Arabs flock to Malaysia


Fahd Al Farith pointed his video camera at Malaysia's Petronas Twin Towers and for a moment forgot he was missing Disneyland.

At this time of year, with temperatures over 40 degrees Celsius at home, Fahd usually takes his family to the world-famous California theme park.

But, like many Middle Easterners, the 45-year-old Saudi jeweller has been put off by a perception that Muslims are not really wanted in the West after the September 11 attacks on the US.

Tough visa procedures and the prospect of hostility in everyday interaction with westerners persuaded him to look East for this year's summer vacation.

"So, we decided to come to Malaysia," he said.

Malaysia actively sold itself as an Islamic tourist destination even before September 11.

The campaign is paying off.

Kuala Lumpur is packed with Saudis, Syrians, Kuwaitis, Turks and Jordanians.

Many of their womenfolk are clad in traditional head-to-toe black robes, and some wear a niqab, the scarf that covers the face Ñ their appearance contrasting starkly with young local women who favour tight-fitting western clothes.

At least two hair salons have "VIP rooms" where Arab women pay an extra charge to be attended to by female hairdressers in private.

The Malaysian capital is also proving to be a shopping haven for Arabs, who were seen picking up anything from gemstones to golf gear and DVD players during their holiday.

Away from the shops on another side of town, Jordanian Mohamed Taufik sat on a marble bench outside the Islamic Arts Museum, flipping through images captured on his digital camera.

"It's my first time here and I feel like I'm at home," said the 35-year-old law student from Amman. "The modern Islamic civilisation blends beautifully with the natural attractions, people and food."

Tourism earned Malay-sia 24 billion ringgit ($6.3 billion) in 2001. There were about 5.8 million international tourists in Malaysia last year.

This year, over 43,000 Middle Easterners had visited Malaysia even before the peak season had begun.

Tour operators say Arabs usually come to Malaysia with their families or in groups of between 10 and 30.

"Compared to other Asian cities, KL has better packages for the Middle East market as hotels here even hire Arabic-speaking staff during the Gulf holidays," said a hotelier.