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”,