Vegan Abu Dhabi: Why the plant-based lifestyle is growing in the UAE

It's not all about eating vegetables, there's a whole way of life behind veganism

Vegan Abu Dhabi: Why the plant-based lifestyle is growing in the UAE

We've covered vaganism before here at Time Out Abu Dhabi, but it's worth delving into again. 

The movement is gathering pace here in UAE's capital, and the way vegans are being catered for here in the UAE is evolving. 

From restaurants offering dedicated vegan menus to stores selling vegan-friendly clothing and beauty products, even those who don't get it, can't ignore it. 

Globally, veganism was named among the top consumer trends in 2018. The number of Americans identifying as vegan rose 600 percent between 2014 and 2018 (from one to six percent), according to a report by research firm GlobalData, while in the UK a survey by The Vegan Society showed an increase of 350 percent. However, in Australia, the third fastest-growing vegan market in the world, the number of food products carrying a vegan claim increased by 92 percent in that time.

Locally, the trend might not be quite so pronounced, but it’s happening – albeit more quickly on the food scene than in clothing and cosmetics.

While lifestyle vegans might not be quite as well catered for as dietary vegans, there’s been marked progress.

Putting the mixed grills to one side for a minute, the Middle East and Levantine regions are historically vegan-friendly when it comes to food, largely without even trying.

Swathes of mezze menus are filled with plant-based dishes. But as many warak enab-weary vegans will know, eating hummus (complete protein though it may be) every day is not an expression of living your best life.

“[Abu Dhabi] is pretty vegan-friendly as a cosmopolitan city with so many different nationalities living here,” says Will Rankin, co-founder of the UAE’s Vegan Days, an organisation that runs pop-up markets, brunches and dinners across the country.

“We’re doing well when it comes to supporting different lifestyles, but it’s about so much more than food.”

As Rankin puts it, “there’s a difference between plant-eating and being vegan”.

Ananda Shakespeare, co-founder of Vegan Days, agrees. “I found it harder when I moved to the UAE 13 years ago to be as ethical, as many brands weren’t available.

“In the past year, I’ve made an effort to source vegan make-up and toiletries, so I’ve switched brands.”

From cosmetics to clothes, it can be hard to find products that don’t involve animal products or processes somewhere along the production line.

Organisations such as PETA – love them or loathe them – offer information on what alternatives are out there, and how to find them. In among the well-known likes of British designer Stella McCartney (daughter of Beatles rocker Paul and animal rights activist Linda), numerous well-known high street brands sell wool-free sweaters and faux-leather trousers.

Admittedly the emphasis for some brands may be on maintaining throwaway fashion prices, rather than catering to the world’s still very much minority vegan population.

Nevertheless, says Shakespeare: “There’s so much more available now, places like The Body Shop and Lush have lots of vegan products, even vegan perfume. Sephora has a few vegan make-up brands, too.

“I haven’t worn leather for 25 years, but I only recently realised that silk wasn’t vegan. I generally find that the cheaper brands have non-leather. You just have to shop around.

“I’m becoming much more careful about what I buy. I’ve always bought eco cleaning products, but now I make sure they’re vegan, too.”

Veganism is indisputably in vogue – bordering, in some areas, on fad. Influential personalities – such as Beyoncé’s occasional advocacy to her 100-million-plus fans – and aspirational social media platforms have played a role in its growth.

Today, the zeitgeist lives and dies on Instagram. At the time of writing, there were more than 72 million #vegan posts on the platform. For #burger – a far more established cultural marker – the number sat at just under 13 million. (Out of interest, #veganburger still languished at just over 330,000 – the golden arches aren’t quite on their way out of business just yet.).

So, after years of ridicule, and consignment to hippie quarters, what made veganism cool? What inspired literally millions of people around the world to start uploading vegan images to sit alongside their heavily filtered, micro-edited online personae?

“One thing that definitely created a huge change in people’s perceptions of the way we eat, was the wide availability of Netflix, and its films regarding veganism, healthy eating and the environment,” says Rankin.

“Millennials have more access to information than ever before, and I think we will begin to see a new generation of human animals who are born vegan, thanks in part to the broader dissemination of information.”

YouTube, with its billion-strong users, has also helped. Millions have viewed or created content around veganism on the platform, including 2005’s excruciating-to-watch Earthlings documentary, easily found on the site. Directed by Shaun Monson (also the director of 2018’s equally activist Dominion), narrated by Joaquin Phoenix and featuring scenes of animal cruelty that are hard to forget once seen, the number of meat-eaters converted after watching this alone is unlikely to be insignificant.

And it’s all information that’s reaching the eyes and ears of Abu Dhabi’s consumers – so, little wonder that in an increasingly competitive, commercially astute hospitality industry, more and more restaurants are finally reacting.

First to respond to signs of a wave, and join the small cluster of vegan outlets already operating in the city, such as Zayed Sports City’s Simple Café was the city’s juggernaut food delivery scene. The arrival of vegan-only, delivery-only brands such as Vegan Hut heralded the shift.

But the going out experience has improved, too. Where once vegans might have been offered a side salad, or the meat “taken off” the plate (how very gracious, you really shouldn’t have) unless they dined at one of Abu Dhabi’s few exclusively vegan eateries, numerous restaurants, pubs and cafés have now begun introducing whole vegan menus.

Le Royal Méridien’s @District by Amalfi and Al Maryah Island’s Roberto’s have both launched exclusive vegan menus, while pubs such as The Sportsman’s Arms in Zayed Sports City now have specially curated vegan sections on their menus, as do multinational chains Carluccio’s and Wagamama.

Even the city’s award-winning La Petite Maison in The Galleria has launched a dedicated vegan menu – and if the French, masters of classic gastronomy that they are, are willing to give up the dairy, there’s surely hope for us all.

“The competitive landscape forces operators to adapt to global and local trends quickly, or risk being left behind,” says Elias Madbak, director of operations at RMAL Hospitality – Wagamama’s franchise partner in the UAE.

Throughout its global network, the British chain has already rolled out dedicated vegan restaurants in the UK, US, Denmark, Cyprus and Greece, with more international and GCC territories on the agenda.

“I think in the short term, you will see many vegan dishes being introduced [to Abu Dhabi’s restaurants] as operators try to capture the new emerging segment in the market.

“Eventually, the operators who truly understand the vegan lifestyle will prevail – [because] being vegan is a lifestyle, and not just a dietary preference.”

Healthy meal delivery firm and casual restaurant group Kcal has also muscled in on the action.

“We had numerous customers asking us if and when we would be launching a vegan meal plan, either because they want to make the change, or because they already have,” nutrition director Lauren Jacobsen explains. “We were already working on improving our vegetarian plan, so we thought it was the perfect time to expand into vegan meal plans.”

Increased health concerns are a huge contributing factor in veganism’s recent boom. Where adopting a vegan diet may once have been principally driven by issues surrounding treatment of and cruelty to animals, many among this new generation of vegans are just as concerned about their own wellbeing – if not more so.

Since 2014, the noise from the science community surrounding the link between heavy meat and processed meat consumption and incidences of colorectal cancer and heart disease has been hard to ignore.

Estimates by the Global Burden of Disease Project, an independent academic research organisation cited by the World Health Organization (WHO) suggest around 34,000 cancer deaths each year are attributable to diets high in processed meats.

Also increasingly prevalent among consumers are concerns around the overuse of antibiotics and other medication given to animals to encourage rapid growth and stave off disease.

As a result, stickers promising “hormone-free” products have become as common in major supermarkets as tailgaters on Al Shahama Road.
“I’ve become far more aware of other practices as I’ve got older,” says Rankin. “And the dairy industry in particular is pretty difficult to comprehend, too.”

But those who become vegan aren’t immune to enquiries after their own health from meat eaters.

“Be prepared for the enormous concern all non-vegans suddenly have for where you get your protein from,” says Rankin.

While it may be trickier to get your B12 vitamin dose (it’s found mainly in animal products, but multivitamins and products such as fortified soy milk solve the issue), getting the right amount of protein shouldn’t be an issue. Soy products such as seitan and tofu, pulses and legumes such as lentils and beans, and grains such as quinoa and spelt are just a handful of the high-protein plant products vegans have in their arsenal.

Environmental concerns are also playing a part in people’s decisions to reduce – if not entirely eliminate – the amount of meat and dairy in their diets.

Fears around global warming, which must be kept to a maximum of 1.5˚C to avoid a catastrophic impact on the planet, are prompting farmers to look at ways to reduce the carbon footprint of their livestock practices, and consumers to look for alternatives. How realistic low-emission
cows are remains to be seen.

The issue of animal agriculture is robustly – and controversially – addressed in the 2014 documentary Cowspiracy, directed by Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn, and produced by actor and environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio.

Though figures stated in the film suggested 51 percent of global greenhouse gases are caused by agricultural practices, numerous scientists and researchers, including non-profit advocacy organisation the Union of Concerned Scientists, suggest the reality is more like 15 percent.

Still hardly an insignificant figure, and one that has done little to undo the film’s impact.

So that’s cost to health and the environment firmly in the “for” veganism camp, but what about the literal cost to the individual? Can going vegan in Dubai leave you paying more at the checkout or end of a meal?

Rankin notes it can be expensive to eat out as a vegan in Dubai, but few non-vegans would disagree with that statement – the rise of discount-only diners has become a restaurateur-exasperating trend all of its own in recent years.

“It’s certainly expensive to buy processed vegan products at the supermarket – things like fake meat, vegan ‘cheese’ and the like,” he explains.
Conversely, many supermarkets are now expanding their range of local produce, including organic options.

Online grocery stores such as Kibsons, which promises wholesale prices at retail level, are also growing in popularity – and the company continues to expand its range of vegan options, including dairy-free yoghurts and cream cheeses.

“Like anything, it’s as expensive as you want it to be,” Rankin adds.

But to live a completely vegan life, there’s a lot to consider. Going plant-based with your food is just the start.

“Every day is a learning experience. There are moments when you realise that the ink on a printed T-shirt isn’t vegan.”

But, he says, go for it.

“You have nothing to lose. Watch films like Vegucated, What the Health, Forks Over Knives, Cowspiracy, Earthlings, Super Size Me, Carnage, Food, Inc.. Be gentle on yourself, and spend time learning more about what to eat, what’s healthy and what’s not.

“Be prepared to feel better, and to feel different.”

If that’s not enough to encourage you, well, 70 million Instagrammers can’t be wrong. Right?


When you’re questioning the ethics of avocados
Avocados and vegans go together like peas in a pod. But the plant-based community was recently rocked by claims that the trendy, emoji-fied vegetables might not actually be all that vegan after all. It’s because avocado trees are pollinated by bees, meaning they’re technically animal by-products. Cue a fierce debate in the Time Out Abu Dhabi office, with a guacamole line drawn down the middle of the carpet between the two resident plant-eaters (one on #TeamAvo, the other on #TeamBee). Of course, everyone else just rolled their eyes.

When you can no longer look your luxury heels in the eye
We love shoes, but we also like not feeling guilty every time we slip on our footwear in the morning. You’ll find us stomping out of Stella McCartney’s Dubai boutique in our Dhs2,800 polyurethane boots.

When you’ve watched Earthlings
We can’t think about this one too much or else we’ll well up and need to dash home and hug our dog. Earthlings is a documentary about the way humans use animals for food, entertainment, clothing and science. You’ll never see the world in the same way again.

When you actually enjoy vegan cheese
French people, look away. At first it seems deeply unnatural to bite into something made of tofu or cashews that tastes like dairy goodness. But then you’ll quickly realise that you can enjoy those addictive savoury flavours without a single tug of an udder.

When you start salivating
while walking past a freshly composted allotment In The Sound of Music, Julie Andrews gleefully sings verse after verse about her love of schnitzels, cream-coloured ponies and warm woollen mittens. But that’s far too many animal by-products for our liking. Instead, we can’t get enough of the smell of fresh dirt. And where there’s dirt, there are vegetables. Bring on the carrots.


Connect with people who share your vegan philosophy by signing up to these local Facebook groups

Abu Dhabi Vegans
This friendly Facebook group more than delivers on its promise to provide healthy and positive vibes for everyone. If you’re looking to find out about vegan-friendly events, restaurants and promotions which are happening within the capital, then this is the place to come. You can also meet like-minded people, ask questions and find out about environmental clean-up activities and other such events.

Abu Dhabi Vegan
As well as providing a place to share recipes, news articles, ideas and great places to eat Vegan food in Abu Dhabi, this Facebook group also organises a variety of different events throughout the year. These include pizza, game and movie nights, and plenty of opportunities to make friends and discover more about veganism in the capital.

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