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FOOD & DRINK

“I miss old world charm – everything has become too trendy” – The Arts Club Dubai CEO speaks to EDGAR

Words by Rob Chilton

The swanky members club is a haven of style and sophistication

History, design and peace and quiet – The Arts Club Dubai has become the city’s most talked-about venue since opening last December. In his first interview since becoming CEO in early 2019, Ajaz Sheikh spoke to EDGAR about the thrills and the headaches of establishing a member’s club.

Central staircase

Usually wearing one of his many beloved Hermès ties (“they’re the best, they never go out of style”) today Ajaz Sheikh wears an open-necked shirt and blazer after a hectic weekend spent recalibrating The Arts Club to meet Dubai’s new Covid rules. It was another hurdle during an eventful first six months of the stylish DIFC venue.

“This is the hardest thing I’ve done in my career – by far,” he smiles. “Design calls on Zoom, sending pieces of wallpaper and fabric swatches by DHL all over the world because one partner was in London, another was in Hong Kong, we were in Dubai, the design firm was in Milan. And all in a pandemic! I’d love to sit and relax but it’s not over yet. I’ve done a few openings and every time I worry. If you’re not worried, you’re going to fail.”

Four floors, three restaurants, seven bars, eight lounges, four terraces, three meeting rooms and a library – no wonder Sheikh was worried. “The club is so large [65,000 square feet] but it’s buzzing most days and nights. I can’t wait for the rooftop to open soon,” he says.

Palazzo Lounge

Sheikh also felt the weight of the club’s history. The Arts Club Dubai is the first international outpost of the original London venue that was established in 1863 by Charles Dickens and his literary pals. Does Sheikh feel a custodian of this 158-year-old heritage? “One hundred per cent. We learned from the club in London, it was a pioneer. That history is our DNA and it’s crucial for the community we want to build here. People come to meet, entertain, work and dine. Some members come here every day of the week; some spend all day and all evening here. In many ways Covid accelerated the club usage people weren’t working from offices. Creating quiet spaces for people was primary, too.”

Arrival hall

Designed by Foster + Partners, with interior design from Dimorestudio in Milan, the look of the club is warm, cosy and homely. “We wanted it to feel residential, hence the custom wallpaper, carpets and natural wood flooring,” says Sheikh. “Where we used brass, copper or pewter it had to be the actual material, not a coating because we wanted the club to age nicely with time. This is something that has never been done before in Dubai. When Dubai wants to be ‘bigger and better’ it usually goes quite loud. We had to be careful that the club remains timeless.”

Ajaz Sheikh, CEO of The Arts Club Dubai

An essential ingredient in creating that timelessness is the service and the style of staff – a barman carefully polishing a martini glass while wearing a crisp white tuxedo jacket is a perfect example of the atmosphere The Arts Club is trying to achieve. “I miss old world charm when it comes to style and service,” says Sheikh, who was instrumental in the growth of Zuma, both in Dubai and around the world in his last job. “Everything has become a little too trendy, waiters and managers wearing cropped trousers with no socks. We wanted to create that old world, London sort of charm.”

The library

Walking around the venue and seeing members enjoy the space is a joy for Sheikh who seems right at home sipping his double espresso while reclining in an armchair in the Member’s Lounge. “If you can’t have fun in your own place then nobody else will,” he says. “So to see it come to fruition is a huge thrill. A huge thrill.”

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