Shopping is a favourite pastime in Dubai, which boasts not only the world's largest mall but also shopping centres that resemble ancient Egypt or an Italian village and feature ski slopes, ice rinks and giant aquariums. Souqs provide more traditional flair, and a growing crop of urban outdoor malls, indie boutiques and galleries beckon as well.
Where to Shop
Dubai has just about perfected the art of the mall, which is the de facto 'town plaza': the place to go with friends and family to hang out, eat and be entertained as well as shop. Most are air-conditioned mega-malls anchored by big department stores such as Bloomingdale's or Galeries Lafayette and filled with regional and international chains, from high-street retailers to couture fashion labels. Almost all have at least one large supermarket like Carrefour, Spinneys or Waitrose.
A recent fad has seen the arrival of urban outdoor malls like BoxPark in Jumeirah and City Walk near Downtown Dubai, with a smaller selection of stores calibrated to the needs and tastes of neighbourhood residents. There's also a growing number of indie designer boutiques, especially along Jumeirah Rd, as well as a bustling monthly flea market. Small Indian- or Asian-run department stores are great for picking up bargain basics.
If you're looking for local character, head to the souqs in Bur Dubai and Deira. In these colourful, cacophonous warrens you can pick up everything from a gram of saffron to an ounce of gold, usually at good prices. It helps to sharpen your haggling skills. You may also be tempted by touts trying to sell knock-off designer perfumes and handbags – it's up to you to ignore them or accept their offer. Prices are usually fixed in modern souqs, such as Souk Madinat Jumeirah. Echoing an Arabian Nights set, they're filled with tourist-geared souvenirs of varying quality.
What to Buy
Bedouin jewellery is a brilliant buy and, given the steady popularity of boho-ethnic chic, makes a great gift. Look for elaborate silver necklaces and pendants, chunky earrings and rings, and wedding belts, many of which incorporate coral, turquoise and semiprecious stones. Very little of the older Bedouin jewellery comes from the Emirates; most of it originates in Oman, Yemen and Afghanistan; cheaper stuff usually hails from India.
These feather-light shawls handmade by weavers in Kashmir from genuine pashmina (goat hair) are a quality souvenir. They come in so many colours and styles – some beaded and embroidered, others with pompom edging – you’ll have no trouble finding one you like. If you can't afford the genuine thing, don't fret: the machine-made ones are almost as pretty.
Pashmina: Telling Real from Fake
Pashmina shawls come in all sorts of wonderful colours and patterns. Originally made from feather-light cashmere, there are now many cheaper machine-made synthetic versions around. Before forking over hundreds of dirham, how can you make sure you're buying the real thing? 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 and then try it with cashmere. You’ll never be fooled again.
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. If you can’t secure the price you want, head to another shop. When you buy a carpet, make sure you are given a Certificate of Authentication issued by the Dubai Chamber of Commerce & Industry.
A Primer on Carpet Buying
Due diligence is essential for prospective carpet buyers. Though you may only want a piece to match your curtains, you’ll save a lot of time and money if you do a little homework. Your first order of business: read Oriental Rugs Today by Emmett Eiland, an excellent primer on buying new Oriental rugs.
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 vegetable-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 on top of the rug with rubber-soled shoes and do the twist. Grind the fibres underfoot. If they shed, it’s lousy wool.
If you want a gorgeous pattern that will look great in your living room, pack a few fabric swatches from your sofa and curtains. Patterns range from simple four-colour tribal designs in wool to wildly ornate, lustrous, multicoloured silk carpets that shimmer under the light. Look through books before you leave home to get a sense of what you like. Once in the stores, plan to linger a long time 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 bargain as readily.
If you’re serious about becoming a collector, read Emmett Eiland’s book; also Google ‘DOBAG’, a Turkish-rug-making cultural-survival project, and check out www.yayla.com for other reliable background info. Follow links to nonprofit organisations that not only help reconstruct rug-making cultures threatened by modernisation, but also help to educate, house and feed the people of these cultures, giving them a voice in an age of industrial domination.
Arabian Handicrafts & Souvenirs
Arabian handicrafts are as popular with visitors as carpets, gold and perfume. The arabesque decor of top-end hotels and restaurants seems to inspire travellers to pack away little pieces of exotica to recreate their own little genie bottles back home. Head to the souqs for Moroccan coloured lanterns, Syrian rosewood furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl, brass coffee pots, Turkish miniature paintings, and embroidered Indian wall hangings and cushion covers dotted with tiny mirrors.
Perfume & Incense
Attars (Arabian perfumes) are spicy and strong. Historically, this was a necessity: with precious little water, washing was a sometimes-thing, so women smothered themselves in attars and incense. You can find Arabian perfume shops in all Dubai’s malls as well as in the Perfume Souq: a couple of Deira roads (Sikkat Al Khail and Al Soor) with a fairly high density of perfume stores.
Shopping for perfume can wear out your sense of smell. If you’re in the market for Arabian scents, do what top perfumers 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. Blowing your nose first is probably a wise idea… Some people incorrectly say to smell coffee grounds, but all this practice does is numb your sense of smell.
Fragrant Iranian saffron likely costs far less here than it does back home. Buy it in the souqs or in supermarkets. Honey from Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Oman is scrumptious and can be found in speciality shops, the malls, the Spice Souq and in supermarkets. Its colour ranges from light gold to almost black. Camel-milk chocolate is a genuine home-grown Dubai delicacy, and many a chocoholic has praised its creamy, rich flavour.
Vendors at Bur Dubai Souq and adjacent lanes carry vibrant, colourful textiles from India and South Asia. They’re fairly inexpensive, but quality varies. Silk, cotton and linen represent the best value. If you're no good at sewing, ask for a referral to a tailor. Dubai’s tailors work quickly, and their rates are very reasonable.
If it plugs into a wall, you can buy it in Dubai. Because of minimal duties, Dubai is the cheapest place in the region to buy electronics and digital technology. The selection is huge. For the lowest prices and no-name brands, head to Al Fahidi St in Bur Dubai and the area around Al Sabkha Rd and Al Maktoum Hospital Rd, near Baniyas Sq, known as the Electronics Souq. If you want an international warranty, shell out the extra money and head to a mall or Jumbo Electronics.
Gold & Gems
Dubai’s glistening reputation as the 'City of Gold' grows from low prices and the sheer breadth of stock. There are a whopping 700 jewellery shops around town, including nearly 300 at the Gold Souq and about 90 at the Gold & Diamond Park.
With new galleries springing up all the time and the scene becoming increasingly diverse, it's easier than ever to snap up a piece of original art created by a local or regional artist, especially since prices are still very reasonable. Nose around the cutting-edge spaces at Dubai's Alserkal Avenue or check out the more established players in Gate Village at the Dubai International Finance Centre (DIFC).
Dates are the ultimate luxury food of Arabia. The best ones come from Saudi Arabia, which has the ideal growing conditions: sandy, alkaline soil and extreme heat. Look for dates that are big and fat, with gooey-moist centres. Because they have a 70% sugar content, dates technically have a very long shelf life, but you’ll find they taste best around the autumn harvest. A major purveyor of quality dates is Bateel, whose boutiques look like jewellery stores. For better prices, a huge range and good quality, head to the public produce market in Deira (next to the Waterfront Market).
The quintessential kitsch souvenir used to be a mosque clock with a call-to-prayer alarm. Now the souqs and souvenir shops overflow with wacky, kitsch gifts – glass Burj Al Arab paperweights, Russian nesting dolls in Emirati national dress, key rings strung with miniature towers, camel-crossing-sign fridge magnets, and coffee mugs and baseball caps with Sheikh Zayed or Sheikh Mohammed waving to the crowd.
Dubai’s Shopping Festivals
Every year in January, the month-long Dubai Shopping Festival draws hordes of bargain-hunting tourists from around the world. This is a good time to visit Dubai: in addition to the huge discounts in the souqs and malls, the weather is usually gorgeous and the city is abuzz. Outdoor souqs, amusement rides and food stalls are set up in many neighbourhoods. There are traditional performances and family entertainment across the city, plus concerts, fireworks and events in the parks.
Dubai Summer Surprises, a related event, is held during the unbearably hot months of July and August; it mainly attracts visitors from other Gulf countries. Insider tip: for the best bargains at either festival, come during the last week, when retailers slash prices even further to clear out their inventory.
Henna body tattooing is a long-standing tradition dating back 6000 years, when women in central Turkey began painting their hands in homage to the Mother Goddess. The practice spread throughout the eastern Mediterranean, where the henna shrub grows wild. Today, Emirati women continue the tradition by decorating their hands, nails and feet for special events, particularly weddings. A few nights before the nuptials, brides-to-be are honoured with layyat al henna (henna night). This is a women-only affair, part of a week of festivities leading up to the big day. The bride is scrubbed down, anointed head-to-toe with perfumes and oils, and shampooed with henna, jasmine or perfume. Her hands, wrists, ankles and feet are then tattooed with intricate floral designs, which typically last around six weeks. Lore has it that the duration of the tattoos is an indication to the mother-in-law of what kind of wife the bride will become. If she’s a hard worker – and thus a more desirable daughter-in-law – the henna will penetrate deeper and remain longer.
Need to Know
- Malls are open from 10am to 10pm Saturday to Wednesday and until 11pm or midnight on Thursday and Friday (weekends).
- Malls get especially packed on Thursday night, Friday afternoon and on Saturdays.
- Souqs close from 1pm to 4pm for prayer, lunch and rest.
- Some supermarkets are open 24 hours.
- www.littlemajlis.com Specialises in handmade and artisanal items from around the region.
- www.souq.com A local version of eBay, now owned by Amazon, with some top bargains and plenty of variety.
- https://en-ae.namshi.com Plenty of affordable fashion for all ages here.