The Middle East is known for its luxury and high end hotels. However, HE Sheikh Mubarak Al Abdullah Al Mubarak Al Sabah, chairman of Action Hotels in Kuwait, is challenging the status quo by pioneering the midscale hotel model in the Gulf. Until the opening of the first Ibis hotel at Dubai's World Trade and Convention Centre in 2003, budget travellers to Dubai basically had two choices: take a gamble on an unknown hotel or stump up and pay above the line for a luxury suite.
In recent years, the hotel landscape in the Gulf has changed dramatically and a plethora of budget hoteliers have entered the market.
The man who claims to have led the midscale march to the Middle East and brought about change and choice for the consumer is HE Sheikh Mubarak Al Abdullah Al Mubarak Al Sabah, chairman of Action Hotels in Kuwait.
"[Budget] has been a buzzword for a few years. We at Action Hotels were one of the first in the region to identify this sector before many other people. We were established in the majority of the markets in a very short period of time," Sheikh Mubarak says proudly.
As he stands in the Madinat Jumeirah hotel in Dubai for his photo shoot, the afternoon sun catches the top of the Burj Al Arab hotel. While the seven-star luxury hotel has enjoyed ten years as Dubai's number one iconic landmark, he points out that the high end market is not to everyone's pallet in the changing global environment we now live in.
According to Sheikh Mubarak, the economy hotel sector led the global hospitality sector by six percentage points last year. He cites World Tourism Organisation data that the economic climate drove demand for economy hotels by as much as sixteen percent in 2009.
"Of course, it is a very large growth market and there is more intra-Gulf travel because of the proliferation of more airlines. More travel means cheaper travel and people want cheap accommodation, relatively speaking," he says.
But which comes first, the budget airline or the budget hotel? Like any chicken and egg scenario, it is difficult to pry apart the chronology. Either way, the Middle East now has both and the indicators are that the market is still in the early stages and there is still a lot of potential growth in both sectors.
Euromonitor International's 2010 Middle East hotel report stated that the Middle East and North Africa was one of the best performing regions, registering a six percent rise in business travel, compared to a global decline of seven percent.
The report said a big factor in the growth of midscale hotels in the region was the successful introduction of low cost airlines, such as flydubai and Air Arabia. This market accounts for only around six percent of the market and is forecast to see strong growth over the next few years. The midscale market will be the obvious big winner from this, believes Sheikh Mubarak.
"Business class air travel has experienced at least a six percent down turn, in the past year. Meanwhile, intra-regional travel is growing, and this accounts for more than 70 percent of the room occupancy in Dubai and Bahrain, for example.
"That means there is definitely going to be a requirement for well located, affordable hotels which are catered for the leisure and business market," he adds.
It was while he was studying in the UK that Sheikh Mubarak had his light bulb moment about the potential for growth in the midscale market in the Middle East.
"I have always had a passion for development. When I was doing my PhD in Cambridge I had some land in Kuwait and I decided I wanted to do something different. In the UK I saw the growth of Ryanair and Easyjet and the budget hotels and I thought this was an interesting area."
He got in contact with Accor, which manages the Ibis and Novotel brands and InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), which manages the Holiday Inn stable of brands.
"Our regional strategy is to cement a leading position in the economy hotel segment. We are ahead of the race. The Ibis, Holiday Inn and Novotel flags sit perfectly in this lodging gap for business travellers and tourists who ' travel differently' and want a comfortable room and personable proactive service at true value rates."