Once a virtual shopping wasteland with only the basic essentials available in pioneering stores, this year, Dubai and Abu Dhabi have been ranked respectively the world’s second and third most important shopping destinations, behind London, by the consultancy firm CBRE.
Retail is a serious business in the Emirates, fuelled by first-class infrastructure, comprehensive transport systems, 7-star accommodation and mammoth, spectacularly designed multi-storey shopping malls and stores. A business friendly climate and solid consumer confidence has turned the country into a magnet for luxury brands.
Erik Volkers, CBRE’s Senior Middle East Consultant characterizes Dubai as “the fashion capital of the Middle East.” He further underscores that “Dubai has a presence of 55.7 per cent of international retailers and during the course of 2014 attracted 45 new international brands, with high profile retailers including Hollister, Cavalli Caffe and McQ Alexander McQueen opening outlets in the emirate.”
Dubai is where high-end brands choose to launch super-cars, designer watches and perfumes; notably Apple created its limited edition 24-karat gold iPhone especially for the UAE market.
Stroke of genius
“You want it, we’ve got it” is no hollow advertising slogan in the Emirates, where everything imaginable is available. In its thrust to diversify the economy, the UAE government strategized the development of the retail sector, attracting retailers with some of the finest infrastructure and ease of opening a business anywhere on the planet.
Dubai’s stroke of genius was the launch of an annual month-long shopping festival in 1996 under the directive of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid as an event to boost the tourism industry. Stores offered discounted prices and visitors could take advantage of inexpensive air fares.
“You want it, we’ve got it” is no hollow advertising slogan in the Emirates, where everything imaginable is availableKhalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor
Shopping was instantly partnered with entertainment. Firework displays, raffles of gold bars and luxury cars, street artistes and shows hosted by malls added a new dimension to the art of retailing. The concept was so successful that in 1998, a summer version came into being – Dubai Summer Surprises – adding excitement, not to mention revenue - during what was traditionally a quieter time of year.
Nowadays, the festivals are bigger and better with international fashion shows, cultural and entertainment programs, as well as movie premiers offering revellers the opportunity to brush shoulders with A-list international celebrities. It is no wonder that other cities cottoned-on, but as they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
The Dubai Mall, famed for its iconic aquarium, the world’s largest, is currently undergoing a massive expansion “in preparation to welcome over 100 million annual visitors” according to its website. The first phase is set to add one million square foot to host new flagship stores. The futuristic Mall of the Emirates, besides a vast array of retail outlets, is where shoppers can cool down at the Middle East’s first indoor ski park or relax while enjoying performances at the Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre.
Abu Dhabi’s spacious malls, such as the Abu Dhabi Mall, the Marina Mall, Al Wahda Mall and many others too numerous to list, similarly buzz with endless entertainment and dining options. Visitors to Yas Island, easily reached from the capital can spend an action-packed entire day out with the family at Yas Mall, linked to Ferrari World and Yas Waterworld.
Under construction is Al Maryah Central, a new shopping and entertainment hub on Abu Dhabi’s Al Maryah Island, covering 1.7 million square foot conceived with zones for carousels, football pitches, skateboard parks and outdoor cinemas. The brainchild of property magnate Ken Himmel, it is projected to receive over 20 million visitors a year.
Just when I think the retail industry may be saturated, investors prove me wrong. Manufacturers, distributors and retailers are flocking to the UAE in anticipation of expanded growth during Expo 2020 – a six-month-long exhibition showcasing innovative products from all over the world.
Forecasts suggest the emirate can expect 25 million visitors and believe the event will have a positive spin-off for the real estate, hotel and retail industries. Being awarded Expo 2020 by the Bureau International des Expositions was a real coup for Dubai that trumped competing cities in Turkey, Brazil and Russia.
Dubai’s Foreign Direct Investment Office (FDI) projects the country’s retail sector will reach AED 151 billion by 2015, a growth of 32.9 per cent since 2012. The estimate is based upon population growth, high disposable incomes, an influx of high profile international retail chains and a highly fashion-conscious population.
An e-commerce “explosion” is on its way, as consumers become more tech-savvy, predict experts quoted by Dubai Chamber who note that until now the emirate has not shown as much interest in shopping online as other retail markets. That doesn’t surprise me at all. Who wants or needs to order on line when they can catch-up with friends at a fabulous one-stop shopping-entertainment-sports-dining venue?
The days are long gone when Emiratis and expats would make regular shopping trips to London, Paris or Geneva to stay abreast of the latest fashion trends. The UAE no longer follows fashion, it creates it.
Khalaf Ahmad al-Habtoor is a prominent UAE businessman and public figure. He is Chairman of the Al Habtoor Group - one of the most successful conglomerates in the Gulf. Al Habtoor is renowned for his knowledge and views on international political affairs; his philanthropic activity; his efforts to promote peace; and he has long acted as an unofficial ambassador for his country abroad. Writing extensively on both local and international politics, he publishes regular articles in the media and has released a number of books. Al-Habtoor began his career as an employee of a local UAE construction firm and in 1970 established his own company, Al Habtoor Engineering. The UAE Federation, which united the seven emirates under the one flag for the first time, was founded in 1971 and this inspired him to undertake a series of innovative construction projects – all of which proved highly successful.