arab sensibility meets swiss savvy in dubai

Jean-Marc Busato has lived and worked in the Middle East for the past 20 years

Expatriate Swiss plying their professional know-how are prospering from Dubai's booming hotel industry.

This content was published on July 11, 2006

Unparalleled in the world, Dubai's fevered growth is a boon for Swiss such as hotelier Jean-Marc Busato, who knows the ins and outs of doing business in the United Arab Emirates.

A Middle East resident for over 20 years, Bern native Busato is vice president at the hotel chain Rezidor SAS Hospitality for the Middle East and a seasoned observer of the region's hotel industry.

Top qualifications are in high demand in Dubai, where 72 further hotels are scheduled to open in the next three years.

"With new hotel projects, Arab investors pay attention above all to two things: image and service," said Busato.

"Arabs are extremely hospitable, it's part of their mentality. That makes them open to being in the hotel business," he added. "We Swiss traditionally chip in with the nuts and bolts."

Even so, in the United Arab Emirates, expatriate Swiss no longer stand out as they once did.

"Twenty years ago the Swiss enjoyed a very high profile in the few hotels that existed," said Busato, who earned his spurs in the Mövenpick hotel chain under the legendary Ueli Prager.

Others catching up

"Ueli Prager made a point of hiring Swiss. Before, we were looked upon as exclusive specialists in the branch. We pretty much exported the hotel sector.

"But in today's globalised hotel industry other countries have long since caught up – and partly through Swiss hotel schooling and

degrees." Twenty years ago Swiss chefs were a rarity in Dubai, so they were in a position to demand far higher pay than would be the case today, according to Busato.

Nowadays, there are numerous non-Swiss graduates of elite Swiss hotel schools seeking positions worldwide. But while the qualifications might be the same, the salary expectations are not.

Max Burkhalter, executive chef at the Grand Hyatt Dubai and known as "the" Swiss chef in Dubai, is critical of the cautious and sceptical approach young Swiss have towards working abroad.

"I always find jobs in Dubai for graduates of the Lausanne Hotel School – just not for Swiss

graduates," said Burkhalter.

Whereas Burkhalter sees a waning of cosmopolitanism and "economic cocooning" among young Swiss, Busato pins the blame on the comparatively exorbitant costs of having Switzerland as a home base.

Hard to compete

He believes the cost of owning a home in Switzerland, for example, makes it difficult to compete against candidates from the new European Union countries or even India in terms of wages.

Those familiar with the Swiss expatriate scene say that some try to offset this structural disadvantage with tax savings and offshore bank accounts far from

Swiss and EU influence.

The bane of the Swiss hotel industry, high mortgage debt, is practically unknown in the Emirates, says Busato.

"In the Emirates hotels typically work together with local investors who bring their own capital to the project, " he explained. "They might, for example, use their landholdings as 51 per cent of their share. "

Foreign businesses that want to be active in the Emirates are pretty much dependent on a local partner who holds a majority stake.

Because foreign banks do not have a right to recourse over locally owned properties, they refuse to

fund mortgages, leaving this the province of local banks.

"With regards to liability issues, Rezidor has an arrangement for all 250 of its hotels with Zurich Financial Services. That allows the insurer clear distribution of risk and gives us a reasonable premium," said Busato.

In contrast, insurance for buildings, which is less problematic culturally, is purchased from local firms.

Design and architecture come from abroad, while local construction firms do the building itself. "Many Swiss suppliers are represented in the Emirates," said Busato.

Being onsite saves money, as there are practically no travel costs nor

loss of time in checks. Arab tastes are thereby accommodated, with a Swiss twist.

swissinfo, Alexander Künzle in Dubai

Key facts

Jean-Marc Busato, like countless Swiss hotel professionals, got his start at the Mövenpick hotels.
He went to Saudi Arabia and Egypt for the Flughafen Hotel chain.
Later, he worked for TUI, a large European tour operator.
As regional vice-president for the Middle East for the Rezidor hotel chain (Radisson), Busato spends half his time overseeing 15 hotels, and other half for ongoing projects and scouting for new locations.

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In brief

The United Arab Emirates, a Middle Eastern country comprising seven emirates, including Dubai, has about 3 million inhabitants.

Previously the Swiss, with their exclusive hotel qualifications, were an elite among hotel professionals in diverse destinations, including Dubai.

Today hotel expertise as well as qualifications have been globalised, with non-Swiss also holding top Swiss credentials.

Expatriate Swiss as a foreign group have a comparatively smaller role in the Emirates today than in earlier times.

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