The Dubai Retail Scene

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In the first Star Wars movie there is a scene where Luke Skywalker and Obi-Won Kenobi walk into a bar looking for Han Solo. The bar is filled with exotic space creatures imbibing intergalactic cocktails. It is our first glimpse at interplanetary leisure. In real life, a beach resort hotel in Dubai is as close to that scene as we’ll ever get.

Foreign Shores

Staying at The Jumeirah Beach Hotel, the newsletter left on my hotel room desk every morning listed the variety of passports registered in that hotel for the previous evening. It never dipped below 60 different countries in the four nights I spent at the edge of the Arabian Sea. The contrast could not be more apparent than when riding the elevator one morning, a Russian family with mother and daughter headed for the beach in thinly covered tangas and an Iranian family with Burka-covered mother and head-scarfed daughter headed for the shopping mall. It felt like a polite human zoo where people stare out of the corners of their vision, never making eye contact.

New shopping malls are springing up in Dubai like mushrooms.  The Mall of Emirates has a ski slope. Ten bucks’ admission gets you a parka and the chance to sip hot chocolate in what must be the world’s biggest deep freezer. Seventy bucks rents you skis, or a snowboard, quite a contrast in August where the outdoor temperature can be 115 degrees.

Remember that ports on Arabian Sea were the epicenter of trade more than a thousand years ago. The Dhow port is one of my favorite places to visit. Watching modern washing machines being loaded onto wooden ships with masts, sails and diesel engines heading for the small ports on the African coast is magical.

Dubai’s Big Vision

Dubai is transforming itself into a 21st century tourist and shopping crossroads. It has the second largest collection of five-star hotels in the world giving London a run for its money. Some 250+ buildings of 30+ stories are under construction. Western media has covered some of the more imaginative projects with their flowerlike islands and sumptuous villas, however the bulk of housing construction is aimed at a middle and upper middle-class market.

Who is buying that property? Like Miami’s relationship to Central and South America, a portion of Dubai homes are bought by foreigners as insurance policies or savings accounts against the political and social problems of the Middle East. Iranians, Iraqis, Saudis, Palestinians, Egyptians, Lebanese, and Syrians have all bought second homes there. Dubai is rated as one of ten safest cities in the world. Access to medical care is excellent. The basic infrastructure works. And the shopping is world class.

The second group of homebuyers are expat expats – Middle Eastern families that left their homes and found their fortunes in the U.S., Canada, Europe and elsewhere. Some of those families want to come home, but not go home. They want the comforts of Toronto not the problems of Baghdad, Cairo, or Tehran. Dubai is an easy compromise. A third group are professionals from around the world recruited to work in the banking, investing, building, and shopping industries.

Let’s Go Shopping

New shopping malls are springing up in Dubai like mushrooms. The Mall of Emirates has a ski slope. Ten bucks’ admission gets you a parka and the chance to sip hot chocolate in what must be the world’s biggest deep freezer. Seventy bucks rents you skis, or a snowboard, quite a contrast in August where the outdoor temperature can be 115 degrees.

My favorite mall is named after Ibn Battuta, the legendary Islamic traveler whose exploits put his contemporary Marco Polo to shame. Each section of the mall celebrates a different architecture of the old 14-century Islamic world, from the Silk Route to Andulusia – think of the shops at the Venetian and Desert Passage in Las Vegas just done at a larger scale. Another mall called Box Park is constructed out of shipping containers. It’s a modern architectural adventure and as close to a space station as I’ve ever experienced.

Almost all organized retail in the Middle East is controlled by a limited number of trading companies, each holding 30 or more licenses to trade under western brand names. The same company that operates Armani and Bulgari may also run Starbucks and Nike. Many American merchants are reluctant to license their brands and, from their perspective, lose control of their concepts.

When I started working in the Middle East 20 years ago, I understood that reluctance. Today I do not. The Dubai malls are filled with stores that are well designed, beautifully merchandised and, most importantly, well run. The staff and their training are what impressed me the most.

Frontline Empathy

From Eastern Europe, across the Middle East and increasingly from the Central Asian Islamic republics, a highly motivated staff reads the dress code and manners of the customer walking in the door and responds accordingly. Being able to figure out based on dress and costume, who is the wife of a Sudanese warlord and who are Indian women from Mumbai is the start, but more importantly, they understand how to approach them politely, based on cultural norms.

I recently asked a female relative that works in the Fine Jewelry Department at Bloomingdale’s in New York about overall language skills among the salespeople beyond Spanish and English. She had no idea. The staff at the Dubai Bloomingdale’s would have known.

UAE Mall Management is a global cross-section of talent. One British colleague now in Dubai has worked on malls across Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Republics. His understanding of the ethnicity of shopping is impressive. Another American client from the Pet Store industry has signed on. He loves it. Another old friend and client who worked at Brown Thomas in Dublin and then at Selfridge’s has relocated with his wife and daughter. It is, colloquially speaking, a mecca for smart, sophisticated merchants.

Global Cultural Shifts

In our post-pan world the 20th Century shopping capitals of London, Paris and New York are beginning to look outdated and have serious competition. The complexion of money has changed from peaches and cream to wide variety of skin tones. Traveling parties are no longer just couples and nuclear families, but often extended groups. My friend Abdullah takes vacations with a family group that is never less than 20. No London, Paris much less New York hotel is designed to host that paradigm.

Medical tourism is also part of the new mix. From Dubai and Istanbul to Singapore and Bangkok, very modern medical and cosmetic treatments are available and accessible. When was the last time you were in an American Hospital that was less than 20 years old? My wife got her dental work done in Istanbul for a quarter of the price the U.S. dentist quoted. I don’t know of a New York City hotel that has a hospital relationship. It’s being a concierge for both a grandmother who may be having the work done, but also the kids and grandkids who are there to play and shop.

A Traveler’s Guide to the Galaxy

I ask my U.S. merchant friends about when they think the intergalactic tourists are going to show up, and I get a laugh. More than anyplace on earth, Dubai is ready for Obi-Won Kenobi.

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