Munich in English - selected by independent Locals for Cosmopolitans, Newcomers and Residents - since 1989

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October 2003

Getting the Treatment

Why Munich is currently so popular with Middle Eastern visitors

So you think they’re here on vacation, in Europe for a spot of shopping or to escape the heat of Riyadh or Qatar for a few weeks? Certainly, the ladies stand out, incongruous for us in their head-to-toe black among the brightly dressed shoppers on Maximilian Strasse. Yet if you thought the sudden influx of Middle Eastern visitors that many of us have noticed was simply due to Munich’s popularity as a tourist destination you would be wrong. Many of them are here for less congenial reasons: they are in the city to receive medical treatment.

One of the side effects of September 11 is that it has become difficult, often even impossible for anyone from an Arab state to get a visa for the United States—and those who are prepared to try have to undergo invasive interviews and degrading background checks, not to mention strict security controls at airports. Furthermore, anti-American feelings are on the increase in the Middle East so, while for many years the United States was the premier destination for Saudis or Kuwaitis seeking medical treatment, Germany now offers an acceptable alternative. Indeed, with more than 2,000 acute-hospitals and some of the world’s most renowned specialists in many branches of medicine, Germany has, over recent years, gained an excellent reputation for its health care, around the world.

A recent article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung estimated that more than 700 Arab patients would come to Munich this year alone. There are even companies, such as Fürth-based German Health GmbH that have a branch at the Universitätsklinikum Grosshadern, and Cologne-based GerMedic GmbH, which specialize in organizing medical trips to Germany for wealthy Arab clients. German Health will, for example, establish contact between patients and doctors, take care of travel arrangements, collect clients from the airport, find suitable accommodation, make sure that there is a translator present when a German doctor makes an examination, facilitate payments to clinics and even organize shopping and sightseeing trips.

While France, Italy and Spain also have seen such an increase of Middle Eastern patients in their hospitals, most come to Germany, whose health care is considered to be on a par with that of the US, but with lower medical treatment costs. Not that costs play a role for all these visitors. Wealthy Saudi businessmen and sheiks have been known to rent whole floors in Munich’s best hotels, and arriving with a huge entourage of family and employees, travel from hotel to hospital in chauffeur-driven limousines. German Health even has its own reception desk at the Klinikum Grosshadern, ensuring that their clients are immediately directed to the right physician or department. Despite all this convenience, for many Arabs coming to Germany as a patient must be an alienating experience —trying to re-create a home for a few months in a rented apartment while undergoing grueling treatment for, say, cancer or a heart condition. For German doctors, on the other hand their Arab patients are often a welcomed source of additional income. The aforementioned article in the Süddeutsche, published in June, describes how Walter Land, who carries out transplantation surgery at the Klinikum Grosshadern, suddenly disappeared for more than two weeks. He had traveled to Abu Dhabi to carry out a kidney transplant on a member of the ruling family there.

Political events will determine whether this trend continues, but in the meantime Munich is earning a pretty penny from its Middle Eastern guests.

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