II’s classic expat financial services industry pubs: Dubai

When financial services expats are far from home in a foreign land, they periodically like to congregate in places where they can, for a brief time at least, be among their own kind. 

As we have been observing over the last few weeks, as we’ve begun looking at where expats like to hang out, it seems that there are times when even teetotal expats who are weary of the non-stop foreign-ness of their current posting can find comfort and companionship in their locality’s unofficial, but de facto, expat hang-out.

This week – on St Patrick’s Day, as it happens – we nominate our choice for the Best Classic Expat Pub in Dubai. (It is, of course, an Irish pub, at least in spirit…) 

Establishment: Fibber Magee’s
Address: Saeed Tower One
Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai
Tel: +971 (4) 332 2400

We are told that there if sheer numbers of patrons were the only measure, the Gramercy Sports Bar in the Dubai International Financial Center would probably rank as the “most popular” watering hole among Dubai’s offshore financial services crowd, by virtue of the throngs of regulars who keep it busy, week in, week out.

But for the purposes of this article, we wanted to seek out the one watering hole in Dubai that is most frequented by financial industry executives by choice, not because it’s in the same building – even if its general proximity to the DIFC and/or other key financial buildings still plays a role.

We were also hoping to find a place with a bit of history as well, (to the extent there could be any history, for a pub in a historically Muslim city that, until the beginning of this century, was little more than a bustling Persian Gulf port, surrounded by desert).

After a bit of asking around, we discovered that the one establishment people named most often was Fibber Magee’s.

Fibber’s, as it’s known to regulars, opened in 1996, the year after the building in which it’s located was built. It was founded by a Lebanese expat named Rock Sfier, according to Mark Hutton, a Brit who has worked there from Day One, and who is now is one of its owners (since 2004). (Most of his Irish regulars have at this point “forgiven” him for being English, he says.)

Because Fibber’s pre-dated the Dubai International Financial Centre by about eight years, it has always had, and depended upon, patrons outside of financial services as well, including a fair number of British jockeys and rugby players in town for work reasons, famous ones as well as those still at the beginning of their careers, according to Hutton.

The Fibber Magee’s name was dreamed up by Sfier, Hutton says, adding that he is thought to have come across it in Ireland. Sfier is also credited with having come up with the general design of the pub, and for having bought all the knick-nacks and furniture from Irish and Scottish shops that give the pub its authenticity and cozy ambiance.

Fibbers stone headAmong the quirkier items Sfier bequeathed on his pub was a 40kg stone head, pictured left,  which is not thought to be the likeness of anyone famous, and which has sat on the bar since it opened apart from the time, Hutton says, that it was stolen and held for ransom.

The fact that Fibber’s is “the nearest thing you”ll get to a traditional British Isles/Irish pub in Dubai”, and its emphasis on traditional British food and drink, are, in Hutton’s opinion, what brings in its punters.

Menu items include bangers and mash; fish and chips; potatoes braised in Guinness; battered sausages, beans and chips; Irish stew; and chili con carne.

Fibber Magee’s describes itself on its website as “one of Dubai’s best-kept secrets, with its…traditional Irish hospitality, and the home of comfort food and great beer”, and promises that its “crazy, friendly atmosphere” is “addictive”.

Speaking to International Investment earlier this week, Hutton said he was expecting a full house tonight, as is always the case on St Patrick’s Day.

Simon Danaher, a London-based marketing executive until recently with the Dubai-based  AES International advisory firm, confirmed Hutton’s prediction, recalling a recent St Patrick’s Day when he and a colleague dropped in, “still wearing our suits”.

“If you just want a quiet pint [there], the 17th of March is a day to avoid,” he adds, recalling a “riotous” evening that included the “loud” singing of Irish songs, a live band, and men and women “kissing strangers”,  as the Guinness flowed and decorative leprechauns looked on.

Fibber's 2Another Gulf expat says it can take newcomers some determination to find Fibber’s, because even a map of the area “doesn’t actually help that much, and it took me a couple of attempts, actually, to find the way in”. Once inside, though, he added, “it’s friendly…and less stuffy than competitors in the DIFC…the sort of place you can find yourself staying longer than you intended to”.

Hutton says the fact that Fibber’s is located on the other side of the main Sheikh Zayed highway from the DIFC actually may contribute to the pub’s appeal to those who work there,  because by making the effort to get there, they’re getting away from the work environment.

Twice during its existence, Fibber’s was closed after it ran into trouble with the authorities. In particular they took a dim view of a number of western establishments, including Fibber Magee’s, that allowed their customers to celebrate New Year’s Eve in 1997, a year when 31 Dec coincided with the sacred Muslim holiday of Ramadan.  Fibber’s was forced to close again in 2001, when a nearby establishment caught the eye of the authorities and it was deemed potentially guilty by proximity. Hutton says he does all he can to play by the rules  today, to avoid the possibility of sanctions again.

Fibber Magee’s is possibly not Dubai’s hottest, trendiest new bar, then, but, it seems, the place Dubai expats go to, in part because they always have.

To see last week’s best classic expat pub, in the Isle of Man, click here.

Next week: International Investment’s choice for best classic expat pub in Jersey.

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