There aren’t many women who freely admit to being a ‘bridezilla’ – but for Zainab Alsalih, it’s a point of pride, writes Ben Flanagan.
But then Ms Alsalih is a professional wedding planner – and so obsessing over every detail of other couples’ nuptials is very much part of the job description.
As owner and managing director of the Dubai-based events company Carousel, Ms Alsalih got to play bridezilla – a term usually reserved for overly demanding brides-to-be – more than a dozen times in the last year.
Her firm, which launched seven years ago, started out in corporate events but now specialises in weddings – a market she says is booming in the Emirates, particularly among expatriates wanting their ‘big day’ outdoors or by the beach.
“There’s a rising trend of expats getting married here, primarily because we’ve got such beautiful weather for five to six months of the year,” said Ms Alsalih.
“If they were doing it in the UK or anywhere else they would have to wait until summer to have an outdoor wedding… if they can do it at all, because of the risk of rain.”
Weddings are increasingly big business in the UAE, notably in Dubai where luxury 5-star hotels – with their ever-lavish conferencing facilities – sometimes feel as common as convenience stores.
And like the city’s brash skyline, bigger is better when it comes to tying the knot in the UAE.
Ms Alsalih said weddings in the UAE can cost anywhere between Dh1,000 to Dh3,000 per guest, depending on the venue, food and entertainment. Her firm charges clients an event-management fee depending on the work undertaken; Ms Alsalih declined to specify rates.
Some press reports put the average cost of a UAE wedding for Western expatriate at around Dh100,000 to Dh150,000. But there are reports of some Indian and Arab couples spending as much as Dh1 million – suggesting that one day in white could leave many couples in the red.
Carousel’s biggest wedding was a massive 1,000-guest event for a Saudi couple held in a tent next to the iconic Burj Al Arab. A ‘garden’ theme saw scores of trees, citrus plants and jasmine bushes installed in the venue by Ms Alsalih’s teams.
But while that wedding was bigger than most, Ms Alsalih says the majority of Carousel’s events cater for between 200 and 500 people, which is still above average in many Western markets.
“In the US and Europe people would consider 200 [guests] a large wedding. But in the UAE and this region, 200 is actually the average,” she says.
According to a survey of 2,410 women conducted last November, 46 percent of brides-to-be plan to invite more than 250 people to their weddings, while almost a fifth said they’d host more than 500.
Ms Alsalih, understandably, makes the case for the benefits of employing her services, rather than couples taking on wedding planning themselves or leaving it in the hands of their venue.
“The hotels and venues will not offer you ‘above-and-beyond’ what’s offered in-house. For example, they will not help you out with your entertainment or décor, they would not do your lighting and sound for you,” she says.
A company like Carousel deals with all suppliers on behalf of its clients – handling everything from the invites to the flowers, to the overall ‘design’ theme of the day – she added.
“You will not have to talk to anyone else but us. We do your running around for you, we take your stress away. [On the wedding day] we’re there setting up for you so you don’t have to worry about it.”
Ms Alsalih’s business, which now has eight full-time staff, is certainly growing. Back in 2011, the company was putting on four or five weddings a year. That has since tripled, and it organised six weddings in the first quarter of this year alone.
But one challenge is the hot summer months in the UAE, where the weddings business comes to a standstill. “Nobody gets married here in the summer,” said Ms Alsalih.
There is also more competition emerging locally, she added.
“When we first started wedding planning was not something that people were used to in this part of the world. It was a fairly new concept. And I remember in the first two years having to explain what it is we do,” said Ms Alsalih.
“Now, there are a lot of companies that do wedding planning. I think that the market is big enough for all these companies and planners… It’s a massive market here when it comes to weddings.”
Despite this, Ms Alsalih says she is still selective about which clients she takes on, based on both her workload, and whether she has a connection with them. “I’m very content doing 10 to 15 really beautiful weddings a year,” she says.
About 80 percent of the Carousel’s clients are Western or Arab expats, and the weddings it organises are not quite the gaudy affair sometimes associated with those in the region.
“We’ve more Western in style, versus the traditional Arabic style of weddings, which are more elaborate,” she says. “We are more about simple but elegant weddings. We focus a lot on the detail rather than a theatrical setup.”
Ms Alsalih was born in Baghdad and raised in Europe and the Gulf, where she started her professional career as a banker. The launch of Carousel was partly inspired by the fact that she is a mother of three sons and sister to three brothers. “That’s why I turned to weddings,” she says. “I needed to get my girl fix somehow.”
It is inevitably with the brides that Ms Alsalih forms a special bond, saying she has remained friends with all those she has worked with. She attributes this to being on call to them around the clock during the planning of their big day.
“I am the bridezilla on their behalf. You can ask my team and ask my vendors: I’m very protective of my brides and their weddings,” she said. “I always tell my clients, ‘it’s not just your wedding, it’s also mine’. So I will not accept less than perfect.”