AROMATIC TOBACCO smoke from hookas drifts in the late afternoon sky. Mist fans swirl, creating a cooling fog around the young couples and family groups crowding cafe terraces, sipping tea and coffee. Many of the younger women top their tight-fitting jeans with a simple hijab headscarf or go bareheaded, while young men swagger in cargo pants and baseball caps. Others are more traditional: the women are garbed in the all-enveloping chador and the men resplendent in white cotton thobe robes. It's modern Arab society in rest and recreation mode. Only, instead of Dubai, Manama or some other Middle Eastern city, the scene is being played out 6,000km to the east - in Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia has enjoyed an Arab tourism boom over the past four years, mostly concentrated in its capital. In part, that's due to the country's low crime rate and stable government. Its Muslim majority culture also offers a comforting familiarity, as well as greater halal food choices. But perhaps the biggest factor behind the surge in Middle Eastern tourists was the September 11 attacks. In 2000, the year before the al-Qaeda strikes altered the geo-political landscape, Malaysia attracted a mere 53,370 visitors from the Middle East. This year, the number has risen to more than 200,000. Although no one is willing to go on record attributing this increase to September 11, there's evidence suggesting a direct correlation. Whatever the truth, the perception among many Arabs is that they're no longer welcome in many western countries. Malaysia's newspapers carry accounts from Arab tourists of women wearing the hijab being treated with suspicion and scorn in the west. Many say that immigration procedures seem to have been designed to exclude them. It's a gap that Malaysia is only too happy to fill. Its tourism authority has sensed the opportunity and doubled promotional activities in the Middle East and Gulf states. The country's cultural ties with the Middle East date back to the 13th century, when Persian traders brought the influence of Islam. The Malay language was written in Arabic script until European colonialists imposed the Latin alphabet in the 16th century. Some Malaysian families, such as the Bamadhaj clan, trace their roots to Syria. Arabic words pepper the language, including the traditional Salaam greeting, and Middle Eastern influences are noticeable even in Malay pop music. Politically and economically, Malaysia is broadly in sync with the Gulf states, being an oil producer and a member of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. At the same time, the government is a US ally in the so-called global struggle against violent extremism and a vocal critic of Washington on the issue of Israel and Palestine. Linked with Malaysia's relatively weak currency, an abundance of five-star accommodation and high-end malls that cater to the religious and food requirements of the Arab visitors, the attractions of Kuala Lumpur become clear. The Arab influx is nothing to be sneezed at. Malaysia earned M$29.6 billion ($61 billion) from tourism last year. Middle Eastern tourists still account for a tiny portion of the 15 million people who visit annually, but they come with huge wallets. Each spends about M$6,000 per trip, more than triple the average visitor's spending of M$1,800. Given those rates, this year's 200,000 Arab tourists brought M$1.2 billion to the country. They may not be among the top 10 arrivals to Malaysia, but in terms of spending power they're the top, says Tourism Malaysia's regional director for the Middle East, Rosman Ahmad. Businesses in Kuala Lumpur have become more open to Arab tourists. Shops and cafes print menus and signs in Arabic and hire Arabic-speaking staff. Arab, Mediterranean and North African restaurants proliferate along Jalan Bukit Bintang, a major shopping strip . For the hotels, it's been a bonanza. At the Westin, Arab guests account for as much as 20 per cent of occupancy in the peak months of July and August, when wealthy families flee stifling summer heat. Hilton KL sales director Manimaran Marimuthu says the hotel has to draft colleagues from its hotel in Mecca to help during this busy period. 'It's usually the norm for our Middle-Eastern clientele to travel with the family and spend at least two to three weeks in one area,' says Manimaran. For most, this means Kuala Lumpur. This is in contrast to western tourists, who tend to treat the capital as a stop-over on their way to the beaches of Langkawi island and the East Coast. It's no surprise that Kuala Lumpur's City Hall has been investing in infrastructure to accommodate its high-rolling guests. Together with the Tourism Board, it's developed the M$1 million Ain Arabia (Arab Square) in a section of Bukit Bintang once known for prostitution and drug addicts. Surrounded by shady banyan trees and benches, the square features a fountain shaped as a teapot, and is flanked by Arab-owned hotels, restaurants and shops. But public opinion is divided over efforts to boost Middle Eastern tourism. Documentary director Haanim Bamadhaj sees no problem in creating facilities such as Ain Arabia. 'This group is different form other tourists. They want familiarity,' he says. 'So if we jazz up our Asian-ness for other tourists, we can provide a little piece of home for others.' But the project has stirred considerable resentment among residents in the previously neglected neighbourhood, which had been predominantly ethnic Chinese. Rakesh, an events manager, says that visitors from the Middle East are often rude. 'If anything, I think they make Malaysia a less cosmopolitan place,' he says. Privately, many in the hospitality industry describe Arab tourists as demanding and difficult. Others, such as expatriate Luke Elliott, say that conservatively dressed Arabs put off other tourists and help to fuel fundamentalist feeling within Malaysia's Islamic community. Current affairs commentator Muna Noor says tourism authorities should take a more down-to-earth approach. 'Rather than build specific sites for Middle Eastern tourists we'd be doing the tourist trade a bigger service by building better pavements, keeping cleaner toilets, linking our transport system, promoting our tourist sites and teaching our own citizens to be more courteous and civic minded.'