Health tourism is a booming business in Germany. One in five medical tourists choose to visit clinics in Bad Godesberg, just south of Bonn. The town is especially popular with patients from the Middle East.
The Elisees Clinic attracts patients from the Middle East
Once upon a time when Bonn was the capital of West Germany, the nearby town of Bad Godesberg was home to many diplomats - almost all the ambassadors' residences were located there.
Today Bad Godesberg has become a magnet for Arabs, not due to its diplomatic history, but for the healthcare services it offers. The Elisees Clinic, in particular, has gained a shining reputation in the Arab world.
Recently, Sheik Abdulrahman al Muftah from Qatar set up an appointment at the clinic for 9 o'clock. But it was just before 10:30 that his car turned the corner - a simple blue VW family van. Not exactly the kind of vehicle the medical staff expects a Middle Eastern sheik to arrive in.
Sheik Abdulrahman al Mufti says German clinics have a good reputation
A rather squat gentlemen gets out of the car, followed by his wife, dressed in a black burqa. The sheik isn't wearing a caftan, since in Germany he dresses to fit in. Today he's sporting beige Bermuda shorts and white socks with sandals. He warmly shakes the hands of everyone present.
"I'm sorry, I knew nothing about an appointment at 9 o'clock," he jokes while saying hello to the chief surgeon, Natalia Brenner.
Brenner waves the couple inside, smiling to herself - she knows the drill. The clinic sees about 3,000 patients a year from the Middle East, and during that time, she's learned a lot about interacting with people from this part of the world.
"Arab patients are a special clientele. They are nice and kind, but they have their ways," she says. "For example, they always come late for appointments and then they usually take over our entire clinic."
Brenner has also learned that women from the Arab world are not introduced by their own names, and that the price for an operation is often considered negotiable. While she's gotten used to most customs, there's one she still has a hard time with.
Chief surgeon Natalia Brenner has gotten used to most Arab customs
"The role of women, that's something I still don't understand," she says. "It is still strange for me to see that men make the decisions for Arab women."
Sheik Abdulrahman is no exception. While his wife, sitting in an examination chair, might be the one about to undergo an operation, he's the one who will have the final say.
Brenner points to an ultrasound image and explains the details of the operation that will treat his wife's varicose veins. During the discussion, which takes place through an interpreter because the sheik doesn't speak or understand German, his wife carefully watches her husband's reactions.
Despite the language barrier, comprehension is not a problem today in the Elisee Clinic. Nadhmi Nefzi, a young man who follows the sheikh around like a shadow, is responsible for the interpreting at the clinic - he's the clinic's personal assistant. He is dressed in a neat shirt, has carefully parted hair and is the model of discretion.
The young man translates the discussion into Arabic, taking special care with the many medical terms. Sheik Abdulrahman nods and looks at Dr Brenner - she can operate on his wife now. He's going to take a stroll through the city with Nefzi.
Known for its health care
These kinds of health trips, the sheik says, cost a lot of money. But as a professor of marine biology and a bank owner, he can afford it. He's been coming to Germany for over 20 years; recently, always to Bad Godesberg.
The sheik explains that the town's clinics have acquired glowing reputations in the Arab world.
The whole family comes on these health trips
"In the meantime, I've gotten to know many doctors here," he laughs. "I've become friends with a lot of them and even get special treatment."
The doctors in Bad Godesberg are even recommended by the health section of the Qatari embassy. That's common in Arab countries, he says, strolling along the storefront windows of the city.
Tailored to a new clientele
A little while ago, Munich was considered the place to go for medical care, but Bad Godesberg has knocked the Bavarians off their perch, especially since many clinics here have tailored their services to a Middle Eastern clientele.
"And it's quiet and safe and my family feels at home because there are so many other Arabs here," referring to those with diplomatic ties who did not move to Berlin when the German government shifted capitals.
The sheik points to signs on local shops - the pharmacy, a jewelry store, a café and a souvenir shop - written in Arabic. Personal assistant Nefzi nods. In addition to his translation duties he is also charged with making appointments to see high-end apartments. Arabs can be very discerning, he says.
"It's very important that the environment is clean and that the apartment is representative of Germany," Nefzi says. "They want to have something to talk about back home."
Most health-related visitors from the Middle East choose not to stay in hotels. They consider the rooms impersonal and prefer to be able to prepare their own food.
Once the stroll around town is done, the sheik returns to the clinic and waits for his wife to be released from the operating room. The doctors report the procedure went well.
Now it's time to go shopping, but not in Bad Godesberg. The family will have to head over to the bigger cities of Cologne or Dusseldorf, where they can visit shops with a selection of Middle Eastern foods wide enough to fit their discerning tastes.
Author: Miriam Klaussner/jam
Editor: Sam Edmonds