The rise of the Invisible Men in Dubai

After a monumental dip in the Eighties, the British butler is back – and in big demand in the UAE, Mike Peake discovers

  • Butlers are back in demand in highsociety circles all overthe world. Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • A butler at a Jumeirah Group property in Dubai. Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • Sebastian Hirsch, founder of Butler For You. Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • At your service...Steven Randolph, Andrew Fishpool, Brian Levett and Tim Jackson teach butler skills at the StImage Credit: Supplied picture

A recent advertisement for a butler for a Dubai palace on a household staff agency website summed it up perfectly: “Duties include maintaining palace standards, assisting with organising events, looking after the food and beverages and the maintenance of fine china, silver, crystal and automobiles.” In other words, the candidate will become his employer’s right-hand man; dependable, resourceful and meticulous about everything he does. Is it any wonder that these impeccably turned-out domestic heroes are in such short supply? Who would hire a PA when a butler can do it with such finesse?

The traditional image of a butler is one that is inextricably linked to late-19th and early-20th-century Britain, but over the past two decades things have changed significantly. For a start, butlers are no longer always stiff, starched Englishmen in their 50s – the archetypal Jeeves of PG Wodehouse’s novels or comical Parker from Thunderbirds. They now come in all shapes and sizes – and they are making a comeback in a very big way.

Once on the verge of extinction, with numbers falling to an all-time low in the Eighties, butlers are again in demand in high-society circles all over the world. And that today doesn’t just mean London, Paris and New York – butlers are just as likely to find gainful employment in China, India and right here in the UAE.

“They are becoming a commonplace instalment in the demanding lifestyles of the financially significant in the UAE,” says Sebastian Hirsch, whose agency Butler For You helps match butlers and other household staff with higher net worth individuals all over the world. “A successful butler will become the confidant of the principal and can provide perspective in both business and social situations,” he asserts.

The principal, if you hadn’t figured it out, is ‘the client’ in butler parlance. And what he or she wants is the very, very best.

For many principals, it is still the archetypal British butler that sends out the right kind of message. “He remains the world standard in impeccable service,” says Sebastian, who adds that Americans in particular are delighted by the appearance of a traditional English butler. Even Hollywood is getting in on the act with a star-studded movie next year about the late, much-loved White House butler Eugene Allen, who served eight US presidents.

Hard to find

The nearest many of us ever get to the butler treatment is a stay at one of the 400 or so luxury hotels worldwide that provide a butler service for guests. The Gulf has several. Among them are the Burj Al Arab, Atlantis The Palm, the Dar Al Masyaf and the Grosvenor House in Dubai, as well as St Regis, Abu Dhabi and the just-opened one in Doha.

“The St Regis Butler service is part of our promise that every guest will have a truly memorable stay,” says the company literature, which implores guests to seek out their all-knowing butler whether in need of a perfectly pressed suit, an emergency copy of Harry Potter or a surprise gift for a loved one. With his guile, his charm – and his big book of contacts – your butler, it seems, can do anything.

Interestingly, finding butlers in the UAE has been something a challenge. According to Steven Ferry, chairman of the International Institute Of Modern Butlers, the majestic Burj Al Arab hotel initially found it tricky to track down qualified staff in a country sorely-lacking in well-trained butlers. “When you have to man a department of something like 160 butlers,” he says, “it’s easy to see why this would be a challenge. In the end, they sourced their staff from about 100 countries.”

Steven says that another unexpected complication arose when some of the Burj butlers started moving on after just a couple of years. He reasons that employment at such a prestigious hotel had added a golden veneer to the butlers’ CVs, and they were being snapped up for work elsewhere. The hotel, however, stuck with its commitment to providing a butler service and it has paid off. Now very much a key part of the Burj experience, the butlers help keep it right at the very top of its game.

Hotel jobs, as well as corporate assignments, have become a mainstay of the butler’s world, and represent the public face of the profession. It can be fun work, and Steven Randolph, who runs a UK-based butler hire and recruitment service called Randolphs, frequently tears himself away from his desk for some of the more enjoyable engagements – such as looking after The Queen and her official guests at Royal Ascot every year. Naturally, Steven knows exactly how to blend in.

“I’ve worked with several Middle Eastern families over the years, and they very much seem taken with the idea of a butler, a classic, British one especially,” he says. “As far as the work goes, there are obviously cultural differences between principals from the Middle East and Western ones. However what unites them is a desire for impeccable service, and to present a correct, professional and stylish image either at home or abroad.” Whether a butler is tending to a hotel guest, working for a corporate client or employed as a family’s private butler, his modus operandi changes little. The duties might vary, but the goal – as Sebastian puts it – is to be the “invisible man”.

Multitasking talents

The butler then is an enviable mix of discretion, cunning, resourcefulness and calm. He has a helicopter pilot’s number on speed dial and can arrange last-minute, Friday-night reservations at Zuma with a single call.

“Butlers these days practise a ‘multitasking’ service while maintaining old-world charm,” explains Sebastian.

In many ways, they’ve reinvented themselves – and they’ve had to: even Dubai palaces have broadband to sort out and a fancy air-conditioning to fathom. As Steven says: “Being completely tech savvy is a major plus.”

Not exactly known for their vast salaries – Buckingham Palace was advertising a trainee butler post at a paltry £15,000 (around Dh86,400) per year in March – butlers are clearly not only for billionaires. Many above-average well-to-do families, in fact, might find a butler an affordable way to keep on top of things. “The less formal, more international client is often looking for a butler to serve as a chic and stylish PA,” says Steven. “Other people are looking for a more formal arrangement, with a traditional live-in butler alongside several other staff. The common theme is that clients want someone who knows how to do everything correctly, and is flexible.”

Finding him, though, may prove to be the hard part. Will your butler be old or young? Male or female? The latter does indeed exist.
“Many people go for young and attractive ‘trophy butlers’ the first time they employ one,” says Sebastian, adding that very few of them meet the client’s expectations.

Inevitably, he says, the client then seeks out a more experienced professional to do the job properly.

Which, if the clichés are true, means coat- tails so stiff you could ski off them and a way with a shoe brush that beggars belief. Just mind you don’t ask him to have a quick clean of the bathroom though. He’s far too handy with the silverware to risk antagonising the old fellow like that…