MEGA MALL

Esquire Middle East - - FEATURE -

TEN YEARS AGO THE OPEN­ING OF THE DUBAI MALL SE­CURED THE CITY’S STA­TUS AS THE RE­GION’S FORE­MOST SHOP­PING DES­TI­NA­TION. BUT IN THE GULF, MALLS ARE ABOUT MORE THAN JUST RE­TAIL. GARETH REES IN­VES­TI­GATES THE IM­POR­TANCE OF THE MALL IN CON­TEM­PO­RARY MID­DLE EAST CUL­TURE

JALAL ABUTHINA MOVED TO DUBAI FROM AUS­TRALIA with his Libyan fa­ther, his Ir­ish mother and his younger brother in 1993. He was 13, and like all teenagers, his pri­or­ity was es­cape — some­where to “hang out”. In Dubai in the early 1990s, that meant the mall.

“There were a lim­ited num­ber of com­mu­nity spa­ces, and the mall, like in Europe and the United States, was a place teenagers could go,” he re­calls. “You would go to the mall to see what was hap­pen­ing, to spend time with your friends and to meet girls.”

For most of the two years Abuthina lived in Dubai (be­fore leav­ing for board­ing school in Aus­tralia)

Deira’s Al Ghu­rair Cen­tre — ‘Dubai’s first shop­ping mall’, opened in 1981 — was the place to go. It had a cinema, food and bev­er­age out­lets (in­clud­ing the first Mcdon­ald’s in the UAE), and shops, lots of shops.

Just be­fore he left Dubai in 1995, Deira City Cen­tre (as it was named at the time) opened to the pub­lic, usurp­ing Al Ghu­rair Cen­tre’s po­si­tion as the city’s go-to mall, not only for lo­cal teenagers, but their par­ents and the ever-in­creas­ing num­ber of tourists vis­it­ing the UAE.

The first project for the newly formed Ma­jid Al Fut­taim Group (which would go on to be­come a ma­jor player in the evo­lu­tion of the mall across the Emi­rates) Deira City Cen­tre billed it­self as “the first in­te­grated shop­ping, leisure and en­ter­tain­ment cen­tre in the UAE”, and boasted ma­jor in­ter­na­tional stores in­clud­ing Por­tuguese hyper­mar­ket Con­ti­nente (later pur­chased by French re­tailer Car­refour), South African depart­ment store Wool­worths and Swedish fur­ni­ture giant Ikea. The era of the mega mall had ar­rived.

David Ma­cadam is CEO of the Mid­dle East Coun­cil of Shop­ping Cen­tres (MECSC), a not-for-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion, af­fil­i­ated with the New York-based In­ter­na­tional Coun­cil of Shop­ping Cen­ters (ICSC), that sup­ports the de­vel­op­ment of the re­tail sec­tor in the MENA re­gion. Ma­cadam has lived and worked in the Mid­dle East for 15 years. He cred­its Emirati bil­lion­aire busi­ness­man Ma­jid Al Fut­taim, founder, owner and Pres­i­dent of the Ma­jid Al Fut­taim Group, with kick­start­ing the rapid rise to promi­nence of the mall in UAE so­ci­ety.

“He saw the op­por­tu­nity to cre­ate great shop­ping en­vi­ron­ments that were also peo­ple-friendly — places peo­ple would want to come back to,” he says.

The first mod­ern mall in the

United States, South­dale Cen­ter in Ed­ina, Min­nesota, opened in 1956, and by the time Al Ghu­rair Cen­tre opened in Dubai, al­most three decades later, these large shop­ping cen­tres had be­come a defin­ing fea­ture of Amer­ica’s sub­ur­ban land­scape. The mall is as Amer­i­can as Su­per Bowl Sun­day.

Nev­er­the­less, when Ma­cadam ar­rived in the UAE and started mak­ing his ini­tial as­sess­ment of its malls, he was im­pressed with the abun­dance of high-qual­ity food and bev­er­age op­tions avail­able, the in­cor­po­ra­tion of large scale “an­chor stores” and their A+ qual­ity.

“When I ar­rived 15 years ago, the qual­ity of fit-and-fin­ish of the shop­ping cen­tres far sur­passed the qual­ity in North Amer­ica [at the time],” he says. “It has since be­come even higher.”

He has since wit­nessed the qual­ity of malls in Kuwait (home of

The Av­enues Mall, the sec­ond largest mall in the Mid­dle East), Oman, and Saudi Ara­bia reach sim­i­lar lev­els.

Le­banese-iraqi ar­chi­tect Karl

Sharro is a part­ner at Lon­don-based PLP Ar­chi­tec­ture and a com­men­ta­tor on Mid­dle Eastern cul­ture and pol­i­tics. Sharro vis­its the Mid­dle East reg­u­larly and has been a keen ob­server of the mall’s evo­lu­tion in the re­gion.

For Sharro, the im­pe­tus for the build­ing of malls across the Mid­dle East, which started in the late 20th cen­tury and has con­tin­ued in earnest into the early 21st cen­tury, was in­creas­ing wealth — orig­i­nally driven by the dis­cov­ery of oil, but lat­terly given a fur­ther boost by a thriv­ing tourism in­dus­try, par­tic­u­larly in Dubai, the mall cap­i­tal of the Mid­dle East.

“All of a sud­den you have an af­flu­ent mid­dle class, and they want what ev­ery­one else has,” he says. “They want brands. They want to buy things.”

Buy­ing things is un­de­ni­ably the pri­mary func­tion of malls, wher­ever they are lo­cated, so Sharro says he is not sur­prised that most West­ern com­men­ta­tors at­tempt to de­scribe their ubiq­uity across the Mid­dle East “through the prism of con­sumerism”,

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