Our Dubai Shopping Guide
Dubai’s reputation as a tourist destination was built on sun, sand and shopping. While there is a lot more to the city than its great weather, beach and malls, if shopping is high on your list of priorities then we better help you to get it right. Here’s our Dubai shopping guide.
When we arrived in the United Arab Emirates way back in 1998, so I could take up a job at an Abu Dhabi women’s university teaching film, media and writing, one of the first things I learnt about the UAE was that one of its favourite hobbies was shopping.
The guy from the organization I had gone there to work for who collected us from the airport chatted the whole way to the hotel. He gave us a detailed introduction to the city, country, culture, and society, however, he was extolling the virtues of living in Dubai compared to Abu Dhabi, where we had just arrived.
“And Dubai has a shopping festival!” he proclaimed rather proudly and excitedly. Back in 1998, you see, Abu Dhabi didn’t even have a proper mall. There were small shopping arcades and a big supermarket but nothing like the colossal malls it now has. This meant that we had to drive to Dubai to do any real shopping (like buy an espresso machine for the apartment), and we would do that for at least another couple of years until the first mall was built.
A shopping festival was something, it seemed! Admittedly, we thought it a little weird. What kind of country has a festival dedicated to shopping, we asked each other later, after he dropped us off at our hotel.
What we quickly learnt was that the festival wasn’t merely to attract tourists. In a country where the weather makes it a challenge to do practically anything outside for half the year, shopping had become an entertainment, a social and cultural activity, and a national obsession.
Now, that’s not to say that the UAE, and Dubai specifically, is built around a mall culture, as some of the city’s critics like to think. The Emirates has a very long, rich culture built on history and traditions. We’re just talking about shopping here, so let’s not get carried away. However, air-conditioned spaces are important in a country that’s sweltering for much of the year.
Of course all these years later, Abu Dhabi is now home to many shopping malls, but Dubai still reigns supreme when it comes to retail therapy, so here’s my Dubai shopping guide to ensure you make the most of your time.
The greatest pleasure I’ve had shopping Dubai hasn’t been in the malls at all, it’s been at Dubai souqs. Dubai may have an abundance of sumptous shopping malls, but it’s the bustling souqs — Middle Eastern-style bazaars — that Dubai was actually famous for historically. The Deira covered market was once the Arabian Gulf’s largest. Remember, Dubai has been a trading port for centuries.
The city’s souqs may not be the region’s most attractive — get images of Marrakesh, Istanbul, and even Muscat’s Muttrah souq out of your head — but they’re still very atmospheric and lots of fun. Gritty and ramshackle in parts, the Dubai souqs are not just for tourists. They’re where locals and expats shop for everyday things.
In the Deira souq, Emirati women can be found bargaining for fake Yves Saint Laurent shaylahs (headscarfs), their mother’s haggling for stainless steel pot sets, their grandmothers buying oud (aromatic wood that is lit like incense), while their brothers, husbands and dads will be trying on sandals or gutras and agals.
European expats, meanwhile, like to take visiting guests to gawk at the glittering gold souq, Indian expats buy saris and textiles from home, while expat workers from Asia stock up on basic goods and gifts to take home to their families, from woollen blankets to cheap kids clothes.
Bargaining is a Fine Art
Part of the fun of shopping Dubai souqs is bargaining or haggling. It’s not a requirement, as it is in the souqs of Cairo, Istanbul or Marrakesh. If you don’t want to play simply ask the price, you’ll be told a price, and you can pay that price. And that’s fine. I’m an old hand at it, so I know it can be exhausting, and it is not always fun.
But if you pay the first price you’re told, understand you are probably paying double the value. It’s probably still a bargain compared to what you would pay back home, but know that you can get the thing for a whole lot less, and probably have some fun in the process, if you bargain.
So, where do you start? First, ask how much. Then when you’re given a price, offer 50% less. The sales person will probably laugh or feign horror and suggest a higher price. Stick to your guns. He’ll drop the price slightly and once he does, you should raise yours a little. And so it will go. Use your instinct to respond to his reactions and adjust your price accordingly. As the process draws to an end, ask for the final and best price. If the offer seems reasonable, pay up. Don’t go back to your initial offer — or worse, leave! This is extremely rude. The sales guy won’t welcome you back when you later realise his offer was a good deal and he’ll probably spread the word around the market what a bad sport you were so that you get ripped off elsewhere.
While bargaining in the souqs is acceptable, know that it’s rarely tolerated in a mall, unless it’s at a carpet shop. At small independently owned electronics, computer or camera shops, you can ask for discounts, but offer 50% less and you’ll be laughed out of the store.
But if bargaining is not your idea of fun, then don’t worry about it. The sales guys will love you for their higher commissions if not for your entertainment value!
Dubai’s Best Buys
The best buys in Dubai are the things we typically associate with shopping in Arabia and the Middle East — carpets, textiles, perfume, spices, gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Dubai’s Spice Souq may be small and it’s a lot more touristy now than it once was, but a stroll here is an aromatic assault on the senses. Good buys still include small boxes of saffron, frankincense (the sticky golden rocks of resin in the sacks), incense burners, and do-it-yourself henna kits.
Deira Souq is the place to shop for souvenirs like sheesha pipes, bellydancing outfits, and traditional Emirati clothes, and at the Gold Souq, anything that glitters. Bur Dubai Souq, also known as the Textile Souq, sells wholesale fabrics, Indian saris, spangly Aladdin slippers, Dubai t-shirts, and Arabian bric-a-brac.
Karama Souq is not so much a souq but a rather shabby shopping centre, but it’s the best place for discounted souvenirs from the Arabian Peninsula, larger Middle East, and even the Indian Sub-Continent.
The things I’ve always loved to buy at the souqs include Arabian bronze and copper coffee pots, engraved trays and Aladdin lamps, Yemeni khanjars (daggers), Bedouin silver jewellery from Oman, colourful Moroccan lamps, sequinned and beaded cushion covers and bedspreads from India, and mother-of-pearl inlaid boxes and furniture from Syria.
Souq Madinat Jumeirah
If you’re visiting during the hotter months of the year or you just can’t handle the heat, then hit Souq Madinat Jumeirah in the Madinat Jumeirah retail and entertainment complex, between Mina A’Salam and Al Qasr hotels in Jumeirah.
This stunning, air-conditioned, contemporary incarnation of an old Arabian souq of someone’s imagination is also the place to head when you can’t face the chaos of the real souqs, you’re not in the mood for bargaining, or, when you decide to refuel, you want to have a cold beer or glass of wine with your lunch.
At this beautiful ‘old Arabia’ styled shopping centre with wooden arcades, wind-towers, and lovely courtyards, you can shop in comfort for fine quality carpets, handicrafts, souvenirs and gifts. The best stores for these are Lata’s, National Iranian Carpets, the Pride of Kashmir, and Al-Jaber Gallery.
Prices are obviously higher than at the souqs, but the quality is better. You’ll also find fashion, jewellery, leather and accessories, and dozens of restaurants, cafés and bars where you relax and ponder your purchases, make new shopping lists, or assess the damage to the credit card.
Dubai Shopping Malls
I’m not a fan of malls generally but they are pretty impressive in Dubai, and in Dubai the mall just makes so much sense. Remember, this is a place where it’s too hot to stroll the city streets for over half the year, so in Dubai the shopping mall provides respite from the heat.
Malls are also about so much more than shopping. They’re a place for socializing, for meeting up with friends for coffee, a movie or bowling, for hanging out with the family at a fun fair or eatery, for slipping on the skies to swoosh down the slopes in preparation for winter, or heading to the gym, the spa or the beauty salon to get into shape for the summer.
Dubai’s malls also boast theatres, art galleries, child minding centres, and even mosques. Think of them as the equivalent of an old town square, piazza or plaza in Europe, and then you might enjoy them more.
Mall of the Emirates and Dubai Mall
If you only had time to go to one mall, which would I recommend? Please don’t make me choose between them. Try to make time for two.
The opulent Mall of the Emirates is probably the more sumptuous with its marble floors, spacious avenues, and stunning skylights. It has a colossal Carrefour supermarket and several department stores, including a swish Harvey Nichols (along with a less fancy Marks & Spencer and Debenhams), dozens of chic boutiques, exclusive designer stores, fantastic shoe and accessory stores, cosmetics supermarkets, a massive Virgin Megastore and Borders bookshop, cinemas and theatre, art galleries, a theatre, Ski Dubai (yes, that the huge indoor ski slope you’ve read so much about), and good restaurants, including Asha’s, Almaz by Momo (by Mourad Mazouz of Momo London fame), Biella, Al Halabi, bars (Apres), and one of our favourite hotels, the swanky Kempinski Mall of the Emirates.
Dubai Mall is more contemporary in style and, well, let’s face it, it also has dozens of stylish boutiques, ritzy designer stores, shoe and accessory shops, cosmetics emporiums, a huge Virgin Megastore, a wonderful Kinokuniya (my favourite bookstores), department stores (Bloomingdales, Galeries Lafayette, Marks & Spencer), and a supermarket (Waitrose). It also has cinemas, an ice-skating rink, a kids entertainment centre (KidZania, SEGA Republic), Dubai Aquarium, and just outside is Burj Khalifa and the dancing Dubai Fountain with its spectacular light shows. Oh, and loads of great dining options, including Noodle House, Karam Beirut, Carluccio’s, Yo Sushi, and Le Pain Quotidien.
Okay, so if you only have time for one mall, better make it Dubai Mall.
Dubai Shopping Festival
Right, so as you can see, that shopping festival that my colleague got excited about all those many years ago, is not high on my priorities when it comes to shopping Dubai. But Dubai Shopping Festival or ‘DSS’ as locals call it, is pretty big in the Gulf, and over the years has developed into much more than a festival of shopping.
Sure, it’s the huge discounts, crazy promotions, citywide sales, and raffles with Porsches as the prize that gets expats and locals excited and talking about the thing for months before it starts. But there’s also loads of entertainment for the kids, street fairs with food stalls, nightly fireworks, and at the Heritage and Diving Village, traditional performances and cultural activities.
Held across January and February, the Dubai winter, the weather is lovely too, so it’s a nice time to be out and about. It’s still warm enough to swim and tan by day, but in the evenings you’ll need to pop a pashmina around your shoulders or throw a cardi or jacket on.
The big disadvantage of course is that winter is high season (and also conference season), so the city is busy, traffic is bad, and hotels are expensive, so the money you save shopping you’ll probably spend on hotels. Book well ahead.
Dubai Summer Surprises
Dubai Shopping Festival became so popular that the savvy Dubai tourism and commerce marketing people started a summer equivalent called Summer Surprises. A summer version of DSF, held annually from the end of June to the end of August, there are sales all over the city, raffles, and so on.
It’s even more family-oriented than Dubai Shopping Festival, as the kids are on school holidays, so there’s a festival mascot for the kids called Modhesh, which looks like a yellow bicycle pump, and even more family activities than there are during DSS.
The major advantage of DSS over DSF is that hotel rooms sell at rock-bottom prices over the summer. But keep in mind, though, that it is SUMMER. That means it’s a sweltering 45 degrees Celsius outside, your glasses fog up each time you step out of the hotel or taxi, and the whole time you’re there you’ll feel like you’re in a giant sauna or someone has placed a big blow heater above Dubai. It’s an experience. We only spent one summer in Dubai in all the years we lived there and one was enough.
Having said that, it’s an increasingly popular time to visit Dubai for budget travellers and families, due to those low prices. If you can handle the heat, try it. I dare you.
Dubai Shopping Hours
Shopping malls in Dubai open from around 10am to 10pm daily, although a few don’t open until 2pm on Friday, the Muslim day of worship, like Sundays in the West. Shops outside malls, especially those in the souqs, close around noon for an afternoon meal and rest, opening around 5pm, which makes sense in this kind of heat.
The hours are a reason alone for doing a shopping trip to Dubai, even if you’re just on a short stopover. Shopping in Dubai is most fun at night when the locals go out to shop, so even if you don’t like shopping you can enjoy some people watching instead.
This means you’ll end up eating late, as the locals do, and hitting the pillow even later. But what are days for if not dozing in the sun by the hotel swimming pool?