A shopper's guide to Dubai

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Dubai loves to shop. The city has just about perfected the art of the mall, which is the de facto air-conditioned 'town commons', the place to go with the family, hang out with friends and take in some entertainment. So what kind of goods should you look for? We've got the lowdown.

But before we go shopping, just a quick note. When people talk about Dubai being tax-free, they’re referring to personal income tax on wages. There are, however, import duties. If you’re shopping for mid- and low-cost goods, depending on your home currency, you may not see much difference. But you will notice the difference on luxury goods. If you’re in the market for, say, a new Rolex, you’ll save a bundle in Dubai. Otherwise don’t be lulled by the tax-free promise!

Carpets

Dubai is a carpet lover’s paradise. Fine Persian carpets, colourful Turkish and Kurdish kilims, and rough-knotted Bedouin rugs are all widely available. Dubai has a reputation in the region for having the highest-quality carpets at the best prices. Bargaining is the norm.

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A rug’s quality depends entirely on how the wool was processed. It doesn’t matter if the rug was hand-knotted if the wool is lousy. The best comes from sheep at high altitudes, which produce impenetrably thick, long-staple fleece, heavy with lanolin. No acids should ever be applied; otherwise the lanolin washes away. Lanolin yields naturally stain-resistant, lustrous fibre that doesn’t shed. The dye should be vegetal-based pigment. This guarantees saturated, rich colour tones with a depth and vibrancy unattainable with chemicals. The dyed wool is hand-spun into thread, which by nature has occasional lumps and challenges the craftsmanship of the weavers, forcing them to compensate for the lumps by occasionally changing the shape, size or position of a knot. These subtle variations in a finished carpet’s pattern – visible only upon close inspection – give the carpet its character, and actually make the rug more valuable.

Dealers will hype knot density, weave quality and country of origin, but really, they don’t matter. The crucial thing to find out is how the wool was treated. A rug made with acid-treated wool will never look as good as it did the day you bought it. Conversely, a properly made rug will grow more lustrous in colour over time and will last centuries. Here’s a quick test. Stand atop the rug with rubber-soled shoes and do the twist. Grind the fibres underfoot. If they shed, it’s lousy wool. You can also spill water onto the rug. See how fast it absorbs. Ideally it should puddle for an instant, indicating a high presence of lanolin. Best of all, red wine will not stain lanolin-rich wool. Look through books before you leave home to get a sense of what you like. Once in the stores, plan to linger long with dealers, slowly sipping tea while they unfurl dozens of carpets. The process is great fun. Just don’t get too enthusiastic or the dealer won’t as readily bargain.

Gold

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Assuming you don’t buy at its peak, you’ll feel smug once it’s valued back home.

Khanjars

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Image by martijn.munneke

Visit the Al-Ain camel market or the bullfights at Fujairah and you’ll see old Emirati men wearing khanjars (traditional curved daggers) over their dishdashas (men’s shirt-dresses). Traditionally, khanjar handles were made from rhino horn; today, they are often made of wood. Regular khanjars have two rings where the belt is attached, and their scabbards are decorated with thin silver wire. The intricacy of the wire-thread pattern and its workmanship determine value.

Sayidi khanjars have five rings and are often covered entirely in silver sheet, with little or no wire, and their quality is assessed by weight and craftsmanship. A khanjar ought to feel heavy when you pick it up. Don’t believe anyone who tells you a specific khanjar is ‘very old’ – few will be more than 30 to 40 years old.

Perfume

No tax means French brands are cheaper than in Paris, but check the packaging to make sure they’re authentic. With Arabian attars (perfumes) you can be confident no other woman in the room will be wearing the same scent. Shopping for perfume can wear out your sense of smell. If you’re in the market for Arabian scents, do what top perfumiers do to neutralise their olfactory palate: close your mouth and make three forceful exhalations through your nose. Blast the air hard, in short bursts, using your diaphragm.

Pashminas

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Fakes are found all over the world, but in Dubai you’ll find bargains on real, silky-soft 100% pashmina shawls.Women around the world adore pashminas, those feather-light cashmere shawls worn by the Middle East’s best-dressed ladies. If you’re shopping for a girlfriend or your mother, you can never go wrong with a pashmina. They come in hundreds of colours and styles, some beaded and embroidered, others with pompom edging – you’ll have no trouble finding one you like.

But aside from setting it alight to make sure it doesn’t melt (as polyester does), how can you be sure it’s real? Here’s the trick. Hold the fabric at its corner. Loop your index finger around it and squeeze hard. Now pull the fabric through. If it’s polyester, it won’t budge. If it’s cashmere, it’ll pull through – though the friction may give you a mild case of rope burn. Try it at home with a thin piece of polyester before you hit the shops; then try it with cashmere. You’ll never be fooled again.

Bateel dates

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The de rigeur gift for any proper gourmet, Bateel dates are the ultimate luxury food of Arabia. At first glance, Bateel looks like a jewellery store, with polished-glass display cases and halogen pin spots illuminating the goods. A closer look reveals perfectly aligned pyramids of dates – thousands of them. Bateel plays to its audience with gorgeous packaging that might leave the recipient of your gift expecting gold or silver within: the fancy boxes of lacquered hardwood are worth far more than their contents. Alas, they’re manufactured in China, but not the dates. These come from Saudi Arabia, which has the ideal growing conditions: sandy, alkaline soil and extreme heat. Quality control is tight: Bateel has its own farms and production equipment. The dates sold here are big and fat, with gooey-moist centers.

Because they have a 70% sugar content, dates technically have unlimited shelf life, but you’ll find they taste best around the autumn harvest. If agwa dates are available during your visit, buy them – you may not have another opportunity. Agwa trees only yield every few years, so they’re considered a delicacy. Look for them in September; other varieties arrive in November.

Supermarket souvenirs

Happiness is shopping at Spinneys, Carrefour and Choithram – the shelves are positively packed with international foodstuffs. Here are a few favourites.

1. Cardamon-flavoured condensed milk. Worth weighing down the luggage for, this provides a taste of Arabia when you return home. Great in coffee.

2. Natco rose syrup. Wow your dinner-party guests by pouring rose syrup over sorbet or vanilla ice cream.

3. Saffron. You won’t find cheaper back home. Soak it in hot cooking water or broth to extract its aroma before adding it to the pot.

4. Zaatar and sumac

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Add zaatar (a blend of thyme, sesame, marjoram and oregano) to your soups, salads or stews; add sumac (a spice with a lemony taste that’s added to salads, hummus, kebabs and other Middle Eastern dishes) and lemon to a chopped salad to remind you of some of the fabulous Lebanese meals you ate in Dubai.

This is an excerpt from the Shopping chapter of Lonely Planet's guide to Dubai.