Postcard from Dubai, where shopping has no soul
Dubai was, for me, one of those places that held an almost mythical appeal. Never one to shy away from retail therapy in fairly healthy doses, I had imagined the Emirates jewel to be a heavenly oasis filled with cool, crisp shopping centres, stocking anything and everything you could possibly need. Okay, want.
There would be miles and miles of clothes, shoes and accessories ready to be snapped up by those eager to sate their consumerist urges. The odd sale, too, to tantalise the bargain hunter within, each store complete with kind and considerate multi-lingual assistants waiting to produce anything your heart desires in an instant.
Well, having arrived in Dubai for the first time recently I can confirm - I was 100 percent right.
But when I got to the fantastic shopping mecca of my dreams, something wasn’t quite right. And it took me a while to work out why.
For those who haven’t been, Dubai is home to the world’s biggest shopping malls, unfathomable in size and housing everything from supermarkets, jewellery stores and electronics megamarts, to the names that are synonymous with shopping: British department store chains like Harvey Nichols and Debehams, New York legends like Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdales, and the French equivalent Galleries Lafayette.
And that’s all before even looking at the smaller boutiques from across the world.
There’s not just one enormous shopping centre in this tiny Middle Eastern Emirate - there’s half a dozen, with one even housing indoor ski fields. Yep, they have snow in the desert.
So it’s fair to say that even the most addicted and dedicated shop-a-holics could gorge to the point of exhaustion here. It sort of defies belief. But it wasn’t until I wandered through the Mall of the Emirates on my last day in Dubai that I realised why it wasn’t quite the “heaven” I imagined.
The whole experience felt cheap and soulless.
In no way do I mean that to be a reflection on the country itself nor its inhabitants - but in the rush to cash in on this booming region over the past few years, the retail moguls appear to have erased an identity.
Across town at the gold and spice souks, which I also visited, there is still a whiff - albeit faint - of ancient Arabic culture, of the attitude and enthusiasm which made the region attractive in the first place.
There, spending money was exciting, with an old-world charm - good natured bartering is still expected and practised in earnest, making for an authentic experience dating back thousands of years.
But in the acres of fluro-lit malls, all that is lost.
As the region tries to shield itself against the remaining ripples of the global financial crisis, it’s the retailers who must surely feel the brunt.
That being said, it’s undoubtedly a great position for shoppers - and I admit to taking advantage of some good bargains.
But what’s next?
It seems the retail sector is living on borrowed time, desperately hoping the “boom” returns with gusto - but surely it won’t be long before the international chains cut their losses, pull down their sale signs, pull out their stock and leave these much-lauded malls half-empty.
It’s a scene not unfamiliar in other areas of Dubai - buildings are half-finished, constructions stalled as developers bust under the strain.
It’s enormously sad for a city that held such promise, and for a while dined out on the opulence it produced - to the world’s clearly audible applause.
But the financial greed to build and fuel the biggest experiment in consumerism hasn’t worked.
And while I never thought I’d say this - I’m not sorry. It’s kind of ugly.
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