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Art and Capital clubbing it out in Dubai

Which Dubai private members club you frequent may reveal a lot about you

Members of the Capital Club can still view art there, such as this work by Lebanese Master Hussein Madi (1938) Twitter/@CapitalClubDXB
Members of the Capital Club can still view art there, such as this work by Lebanese Master Hussein Madi (1938)

There is one question that is becoming ubiquitous in the environs of the Dubai International Financial Centre: Arts Club or Capital Club?

It is muttered in the elevators, whispered in the coffee shops, and loudly debated in the bars and restaurants.

It is said that supporters of the two camps are planning a choreographed fist fight, West Side Story style, beneath the Gate Building to decide bragging rights over their DIFC “turf”.

OK, I made that last bit up to grab attention, but it certainly is the hot topic of the day: are you a member of the Capital Club, the august institution which has provided a haven to businesspeople in Dubai for the past 15 years? Or of the Arts Club, the swankier arriviste that has been wowing them since late 2020?

For the sake of transparency, I must make full disclosure: I have been a member of the Capital Club on and off since 2017 and used it as a DIFC base for work and recreation. But over the past year I have attended many events as a guest at the Arts Club and thoroughly enjoyed its rather more chic facilities.

Let’s start with the similarities. Both are clubs, which means you pay for the privilege of entrance. And roughly the same too – AED15,000 (around $4,000) per year and a AED15,000 signing-on fee in year one.

Membership ethnicity seems pretty similar too. Both claim to reflect the population mix of the UAE, so there is a big element from South Asia, maybe one-third of total membership in each. Emirati membership is high, perhaps approaching 20 percent.

The rest is split among the various other nationalities on the UAE smorgasbord, in varying degrees. Both Arts and Capital report a significant increase in Russian and former Soviet members over the past year, though I get the sense more of these may have gravitated towards Arts’ blingier offering.

They are both in the DIFC, but by no means next door neighbours. Capital has been at the same premises in Gate Village since launch, and now finds itself at the heart of the vibrant community the Village has become, especially at nighttime.

Arts is at the base of the shiny ICD Brookfield Place, a short walk away in the new Gate Avenue district, which has not yet attracted the same level of buzzy glamour as the Village – but is getting there.

Perhaps the best way of illustrating the differences is to look at the two men in charge. At Arts, CEO Ajaz Sheikh, former boss of Zuma, probably the most successful restaurant in DIFC, has previous high-end hospitality experience at some of London’s elite brands, like the Lanesborough Hotel.

In contrast, Hussain Sultan Al Junaidy, the chairman of Capital, is a venerable Dubai businessman of the old school. He was the founding CEO of the Emirates National Oil Company (ENOC) soon after the UAE came into existence, and most recently put his commercial expertise to good use when he effectively rescued the Club with his own money in 2019.

And there you have the difference in a nutshell. Arts is a sister of the London club which counted Charles Dickens among its founders more than 150 years ago. One that has always marketed itself as a venue for artistic and cultural types with a taste for a bon-vivant lifestyle.

Capital is a home for business people who like to network with like-minded entrepreneurs – and sample some of the finer things in life too. Regular events include organised lunches, presentations, debates and discussions of serious business issues, with a high level of involvement by Dubai government officials.

In the evening those captains of industry let their hair down a bit, with regular social and music events and fine dining, drinking and cigar-smoking. It celebrated its 15th birthday recently with a Hollywood-style red carpet bash.

There is also – unlike Arts – a gym and some overnight accommodation. And members get affiliate rights at 250 other clubs around the world. Arts membership gets you access to the London club – for a charge. 

Arts seems to almost discourage business during the day, with regular gatherings of “ladies who lunch” amid some rather splendid modern art, while at night it offers three classy restaurants, bars and terraces, as well as a glitzy nightclub, Vega, at weekends. 

It would be hard to imagine a recent discussion at the Arts Club – a history of house music – anywhere near the Capital Club. Equally, it would be hard to imagine the Arts crowd sitting through the upcoming Capital event “navigating small and medium enterprises through times of uncertainty”.

Both clubs insist that they are not competing against each other directly, and claim – plausibly – that booming economic times in Dubai mean there is plenty of business to go round.

But they are equally aware of the other’s presence in the DIFC market place, and can be quite barbed about it. “We almost frown when we see people handing over business cards,” says an Arts official, snootily.

“Our members have probably got better art on their walls at home,” snipes a Capital man.

Probably the best solution for would-be members – if they can afford it – would be to take up a Capital membership for daytime use, and an Arts card for evenings. If you can’t afford both, you probably shouldn’t be in either.

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