Ed. note: This story was reported, written, and edited prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
When New York-based wedding planner and designer Preston Bailey was first asked to work on a wedding in the Middle East more than 20 years ago, he admits he was surprised. The royal client had seen his book in London and inquired.
Bailey, however, didn’t know much about working in that part of the world. Fast forward to the present and his company regularly puts on elaborate celebrations in the Middle East, frequently in the United Arab Emirates.
“These weddings are very special for the simple reason that most of my clients are exposed to extraordinary luxury and talent,” says Bailey. “They hire us [because] they’ll love to see a design that’s never been done before. They are amazingly creative, not only in decor, but art installations and technology taken to another level.”
Weddings in the UAE are often lavish, even deemed over-the-top by western standards, and it’s a quickly growing segment of the luxury wedding industry. Budgets can range anywhere from $80,000 to $250,000, on average. The culture and guest count, though, play a big role: some local Emirati weddings bring in 1,500-plus guests and multi-day Indian destination weddings in Dubai and Abu Dhabi can command six figures or more. It’s this high-end clientele pool where wedding professionals see the opportunity; so much so that Engage Summits hosted a luxury wedding conference in Dubai in March 2020, bringing together 250 attendees from 31 countries to see what UAE weddings are all about.
“It’s amazing to see how advanced the whole wedding event business has become in the Middle East,” says planner Colin Cowie, who has put events on in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar with his company Colin Cowie Lifestyle. “There is an incredible infrastructure that exists where they can do anything, build anything, and hire anyone. They want the cache; they are very brand-conscious and class-conscious.”
The key is transformation: converting a basic room, such as a hotel ballroom or an industrial structure, into a dream land. It’s full of over-the-top amenities such as millions of imported flowers for massive installations, dinner with fine-dining chefs, elaborate dessert setups, and themed bars for everything from designer perfume to cheese from around the world. It may all live in a temporary structure built specifically for the wedding. Sometimes there are additional structures just to house the materials, like air-conditioned warehouses for boxes of botanicals. For Bailey, he’s crafted ceilings featuring millions of hanging crystals and entire floors made of fresh flowers.
“The size of these weddings makes it difficult to do weddings in outdoor spaces, so we are often asked to recreate outdoor themes indoors, such as a garden or Italian meadow,” says Zainab Alsalih, founder and creative director of Dubai-based Carousel Weddings and Events. She notes that noise restrictions, weather, and privacy concerns also impact the decision to largely host Middle Eastern weddings inside. “We have had weddings with 500 living orange trees to recreate a Sevillian orange grove and custom chandeliers with flying crystal birds,” Alsalih says.
It’s not an easy task. Alsalih has booked venues weeks in advance for build-outs of massive installations, including theater-like stages for the bride and groom to sit. There may be another stage for a surprise performer or live musicians. Food is an important element, so fantastic culinary displays are expected as are floral arrangements, with couples spending upward of $500,000 on florals alone to be flown in from Africa or Holland. It all boils down to the idea of personalization. Each and every wedding has to be truly unique and personal in the tight-knit community that is the UAE.
Wedding designer Abdulaziz Alnoman explains that it’s important to go above and beyond expectations, and the market of vendors has followed suit. It used to be that flower shops handled arrangements for weddings organized by a family member; now it’s a team of creative designers like himself. “Designers are now providing as many services as possible to create a complete aesthetic,” says Alnoman, who works throughout the Middle East from a home base of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. “Weddings feature specific materials chosen according to a client’s particular theme and taste.”
“Most of the time there is no actual ceremony; it’s just a big party,” explains Dubai-based photographer Daniella Baptista. She’s captured weddings in the UAE for a decade and says no two have been the same. Baptista literally, not figuratively, entered through the rabbit hole for an Alice in Wonderland-themed event and documented the first wedding ever at the Dubai Opera, which included an all-female orchestra. And Baptista has photographed weddings from various religious and cultural backgrounds, including Christian, Hindu, Chinese, and Muslim.
One challenge is that many local weddings must think creatively about the segregation of men and women. Middle Eastern weddings vary based on how conservative the family may be. Traditionally, women and men are separated for the party, with men having a small gathering with the groom and women celebrating with an over-the-top reception filled with performances, chocolate tastings, and designer outfits. The ballrooms may be side-by-side, but the two groups won’t see one another. That’s changing, says Alsalih, as some couples are opting for mixed gender receptions. The couple may even enter in a grand procession with musicians and dancers; she noted that it’s trendy to have a song composed using the couple’s names. In either case, it’s a community affair and that means average wedding sizes are much higher than in the U.S. or other western countries. It’s not uncommon to have a guest list exceed 1,000 people.
Hospitality is integral to weddings. Every event includes hostesses who offer guests sweet treats and tea, help guests to lounges, and generally provide a smiling face. Planner Bibi Hayat explained that there is “every type of bar except the traditional one.” Chai, coffee, chocolate, cheese, and perfume are common. (Most of these weddings do not include alcohol.) Bathrooms turn into glam zones and desserts can feature the best licorice in the world or even a branded Ladurèe macaron station. It extends to the guest experience outside of the reception. Alsalih’s couples have booked yacht cruises, desert safaris, and even takeovers of luxury hotel spas for their friends and family.
The destination wedding business is growing, too. Vandana Mohan, founder of The Wedding Design Company in New Delhi, India, says that the UAE has become a major market for Indian weddings thanks to its proximity to the country and great range of hotels and resorts; there is always one to fit the budget. Indian weddings are also known to have large guest lists and the massive properties can easily accommodate the group. Beyond that, though, the UAE is home to many Indians who live and work among the ex-pat community. Indians feel comfortable there, and, she adds, it’s easy to find Indian food for the celebration. Plus, the visa process is seamless.
Cowie shared that some of the UAE’s luxury weddings are not that different from other high-end weddings in other parts of the world in terms of services, but it’s the scale that’s actually mind blowing—and sets them apart. His most recent event in the Middle East had 4,500 guests and plenty of custom decor elements. “The scale of creating that type of luxury for four and half thousand people turns weddings into a million-dollar event,” he says, noting it’s sometimes more. “The level of quality and service is far more sophisticated, far chicer, and far more elegant than what we’re doing in the west. They want the very best, and they’re willing to pay for it.”
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