More and more women in the country are seeking facial enhancement. They are asking not only for lip implants and fillers to iron out annoying lines, but also for injections of a potentially dangerous substance that has caused safety concerns in the US. Excited chatter fills the air as another tray of fancy fondants and savoury canapés is passed around. To the outside observer, 50 women gossiping animatedly over cupcakes looks like one of any number of coffee mornings or expatriate social events held regularly across Dubai.
But look closer and there is one key difference: at least a dozen of the women have their faces plastered in a strange gloopy gel. What's more, they resemble ventriloquists as they talk out of the corners of their mouths through grimaced jaws to keep the gel from dripping onto their necklines. Those not sporting the facial substance are wearing angry red bumps on their foreheads, like members of a strange cult.
Forget Tupperware parties, coffee mornings or make-up demonstration evenings. The latest craze is the Botox party, where women gather to gossip, munch snacks and undergo "facial enhancements". Dr Buthainah al Shunnar, one of a handful of Emirati plastic surgeons in the country, began hosting open evenings in 2008. She was surprised by their popularity as hordes of women poured through her doors to find out more about Botox injections, fillers to iron out facial lines, lip implants and permanent make-up tattoos.
Procedures that were once considered taboo now are not only discussed openly but also demonstrated in public. About half of those present one recent evening eagerly queued up for injections while Dr al Shunnar explained the process to the riveted crowd. As each woman took the hot seat a black leather chair in the middle of the room the others craned forward for a better view and fell into an awed silence as the doctor imparted her words of wisdom. Few seemed concerned about any adverse effects from a potentially dangerous drug.
Snapping on a pair of latex gloves and popping out a syringe, Dr al Shunnar a svelte brunette with a glossy mane and the looks many women present would have given their eyeteeth for said: "I am not going to get rid of the lines but I am going to soften them." Botox a trademark for botulinum toxin type A lasts about a year under the eyes, she said. Fillers can last six to eight months around the mouth.
"Even children have lines," she said. "You want it to look like you have not done anything and you will see immediate results. It might swell up but it is not painful if you use the numbing gel." A hush descended as the doctor plunged the needle into her patient's forehead several times. A few minutes later, it was over. The grateful client slid out of the chair and was mobbed by the rest of the crowd, who cooed appreciatively over her new smoothed-out features and gawped at her forehead and crow's feet in a way that would under normal circumstances be considered rude. Here it was flattery.
Among them was Kasia Sinclair, 50, who had never had a manicure or pedicure in her life but decided to attend on a whim. She ended up having fillers injected in the lines running from her nose to her mouth. She was accompanied by her mother, Euphemia Clelland, 78, and her mother-in-law, Anna Hildreth, 79, whose snow-white heads bobbed in fascination as they angled for a better glimpse. "They don't know it yet but they're getting Botox for Christmas," whispered Ms Sinclair. She recently lost 11kg, and the fitness drive inspired her to have a physical makeover.
"Losing weight gave me the confidence to do something else," she said. "No one in the family has ever had anything done, but there comes a point when you have been living in Dubai long enough that you realise it is everywhere. It is available so freely here. "I am not going to be here forever so I just thought I would try something. If I like it, I will keep going." Mrs Clelland, visiting from her native Scotland, opted to watch rather than go under the needle. "I am from a farming community and beauty is the last thing we think about," she said.
But the mixed gathering, which included British, American and Arab expatriates as well as some local women, ranging in age from their 20s to their 70s, shows how universal the search for eternal youth had become. Some might think Louise Ashley, a 29-year-old fresh-faced, blonde manager at Bloomingdale's in the Dubai Mall, was too young to need any work done. But she had already had Botox, fillers and lip enhancements, and was keen to have another Botox jab to smooth out her forehead.
"When you live in the sun, you frown more," she said. "I moved here from the UK, and when I had it done for the first time in April, everyone at home said I look younger and fresher. It is definitely addictive. I think it is better to smooth the lines before they are prominent." Botox treatments, which cost about Dh2,000 (US$545), involve injecting small doses of a potentially deadly toxin that temporarily paralyses facial muscles and smooths the complexion. Fillers are injections into laughter lines and are also used to plump lips.
While users were once coy about owning up to treatments, celebrities such as the singer Lulu and the American Idol creator Simon Cowell have confessed to regular injections. But Lulu and her fellow singer and TV presenter Dannii Minogue recently vowed to stop using Botox because they said it made them look too 'plastic' on screen and they wanted to look more natural. The toxin in Botox is derived from the bacterium is clostridium botulinum, which causes food poisoning known as botulism. Last year, the US Food and Drug Administration launched an investigation into four child deaths linked to the use of Botox and similar muscle-relaxing products. In the UK, where 55,000 people a year have Botox jabs, the General Medical Council banned Botox parties and ruled that patients must be vetted by doctors before going under the needle.
The Botox Cosmetic website itself states that the drug may cause "serious side effects that can be life threatening." Among them, it says, are "problems swallowing, speaking, or breathing." In September 2005, a paper published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology quoted the US drug agency as saying that Botox had led to 28 deaths between 1989 and 2003, but that none was attributed to cosmetic use.
The agency originally approved Botox for cosmetic use in 2002, and it is now the most popular cosmetic procedure in the world. Asked about the potential side-effects, Dr al Shunnar claimed that "such small concentrations ? in the correct hands, it is safe". One of the participants, who did not want to be named, said she was not put off by the dangers and equated the medical procedure "to having your nails done or curling your hair".
She acknowledged having spent about Dh20,000 on breast augmentation, regular Botox treatments, fillers and make-up tattoos. While she shares her beauty tips with friends, she has yet to tell her husband about her non-surgical facial procedures. "In the UK where I am from, no one has it done or admits to it," she said. "Yet, if you come from a Lebanese background, it is completely normal. In Dubai, those two factors meet, so it becomes affordable and normal. I am not obsessive, but it is a boost when people tell me I look very fresh."
Dr al Shunnar described the evenings, held every six months, as girly get-togethers. "People get very giggly and chatty, and although it is educational it is a light-hearted evening with refreshments where people can ask questions," she said. "There is so much hype around cosmetic surgery and non-surgical enhancements that people have a lot of burning questions but are afraid to try it. The evening is there to create access."