It’s a hot, blue-skied Saturday morning, and the gravelly car parks around Dubai Festival City Arena are filling up.
But it is not the usual corporate crowd here for a tradeshow; instead, a group of brightly festooned new-agers is gathering – as are Insta-glam entrepreneurs in designer threads, along with more traditionally attired Arabs who have flown in specially from the likes of Oman, Qatar, and Jordan.
This is the Mindvalley event – the first in the Middle East – and despite a ticket price of $499 ($899 for VIPs), the two-day personal growth festival is heaving.
“I am here more out of curiosity than anything else,” Canadian expat Annie Meikle tells me at a registration stand. As a digital agency director living in Dubai, she hopes the weekend will teach her some useful skills for powering up her business.
“I’m really into a positive mindset, but the UAE hasn’t had events like this before, so I wanted to check it out.”
The assembling crowd certainly seems excited to see the line-up of speakers, including hypnotherapist to the stars Marissa Peer (gamely mounting the stage with a broken leg in a cast), leading business coach Ajit Nawalkha, and motivational speaker Lisa Nichols (as seen on Oprah) who will later bring a touch of Baptist church style fever to proceedings.
ON AN UPWARD TRAJECTORY
There is no doubt from the moneyed mix of CEOs and startup founders we chat with that this is a lucrative industry on an upward trajectory.
According to a recent report by Grand View research, the global personal development market size was valued at $41.81 billion in 2021 and is anticipated to expand at a CAGR of 5.5% from 2022 to 2030.
In the aftermath of the pandemic, many regional workplaces have begun focusing more on employee wellness as not only the right thing to do, but to potentially help with staff retention – especially with the ongoing Great Resignation trend seen globally.
Aside from job dissatisfaction, mental exhaustion is driving employees out the door, according to a report by the UAE National Program for Happiness & Wellbeing, stating burnout as being a key issue for the private sector to deal with.
This situation has been a driver for the rise in new corporate initiatives such as Hilton’s Thrive Mental Wellness Hub, a free platform for the hotelier’s employees offering scores of mental health and wellness resources as well as training and coaching for managers and leaders.
The Mindvalley team has seen how the wellness winds are blowing in the region. A few weeks before the Dubai event, Olla Abbas, who heads the MENA arm, told us why they were now choosing to hold a UAE event.
“The number one goal is to grow the community here organically; to reach the people looking for this kind of education and desire to level up in their life and business. Many didn’t know where to go or what to study, but it’s like coming home when they discover us. We currently have 2,000 members in the UAE alone, without doing hardly any marketing.”
Abbas confirmed that after the Dubai event, this year, they plan to expand into other key Middle Eastern markets such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
A WIDER ACCEPTANCE
Someone uniquely positioned to comment on the sudden boom in the regional personal growth industry is wellbeing expert and human relations mentor Nancy Zabaneh, an early pioneer of physical and spiritual fitness in the Arab world and the first Kundalini yoga teacher trainer in the Gulf.
She says that although these kinds of esoteric activities were once viewed as haram (forbidden) in Islamic countries, that has ebbed away.
“Once upon a time, Dubai had only three yoga studios and limited centers for fitness; nowadays, it feels like there is a center on every block,” she says. “When countries like Saudi Arabia start rolling out wellbeing festivals in the once hidden AlUla and yoga in universities, this is bound to have a knock-on effect.”
She added: “With tolerance also now high on the UAE’s agenda, and more access to education around the benefits of holistic health tools, I believe that over time there will be even less stigma and a wider acceptance that yogic teachings and Eastern philosophical practices are not in conflict with Islam, but highly complementary.”
Asked what she thought of the recent arrival of events like Mindvalley – not to mention Tony Robbins, who was on stage a couple of years back at Dubai’s Coca Cola Arena (VIP ticket prices for that one-night event came in at $5,444) and is rumored to be returning soon, Zabaneh, although pleased at the momentum, warned against encouraging a “spiritual marketplace.”
“Many well-being businesses, attracted to the deeper pockets in the Gulf, may stop at nothing to serve the interests of a growing community at the expense of authenticity and integrity,” she said.
“I expect that with more diversity in supply, there will be a higher risk of abuse if certain practices and wellbeing platforms remain only partially regulated. Fast food spirituality means that suddenly everyone can claim expertise, and opportunism is bound to flourish.”
She urged people to do proper background checks before signing up for courses or attending a new class.
One homegrown Dubai facility that has already established a successful wellness space is Seva Experience, previously Life N One. This yoga and meditation studio’s vegan cafe offers workshops and private sessions “spanning emotional and physical bodywork, family and relationships therapy, energetic treatments, and astrology readings.”
The company’s website says the team there has grown from seven people during the pandemic to nearly 40 full-time staff – another indicator of how the incense-scented winds are blowing.
Speaking about the rise in acceptance of wellness practices – such as certain types of yoga or hypnotherapy – in Middle East countries, Asma Saeed Al Hamiz al Suwaidi, Founder of Art of Being, an integrative emotional wellness platform, said that in the past, some traditional regional cultures had dismissed these practices as “new age” with no solid basis.
“However, this has changed significantly over the last five years with the increase in research and leading universities around the world teaching on topics such as the bridge between science and spirituality,” she explained.
“People have become more aware of the scientifically backed research that proves the mental and emotional benefits of things like yoga and mindfulness. These practices focus on the deeper connection with oneself and don’t interfere with the faith of those who practice them.”
This growing sentiment is borne out by a recent move in Saudi Arabia to stretch yoga across the country’s major universities.
“Yoga gives its practitioners many health benefits for both physical and mental well-being. One of the most important pillars of achieving Vision 2030 is to enhance participation in sports activities and to achieve sports excellence locally, continentally, and internationally,” Saudi Yoga Committee President Nouf Al-Marwaai recently told the local media.
KSA’s well-being festival scene is also expanding, boosted by the popularity of the three-week-long AlUla Wellness Festival in one of the kingdom’s most picturesque regions. The upcoming edition in September is already a hot ticket, featuring everything from yoga and meditation to sound healing and esoteric workshops.
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