Robyn Coughlan is a brunch enthusiast.
Originally from Scotland, she moved to Dubai two years ago to work in the oil and gas industry. Even before she arrived, she had heard of this celebrated element of the expatriate scene.
Usually served up at five-star hotels and the city’s most upscale restaurants, these events can cost $800 per person
“Brunch is everywhere, it’s impossible to be in Dubai and not see it or hear it being advertised,” Coughlan says. For her, it’s about socialising with friends and indulging in food and drinks at lavish hotels. “It's a weekend favourite here, so when you arrive, you are guaranteed to be invited to one.”
Some brunches offer live entertainment such as acrobats – for a price (Credit: Nomee Gulfam)
These are no ordinary brunches. The City of Gold is one of several global cities with big expat populations where the favoured weekend pastime is a ritzy brunch that lasts several hours, and offers gourmet buffets with unlimited champagne. Usually served up at five-star hotels and the city’s most upscale restaurants, these events include live entertainment and can cost a pretty penny, some touching $800 per person.
Many professionals living abroad have high disposable incomes and live in places without extended family or old friendships. In global cities with large expat populations like Dubai, Hong Kong, Singapore and Mumbai, these lavish brunches offer a natural platform to meet people, network, see and be seen. And in cities like Dubai, peerless when it comes to brunch indulgence, the hybrid meal is also a way to skirt the region’s strict alcohol laws with most venues termed “safe havens” for alcohol consumption.
Monica Metzger, an Italian who moved to Dubai about 10 years ago and works in the hospitality industry, says brunches have become more elaborate in the time she has lived there.
These brunches can fill a social void, as well as providing an opportunity for glamour and luxury (Credit: Nomee Gulfam)
“The first brunches were only small in size, and focused on a buffet spread with free-flow beverages at a set price but these brunches tended to lack atmosphere… once brunch finished, people would go home,” Metzger says.
Dubai really takes the experience of gastronomic gluttony to the very highest levels
In the past few years, they’ve evolved into full-on events. Some have smorgasbords with delicacies prepared by top chefs and accompanied by fine wine. Others are full-on spectacles with roaming circus-themed entertainment, activities for children, and live bands. Sometimes revellers stay for after-party festivities that run into the wee hours of the next morning.
Adrian John, founder and editor of online directory Mr & Mrs Brunch UAE moved to Dubai from the United Kingdom eight years ago. He has experienced brunches in many countries but “Dubai really takes the experience of gastronomic gluttony to the very highest levels.”
For expats who don’t have established networks in new host countries, these events can be an important community builder (Credit: Nomee Gulfam)
Even so, indulgent brunches are a crucial part of expat life, he says.
“They symbolise every expat’s rite of passage into the community and are a ready-made solution for birthdays, weddings, and introducing newbies into the way of life and social circles of which they hope to become a part.
“Solidarity amongst fellow expats is preferable to quiet solitude and thoughts of missing home.”
Luxurious brunches can come with a hefty bill. Those that include unlimited alcohol can run into the hundreds of dollars.
In Mumbai, the JW Marriott hotel offers up one of the city’s fanciest brunches, priced at $60 a head. This is in a country with a median annual income of $616, according to a 2013 Gallup survey. Cuisines on offer span every continent, champagne is unlimited, as is wine from around the world. The clientele includes the city’s wealthiest people and its expats, who spend several hours there on Sundays.
Free-flow wine and champagne drive up the price tag (Credit: Nomee Gulfam)
In Hong Kong, Mercedes Me, part Mercedes-Benz dealership, part tapas restaurant, offers up a brunch with Japanese, Peruvian and Spanish tapas and desserts for $75, with an additional $40 for unlimited champagne.
Dubai’s opulent brunches are typically served up on Friday (in many Islamic countries, including the UAE, the weekend runs on Friday and Saturday, with Friday considered the day of prayer. Here, brunch is taken to another level – for example, The Westin Dubai Mina Seyahi offers a $180 brunch complete with unlimited alcohol, live cook-to-order live stations, a magician, acrobats and face-painting for children.
At the upper end of the price scale, Dubai seafood restaurant Pierchic offers a Laurent Perrier Grand Siècle brunch at nearly $800 per person.
But even with large price tags, these brunches aren’t short on customers.
Although traditional expat packages have shrunk in the past decade, many still receive generous compensation
“To pay the a la carte prices for every dish and drink consumed during a brunch, the bill presented would be far higher than the package price set. And this is especially true here in Dubai, where the price of alcoholic drinks is so high,” Metzger says.
A stilt walker performs at The Westin Dubai Mina Seyahi (Credit: Nomee Gulfam)
Many can afford it. Although traditional expat packages have shrunk in the past decade, many still receive generous compensation. The value of a typical expat package for a middle manager in Hong Kong is $266,000, the fourth-highest in the Asia Pacific region, according to corporate consultants ECA International. In Singapore, that is about $239,000 and in India, middle managers’ expat pay packages average $293,000.
When it comes to salary alone, expats living in India are the third-highest paid in the world, according to HSBC’s Expat Explorer survey. In addition, nearly 89% of expats in India receive at least one financial benefit from their employer, according to the survey.
Expats aside, these countries also have local populations with significant wealth. Mumbai, India’s financial capital, is also its richest city, with 46,000 millionaires and 28 billionaires, according to a 2017 survey by New World Wealth.
Brunch in Dubai also offers up a map to navigate the city’s strict drinking laws. Muslims are not allowed to drink alcohol in Dubai, and non-Muslims are allowed to partake only at certain establishments. The brunches offer expats a safe space to drink, although it is illegal to have a drink beyond the confines of the licensed hotel’s property lines.
It does create a new friends group away from home very quickly
Many expats in Dubai say this style of brunch was not a part of the weekend culture in their home countries, where they are more likely to catch up with friends or family over a more intimate meal.
“It’s an easy way to meet friends… so it does create a new friends group away from home very quickly,” says Nicola Duncan, who moved to Dubai nearly four years ago to be with her husband.
Most expats pick the brunch scene over high tea or a lavish dinner, Duncan says. “When you can get unlimited cocktails, plus luxury food and a fun social atmosphere… it makes sense.”