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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

On the move: Where is the Arab Airbnb?

The time has come to create a Middle Eastern hospitality startup

An iftar meal in Ramadan. Getty Images
An iftar meal in Ramadan. Getty Images

Airbnb has done great things for the travel industry, and for itself. Its 150 million users can “belong anywhere”, not just by renting rooms or self-contained accommodation, but through myriad curated “experiences” that the company provides via its free online content or paid-for programmes. One-size-fits-all tours are out; local guides are in. Yet all Airbnb really did was to brand, harness and monetise existing travel trends. Thus, what was a San Francisco-based start-up is now a US$31 billion (Dh113.86bn) corporation with offices in 20 cities around the world.

In practical terms, unless I’m somewhere in Eastern Europe, such as Plovdiv in Bulgaria, where you can rent an entire apartment for $18 (Dh66) a night on ­Airbnb, I find that the price of the accommodation offered is often almost or the same as a chain hotel, without the same level of privacy or guaranteed standards. It also turns accommodation booking into an endless, uncertain chore akin to a real estate search.

I once Airbnb’d in a house on ­Waverley Street in Old Palo Alto, California, just around the corner from Apple founder Steve Jobs’ house at No 2101. This less-than-famous Airbnb-er was subletting rooms in a house that he was renting, because it provided a reliable income stream for his own struggling start-up.

While this was an interesting insight into the nature of the place, the absurdly long list of rules and regulations that visitors had to adhere to made it feel more like a stay on Cell Block H than a holiday. No outdoor footwear was allowed anywhere in the house, there was to be “no noise” after 8pm, and no gathering in the kitchen or loud washing of plates. There was the constant feeling that your presence needed to be minimised.

You would never feel like this in the home of, say, a Tunisian or Jordanian, and having lived in the Middle East for the past nine years, I now sometimes find myself craving Arab hospitality when I travel. Here, the focus is on the guest, rather than the convenience of the host. The experience is a one-off dynamic between people that will be remembered for years to come. Instead of the impersonal welcome of a generic list of recommendations left on a sterile kitchen table, or a cursory cup of coffee or can of drink before the host can get on their way, an Arab host will go out of their way in their hospitality.

When I couldn’t bear the thought of another hotel in New York, my Lebanese friend in Brooklyn invited me to her flat in Bedford-Stuyvesant. But she didn’t just give me directions; she picked me up in an Uber, then we chatted into the night. The following day, she took me to her local hangouts because I would also enjoy them, and in the evening we spent four hours at a great little jazz bar.

Yes, there are western-based home-­sharing sites such as Book Halal Homes and Muzbnb. But it is time to think bigger. It is time, I think, for Arabbnb. Who better to give outsiders a real taste of the region than the world leaders in hospitality? ­Palestinian grandmothers and ­Lebanese teenagers will develop new income streams, and the educated-but-sometimes-­ignorant travellers of the West will have an in-depth, life-­changing experience. Who will help me take this forward?

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