View of part of the Fujairah Corniche and the Hajar Mountains in the Background

Sunday, April 8, 2007

UAE Malls: Shopping the Emirates

The New Oil
The United Arab Emirates and Dubai in particular, is fast becoming the shopping capital of the world. With an eye to the long term decline in oil production the UAE government is banking on the retail industry for a major source of income. Anji Shalhoub, President and Manager of Etoile Collection, has said that, “The new black gold discovered in Dubai is the retail business.”

Appetite for Malls
Some critics suggest that the UAE is one giant mall but the projections reflect an enormous appetite for malls and retail outlets. I heard of an Australian woman who visits Dubai once a year to stock up her wardrobe. I met an American woman in Florence who spends a week in Dubai each May enjoying a ‘shopping holiday’. People must be serious shoppers to travel such long distances to shop for clothes but for many visitors to the UAE, shopping is also accompanied with rest and recreational pursuits.

Shopping Projections
The Mall of the Emirates was recently (March 30, 2007) named ‘Retail Destination of the Year’ at the World Retail Awards in Barcelona. With its 440 international retail brands, 75 cafes and restaurants, one of the largest indoor ski slopes, a five star Alpine style hotel and a 7,000 capacity car lot, this mall is expecting 30 million visitors each year. This mall is already the largest mall outside North America.

And it doesn’t stop there. It is projected that 75% of the new shopping malls planned in the Gulf region will be located in Dubai.

The Mall of Arabia (part of the City of Arabia) is due to open in 2008 and with its 10 million square feet area, 1,000 outlets, 10,000 car park capacity will be one of the world’s largest malls.

The largest mall in the world, the Dubai Mall, is billed to open in 2009 with 12 million+ square feet, 1,200 stores and 16,000 car spaces it is expecting 35 million visitors in its first year of operation. This Dh billion 2.6 project at the heart of the Burj Dubai will be the largest commercial centre in the UAE.

The list of shopping malls that are under construction or still on the drawing board include, the City of Arabia, Dubai Land, Dubai Festival City (Ikea, the UAE’s largest retail outlet has already opened here), Dubai Outlet City, Burj Dubai Complex, Dubai Pearl Complex and The Walk at Jumeirah Beach residence.

Whereas in early 2005 the total area of shopping centres in Dubai occupied 7 million square feet, the upcoming projects will increase the total area to 45.6 million square feet by 2010 (double that of the US in terms of the ratio of shopping centre area to the residential population).

Upon completion the big quartet—Dubai’s Mall of Arabia, the Dubai Mall, the Mall of the Emirates and the Ibn Battuta Mall will be among the largest malls in the world.

Spending Projections
One begins to wonder when the UAE will reach shopping mall saturation but, according to retail International, the total value of retail (this includes retail outlets beyond the malls) spent in Dubai is expected to reach $7.6 billion in 2009 and Abu Dhabi’s retail spending will reach $1.9 billion. The total retail spending in the UAE will reach almost $10.2 billion per year by 2009.

Shopping Mall Styles
Someone has said that if you’ve seen one shopping mall, you’ve seen them all. This may be true of the labels and many of the products but the design and infrastructure of some of the new malls are quite distinctive.

The creators of the Ibn Battuta Mall have worked hard to produce something different and beautiful. The inspiration of the design is based around the regions visited by the fourteenth century Moroccan explorer, Ibn Battuta. After studying to become a lawyer he believed that travel provided the best education so he clocked up 75,000 miles during his lifetime. His six travel destinations form the six sub-malls—China, India, Persia, Egypt, Tunisia and Andalusia.

This shopping complex is designed to give an education not just a shopping experience. Guided tours are offered and visitors can observe interesting replicas, including many items that Islamic scholars and engineers invented—the first camera, a water raising machine, an elephant clock, a Chinese junk, some time pieces and a compass.

A Home Away from Home
Information on the Ibn Battuta Shopping Mall reveals an insight into what all creators of shopping malls have in mind. It is billed as ‘a home away from home.’ Certainly in the UAE summer the malls, like a home, offer respite from the 50 degree heat. People can turn off their air conditioners at home and make a whole day of it at a mall. There are Kids’ Zones for the children, where they will be safe and occupied so shopping and spending can be accomplished without distraction. The steady inside temperatures and light mean that, as in casinos, shoppers lose all sense of time and keep on shopping. There are cafes where one can be refreshed, theatres where people can be entertained, a wide selection of fast food without having to cook, wireless cafes where people may stay in touch and do their business by phone and laptop.

Shopping Malls and That Something More
The design commentator, Ahmad Humeid, has suggested that shopping is the new religion and shopping malls are its cathedrals. “When one enters the [Ibn Battuta] Persia Hall,” Humeid says, “one cannot but stand in awe, dwarfed by the magnificence of its ornate, tiled dome. And that’s just the beginning of the (religious?) experience.”

From the time we leave our cars and enter the mall, the musak, the aroma, the colours and the architecture all combine to bring us to our senses and ready us for an inspirational experience.

Shopping is a communal ritual and the large masses can reinforce the rightness of what we are doing and the universality of what it is we seek. Our offerings are made and blessings are wrapped and received at the ring of a cash register. Transactions are celebrated with our fellow worshippers over a communion of muffins and cappuccino.

Our inner emptiness and urge to acquire get tangled with large, perfect images of the successful, famous and beautiful icons who represent the brands that will bless us and work the miracles for which we crave.

‘How was that for you?’ we ask as we bring our booty to the car. We feel blessed until our credit card statement arrives but the lure of the mall is strong and we’ll be back, on a regular day or during a special festival, for another spiritual experience.

Geoff Pound

Image: “One cannot but stand in awe, dwarfed by the magnificence of its ornate, tiled dome.” Ibn Battuta Mall, Persia arcade.

The statistics in this article are taken from the book, 1000 Numbers and Reasons Why Dubai. A review of this book can be found at Reviewing Books and Movies.