Debunking Dubai’s Five-star Myth: When Business Class Masquerades as First

Dubai is home to some of the world’s most instantly recognizable hotels, but does the service measure up to the facilities? Some come close, but none I found merits the rarefied ranking of a real five-star. And that includes the iconic sail-shaped Burj al-Arab—which I prefer to call the Bourgeois à l’Arabe.

What distinguishes five-star from four-star service? The primary difference lies in the anticipation of a guest’s needs. A good hotel provides what you want before you know you want it. An example: You’re at a city hotel in, say, London, and step outside just as it begins to rain. Before you have to ask, the doorman offers an umbrella. Sure, any good four-star stocks umbrellas, but only the five-star will thrust one into your hand at the exact moment you need it, without your having to request it. Herein lies the problem.

Raffles Dubai Bedroom

Dubai’s hotels are staffed by inexperienced youths from developing countries, many of whom had never set foot inside a luxury hotel before working at one. Employers routinely take away their passports, and don’t allow them access to their earnings until they leave the country. They live in employer-provided dorms, get bused back and forth to work, labor six long days a week, and have no social lives. Few employees speak the same language and must attempt communication in English, their second or third language. Thus they can’t rely on shared cultural gestures and non-verbal cues: misunderstandings constantly occur. Workers don’t know basic hotel lingo, such as ‘feather pillow’ or ‘alarm clock,’ let alone ‘iPod docking station’ or ‘ethernet cable.’ How can you anticipate guests’ needs when you have no idea what they’re asking you?

Dubai Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM) determines the star level of the city’s hotels, but the system is based entirely on facilities. Thus, many hotels in Dubai are classed as five-stars. But real classification systems by organizations such as Michelin and Forbes Travel (formerly Mobil), are based as much on service as facilities. This makes the third Michelin star, or fifth Forbes star, hard to get. You can’t fool a good inspector, even if you know he’s coming.

Lobby of the Burj al-Arab

When I inspected Dubai’s hotels, I worked like a Michelin or Forbes inspector, calling on my experience in the luxury-hotel business and considering service as well as facilities. I gave each hotel the benefit of the doubt by assuming it a five-star until it proved itself otherwise. Then I deducted points. I deducted a lot of points in Dubai.

Let’s take the Burj Al Arab, the hotel most famous for hyping itself as the world’s only ‘seven-star’ hotel. Psha, say I. To my eye, it barely achieves five. Why? The doorman was missing in action. Though a battalion of valets flanked the door, they remained frozen, arms at their sides, as I counted to 60 before finally opening the door myself. A small detail, yes, but the fifth star is entirely about small details. And for $3000 a night, there’s no room for mistakes such as this, one which a demanding guest would consider a discourtesy.

The reason the valets didn’t open the front door is at the heart of why Dubai’s hotel service is weak: employees have no civil rights in the UAE and live in fear of losing their employer-sponsored work visas—which would result in immediate deportation to their poor-as-dirt home countries—thus they dare not go off script. The valet is hired to park cars, not open doors. But at a proper five-star, employees must be nimble, take initiative: honor first the guest, then the employee handbook.

If you feel like you’re being watched in Dubai, just remember: You are.

The true measure of a hotel’s service lies in how it handles problems. Anyone can steer a ship in calm seas, but only a master can navigate a gale.  Thus, I present complex service requests when I visit a hotel. I won’t reveal tactics, but I will say that the number-one property I found in Dubai was not the Burj al-Arab, but Raffles, which takes a more European approach to service. Fear not: You probably won’t have any problems with your Dubai hotel, unless you’re particularly demanding, in which case, please take notes and send them my way.

John A. Vlahides is a former member of Les Clefs d’Or, the international union of the world’s elite luxury-hotel concierges, and co-authored Lonely Planet Dubai City Guide, 4th ed. Copyright Lonely Planet. Please do not reproduce without permission.