during Ramadan and beyond, it’s a reminder that in hospitality, attitude is not just a detail – it is the ultimate luxury.

Updated: March 18, 2024, 12:14 PM