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Wednesday, July 13, 2005

WSJ - A Different Islamic World

By CECILIE ROHWEDDER and DEBORAH BALL
Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
July 12, 2005; Page B1

LONDON -- Harrods, the iconic upscale department store, extended its opening hours to 8 p.m. this summer in hopes of courting a special consumer group: moneyed Middle Easterners who are accustomed to evening shopping sprees in their native countries. Nearby, rival specialty retailer Harvey Nichols has an Arab-speaking saleswoman on every store floor.

While much of the attention since last week's bombings here has centered on the radical Muslim sects who have sought haven in the U.K., a large community of affluent Muslims continues to influence day-to-day rhythms in the British capital.

Its members, predominantly Middle Eastern, own houses in leafy suburbs, send their kids to private schools and spend weekends in the lush countryside surrounding London. Many live here year-round, though some come to pied-à-terre in posh west London neighborhoods during summer months, to escape the heat in their home countries.

Wealthy Middle Easterners make up only a small fraction of the roughly 600,000 Muslims in London. But they are a visible and powerful part of the city's social, political and economic fabric. Britain's Parliament has had Muslim Members since 1997, and Arabs own major businesses in Britain, including the leisure company that operates Madame Tussauds Wax Museum, a popular tourist site. Harrods is owned by Egyptian-born Mohammed al Fayed, whose son Dodi was dating Princess Diana when they were killed in a car crash in Paris.

Especially in the summer months, these Londoners provide big business for restaurants, real-estate brokers and a wide range of service providers, from nannies to bodyguards. Veiled women are a common sight on retail-heavy Sloane Street. As Middle Eastern women climb into chauffeur-driven limousines outside high-end boutiques, fellow shoppers can often catch glimpses of trendy designer clothes and high-heeled shoes peaking out from beneath black robes.

Even women veiled from top to toe usually carry pricey designer bags, one of the few obvious fashion statements available to conservative Muslim women.

"We're lucky, many of us, because we come from families that never had to think about money, so yes we go into designer shops and just buy without looking at the price tag," says Jawhara Fawaz, a 32-year-old Saudi woman who lives in a five-bedroom apartment in the ritzy Knightsbridge area.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York, some Arabs say they have felt more welcome in Britain than in the U.S., which has stricter entry and security rules. Kuwaitis, for instance, can get visas to Britain within a day, while permits to travel to the U.S. can take months. Some Arab women also often feel more comfortable in London than on the Continent, where veils have sparked public controversy.

In these early days after last week's subway and bus bombings, however, it is hard to say if Middle Easterners will keep coming to Britain in undiminished numbers. Many British Muslims have expressed concern about a backlash against their community. So far, there is no evidence confirming that last week's attacks were committed by Muslims. But British Prime Minister Tony Blair, speaking in Parliament on Monday, said it was probable that the attacks were carried out by Islamist extremists.

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London's continuing appeal depends on the British government's response to the attacks, some wealthy Middle Eastern residents say. If immigration rules are significantly tightened or new security measures make life more difficult for Muslims and Middle Easterners in the months to come, fewer people may come, they say.

"People have been put off by the Americans' extreme measures after 9/11," says Abdul Bari Atwan, editor of Al Quds, an Arab-language daily published in London. "If the British government's reaction is similar to that, the same thing will happen here."

"Things have changed since 9/11," says Hissa Al-Majed, a Kuwaiti woman, whose family owns a house in London's Chelsea district, where she spends a month every summer. "Before, we'd never get looked at in the streets. Now we do. I wouldn't say it has changed how we feel about the city or would stop us from shopping there, but it's not the same as before," says Ms. Majed, 59, who always wears a veil when outside the home.

Despite the complex emotions, there are few tangible signs that Thursday's terrorist attacks have diminished London's lure among Middle Easterners.

The British Tourism Council said it expects just a temporary drop in visitors from the Middle East, comparable to what Spain experienced after the Madrid bombings in March 2004, but that the numbers will recover. The Lanesborough Hotel, a deluxe destination overlooking Hyde Park popular with wealthy Middle Eastern tourists, had cancellations from European and American visitors, but none from Middle Eastern guests.

"We've seen a downturn in Americans, but not Arabs," echoes David Serlui, co-founder of Aura, a trendy bar and restaurant near the Mayfair district.

As a former colonial power in the Middle East, Britain is familiar to many Arabs, who have sent their offspring to British schools for decades. Prominent graduates from British universities include the current rulers of Jordan and Syria. At the two French Nursery Schools in west London, 50 of 220 children are from Lebanon alone.

The British tax system also attracts wealthy foreigners. Unlike in other countries, such as the U.S., foreigners who reside in Britain but don't have their permanent homes here, pay taxes only on their British incomes, not on investment income from overseas, provided it isn't sent to Britain.

Jimmy Choo, a London-based purveyor of luxury shoes and handbags, recently added a VIP room to its Sloane Street flagship store and offers home visits for Middle Eastern women who often prefer privacy to a busy store environment.

"For many Arabs, London is a home away from home," says Tara Ffrench-Mullen, a spokeswoman. "We try to sell to them any way they want."

--Yasmine el-Rashidi contributed to this article.

Write to Cecilie Rohwedder at cecilie.rohwedder@wsj.com and Deborah Ball at deborah.ball@wsj.com

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