Portrait of a Nation: The luxury pet hotel owner who proved the doubters wrong
Afra Al Dhaheri has made a success of her business – even though she takes in unwanted animals for free
When Afra Al Dhaheri declared that she wanted to open a luxury hotel for pets, not everybody took her seriously.
So she hit the streets of Abu Dhabi, getting strangers to fill in hundreds of surveys, to prove there was demand.
She drew up a business plan and asked the Khalifa Fund, which supports Emirati entrepreneurs, for a large loan.
Initially, she said, fund managers were “surprised” at her idea and offered only a tenth of what she asked for.
But nearly eight years on, she employs almost 40 staff, has established an award-winning veterinary clinic and is planning to set up a second, far larger operation from a farm.
“A lot of people expected me to last a year or two,” Ms Al Dhaheri said. “They just thought I was some spoiled, young, rich Emirati who wanted to show off her hobby. But I’m not that type of person, I was very determined.
“When I started the business people didn’t realise I had taken out a loan, so it was a big responsibility.”
After further discussions, the Khalifa Fund was persuaded to provide close to the Dh3 million she had applied for. With support from her older sister, who also took out a loan to help, Ms Al Dhaheri was able to open Cloud9 Pet Hotel and Care from a villa in Khalifa City.
It is a labour of love for the 33-year-old, who also offers pet grooming, training, dog walking, pet sitting and even a service to help people overcome animal phobias.
As well as being trusted to care for customers’ pets, she has taken in countless mistreated or abandoned animals she tries to find stable homes for. The centre has become a sanctuary for animals including ducks, reptiles and exotic birds that Ms Al Dhaheri did not have the heart to turn away.
Between 70 and 80 rescue animals are currently being cared for, in addition to ‘day care’ guests and those filling the 92 dog and 27 cat hotel rooms – which are usually close to capacity.
Among them is Meeko the racoon, who was left by an owner who no longer wanted him. He has spent so long playing with the cats that staff believe he now thinks he is one.
Charlie, a chocolate Labrador, likes to collect bricks. While about 25 other dogs swamp Ms Al Dhaheri when she enters their large outdoor exercise pen, Charlie diligently guards his broken breeze block, barking at anyone who dares approach.
Yzma, a blue parrot, was booked into Cloud 9 by her owners while they went on a long holiday. But she fell in love with Kronk, a male of the same species. So now Yzma now lives at Cloud 9 too, with her old owners occasionally taking her home for a weekend.
Ms Al Dhaheri owns 13 dogs herself, nine of which come with her to work every day. “It was 12, but I got another one last month,” she says. “I live close by, and I have a big car.”
Asked where a pair of turtles came from, she shrugs. “People didn’t want them and we had a plastic pool. We’re building a pond for them.”
When she took in a pregnant ferret, it had nine babies. Four were rehomed, and the rest are still there. There are now 13 Cloud 9 ferrets, fed an expensive diet of chicken livers and hearts.
Her altruism has cost her money, Ms Al Dhaheri admits, and she is forced to turn some animals away.
“I have the responsibility of making sure my employees are secure and paying all the bills,” she said. “When we say no it’s not because we don’t want to help. It breaks our heart.”
She is now looking into setting up a non-profit organisation to care for abandoned or unwanted animals, which would be able to accept donations.
But despite the resources she spends on caring for animals with nowhere to go, the business is still performing. Her sister, and the Khalifa fund, have been paid back, and she is now looking to expand.
Cloud 9 has even become a mini-tourist destination, with Ms Al Dhaheri building up a huge social media profile and many of her followers, especially children, turn up unannounced to meet her and the animals.
"My plan now is to buy a farm,” she said, with room for pet pools, off-leash gardens, a cafe and more volunteering and community schemes.
“It’s just a matter of finding the right spot right,” she said. “All the rescues are why it took us so long to decide to open another branch. But even if it takes another 10 years, as long as I am helping those animals, I am happy.”
Updated: January 21, 2020 10:55 PM