Have you ever walked into a room and wondered, "Where's my welcome drink?" I hadn't either, until I went to brunch in the United Arab Emirates, the world capital of complimentary amenities that I never knew I needed.
I had only lived in the UAE for a few months when some new friends brought me to brunch—or "drunk Irish expat hour," as they lovingly called it. Before we walked into the restaurant at Etihad Towers in Abu Dhabi, my pal Dave gave me a word of advice: "Get ready." I had no idea what I was in for.
Almost all brunches take place only on Fridays and exclusively in hotels, which are among the few venues in this Muslim country legally permitted to serve alcohol. And these hotels usually reserve an entire floor for brunch, complete with small sections or little rooms for seemingly every food group and ethnic cuisine on earth. What awaited me was total sensory overload: an entire wall of gummies, a mojito bar, a whole roasted suckling pig, a gold-plated tiramisu, ten wheels of cheese, a 10L wine bottle, a chocolate fountain, a cheese fountain, and a kanafeh the size of a wading pool.
After wandering aimlessly through a labyrinthine buffet, we sat down with full plates and took stock of the chaos around us. "So this is where all the champagne in Abu Dhabi went," a colleague remarked.
The scene—with its bikinis, pork, and an open bar—defied everything I thought I knew about my new home. Hidden in this desert was an oasis of caviar and vice. And long after the candy-store glee wore off, long after the food coma subsided, one question still lingered: How?
In a way, it's surprising that such a decadent, booze-fueled ritual could exist in this part of the world. In my now many brunching experiences in the UAE, I have run into so few Emiratis that I wonder whom exactly this experience is really for. How do the heaps of pulled pork, prosciutto, and unlimited wine serve this nation's image of itself?
The UAE might have a reputation abroad as an over-the-top country, but this characterization is a little unfair. Most people, when they think of the UAE, think only of Dubai and its most extravagant aspects—the Burj Khalifa, the Emirates Airlines business-class bar, the music video for "Wild Ones" featuring Flo Rida skydiving over the man-made palm island. But not everything in the UAE, or even in Dubai, is plated in gold.
However, throughout the UAE—from Abu Dhabi to Dubai to the tiny emirate of Umm al Quwain—one thing that nearly always fits the big-and-excessive stereotype is brunch. Pyramids of champagne, piles of sashimi, buckets of marshmallows, and entire rooms full of cheese are all perfectly normal at an Emirati brunch. But the best brunches reach for even more outlandish spectacles, like a foie gras bar, a whole roasted goat, or an ice cream station where someone will mix vodka into your rocky road, Cold-Stone style.
"I just go to brunch when life gets too boring," said Dave. "It feels like the only thing to do sometimes." And that seemed to be the general consensus of the people in my group, who mostly said they come to these feasts when they're looking to fight expat ennui.
Today, brunch in the Emirates is a huge draw for tourists, many of whom relish the opportunity to roll out of bed, eat and drink downstairs all afternoon, and then go to the beach until happy hour—all without walking more than 100 yards at a time. UAE brunch isn't an actual cross between breakfast and lunch, but rather an all-day affair where the alcohol flows freely for those who want to partake. It's a protracted feast that usually lasts from 12-4PM, and transitions seamlessly into a cocktail by the infinity pool.
The origins of brunch in the UAE are hard to trace. Was it simply part of the bigger-is-better attitude of the UAE? A natural extension of the same impulses that brought us the world's tallest building and the fastest rollercoaster? Or was it something deeper?
Perhaps the tradition gained traction when wealthy expats started rolling into the UAE, during the oil boom and the meteoric rise of the Dubai and Abu Dhabi skylines. In the end, it's a true product of globalization,a distinctly Gulfi take on a relatively recent innovation in eating.
Brunch seems to be all about appealing to a certain kind of person, a certain definition of leisure and success. It can be seen as a symbol of Western prosperity and culture, one that could be helpful as this country at a cultural crossroads positions itself as a global hub. The tensions and contradictions at brunch might tell us something about identity, modernity, and ideal citizenship in the UAE. But I don't know quite what that is.
What I do know is that the UAE is a complicated place: Everyone seems to be either coming or going, people cross paths, cuisines fuse.
If you ever find yourself at brunch in the UAE, the best approach is to simply look around you—at the chocolate fountain, the sausage platters, the whole roasted hammour (grouper)—and take in the spectacle. But before you do, don't forget your welcome drink.