I am standing in a shopping mall. To my left, a realistically sculpted male mannequin is showing off a trendy pair of overly tight underwear, complete with bumps that leave nothing to the imagination. In front of me, a sign implores visitors to dress modestly to avoid offending local morés. Another sign gives directions: to the restrooms, the food court, the cinema, the prayer room. Downstairs, people are lining up to get on an indoor ski lift and ski — yes, ski — on artificial snow, even though the temperature outside is above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
It is, in a word, bizarre.
As a travel writer, that’s not a word I use often, but in Dubai it applies: It’s not a question of different cultural traditions, but rather, of uncomfortable, uncertain cultural collisions: east and west, traditional and modern, hip and medieval. Disconnects exist in New York, too, or Paris or London, or Bangkok, for that matter, but here it’s different.
In Your Bucket Because…
- You like turning a corner and being shocked at what you find.
- The prospect of high end luxury shopping with a middle eastern spice bazaar intrigues you.
- Good for: shoppers of all budgets, but especially lovers of gold jewelry.
In Dubai, I sat in on a presentation at a cultural center where an attractive young woman wearing the traditional black abaya shared local traditions (The advantage of an abaya for a female student, she said, was that you could just throw it over your pajamas and go to classes when you overslept). Our session was all about mutual understanding and tolerance, and the American men in our group cheerfully tried on Arabian style headgear. (Those thick black ropes that keep the flowing turbans in place? They are camel hobbles.)
Meanwhile, a British couple was in the process of being deported for allegedly kissing in public. Dubai seems like a place that doesn’t know what it is, and as I result, I don’t either.
From camel caravans and a nomadic desert culture, Dubai was catapulted into modernity with the discovery of oil in the mid 1960s. In a single generation, what was once a broad sweep of desolate sand-dunes populated by nomadic tribes became an architectural showcase and a bustling, booming international city with a Middle Eastern Wild West mentality.
Buildings designed by the world’s top architects tilt at improbable angles or twist in circles and spirals. Nothing seems impossible: The seven-star Burj al Arab luxury hotel is designed to look like a dhow riding full tilt with the wind, while the Burj Khalifa (for now, the world’s tallest building) spikes needlelike into the sky, its tower a dizzying 828 meters (2,717 feet) above the ground.
Tourists in search of Dubai souvenirs will find similar excess, from bustling gold and spice markets that take up whole city blocks to the Dubai Mall (the world’s largest) and the Mall of the Emirates, where Dubai shoppers can take a break from designer goods to go downhill skiing, indoors.
Dubai Shopping Malls
In some ways, Dubai shopping malls aren’t all that different from malls back home. And yet, there is that cultural disconnect: The nearly pornographic mannequin being ogled by a woman who just bought an abaya that covers her so thoroughly that you can barely see an inch of skin; the ski clothes in the desert; the familiar names of ubiquitous international brands sandwiched between a store selling Middle Eastern rugs and another selling kanduras (the robes worn by men). Not to mention the prayer rooms that discretely offer Muslims a chance to pray at the required times.
The Dubai Mall is the world’s largest shopping mall, based on its total square footage. Opened in 2008 with 600 shops, it boasted the largest mall opening in history. The mall is part of the 20 billion dollar Burj Khalifa complex. It now contains 1200 shops along with an ice skating rink, aquarium and a discovery center. Souvenir hunters should head to the first floor to the the Al Jabber gallery, which has a range of inexpensive souvenirs including hanging metal lamps, carvings (lots of camels), pictures of Dubai, and other trinkets.
The Dubai Mall may be bigger, but its ice skating rink pales in comparison to the main feature at the Mall of the Emirates: an indoor ski slope, complete with ski lifts, a quarter pipe, and the world’s first indoor black diamond slope. Beyond the ski slope, the mall looks like your basic U.S. mega-mall, with many of the same names you’d see in a U.S. mall.
You won’t find a lot of “good deals” here. The United Arab Emirates is an oil-rich country, and the designer items reflect an average per capita income that is, by many measures, higher than that in the United States. Expect international brands to sell at international prices.
Souvenir Shopping in Dubai’s Gold Market
Where you will find prices worth traveling for is in Dubai’s gold souk, reputed to have the lowest gold prices in the world, even though much of the gold is imported (tax-free) from Asia. 300 of Dubai’s approximately 600 gold shops are located in the gold souk in the neighborhood of Deira.
On a hot day, I walked into the darkened streets, grateful for the awnings overhead that provided shade. But even in the dimmed light, the shops gleamed and sparkled with overwhelming clutter. Thousands of necklaces, pendants, bracelets, rings, watches, and cufflinks (just to start the list) created a seeming wall of gold. Here, it seemed, all the precious metals of the Arabian peninsula were arranged on display, the gleaming gold attainable to anyone with a credit card and a five-figure credit limit.
Prices can be up to 40 percent lower than in the West, and there is no VAT on gold purchases. You can also have custom work done, if you have the time. The industry is fairly closely regulated, with posted prices usually based on weight (and purity, of course); design is less of a factor. Prices change daily with fluctuations in the price of gold. Haggling is a must. Indeed, feel free to leave, haggle with someone else, and play two sellers against each other. Hint: Cash will get you a better price.
The Spice Market
More awnings covered the streets of the spice market, adjacent to the gold market. Here, the displays were also overwhelming, but in a different way. The colors and smells of saffron, cardamon, cinnamon, cloves, and a hundred kinds of peppers mingled in the air. Spices were laid next to each other, paprika red contrasting with saffron orange and golden turmeric, providing a visual feast, laid out in bright colored piles.
I wondered where all those hundreds of pounds of spices, piled and stored in vats and barrels, would end up. How can even a large city possibly go through that much spice, given that most spices are used a pinch, perhaps a handful, at a time?
Souvenir Shopping at the Dubai Airport
Dubai’s spanking new airport has become a major international crossroads, with Emirates flights heading this way and that, from the far East to the western United States. For those transiting through the airport en route to Europe, Asia, Africa or the Americas, there are free showers, comfortable lounge chairs, and limited free Internet, along with a cornucopia of stores.
Shops carry everything from the usual duty-free to designer luggage to electronics to trinkets such as Aladdin-style oil lamps, wooden camels, and refrigerator magnets.
- Feel free to haggle in Dubai’s bustling, colorful specialty markets. It’s expected, so regardless of your comfort level, take advantage of the price flexibility and at the very least ask for a “discount.”
- If bringing spices into the United States, be aware that vegetable products must be declared. Dried spices are generally okay to bring back; fresh fruits and vegetable products are not.
- Bring your camera on souvenir shopping expeditions. You may not be able bring home a shopful of gold, but you can certainly bring home pictures to remind you of Dubai’s unique and overwhelming combination of excess, exoticism, wealth, and ticky-tack.