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For shopaholic­s, what happens at the mall shouldn’t stay at the mall

- Justin Thomas is an Associate Professor of psychology at Zayed University and author of Psychologi­cal Well-Being in the Gulf States Justin Thomas

he Earth tilts on its axis in a timeless tango with the sun. This hot little move makes temperatur­es rise and ultimately gives birth to the season we call summer. In the UAE, this can mean temperatur­es of 50°C. And the arrival of such excessive heat has many residents heading for the great indoors. Picnics in the park are replaced by communal feeding in the food court; walks along the Corniche give way to trips to the mall.

The mall is a fairly easy target to criticise. If you hang out there too often, we might even call you a “mall rat” – hardly a flattering term. Some critics deride malls in more ecumenical terms, describing them as “cathedrals of consumptio­n”, hallowed ground for those deeply committed to the consumer lifestyle.

Perhaps more charitably, malls have also been described as “privately owned public space”. There is no entrance fee and, to a large extent, admission is open to all members of the public. The mall is a gathering place, a social space where people do much more than

Tsimply shop. Perhaps the mall inherits some of the properties of the old village common or town square.

The UAE is a great place to explore the social concept of the mall. Few places on Earth have more retail space than the UAE. In 2005, Dubai was reported as having the third largest per capita retail space in the world. This was, of course, before Dubai Mall was built.

If malls are cathedrals of consumptio­n, then Dubai Mall is St Peter’s, St Paul’s and Notre Dame combined. With more than 1 million square metres of space, Dubai mall epitomises the idea of the great indoors. In 2013, Dubai Mall reported 75 million visitors, earning it the title of the world’s most-visited shopping and leisure destinatio­n. It was the third consecutiv­e year that Dubai Mall had achieved this accolade – if there is a trophy, then Dubai should just keep it.

But Dubai Mall is just one of many huge malls in the UAE. In Abu Dhabi, the recently opened Deerfields and Delma malls have added even more square metres to the UAE’s rapidly expanding indoor retail footprint. Each mall is to some extent unique. Deerfields, my local mall, has a rather unattracti­ve, shoebox exterior, but within lies a surprising­ly elegant retail space with lots of natural light, white paint and soothing ambient Muzak. Delma Mall, by contrast, is much darker in decor and has no soundtrack. Then there is Marina Mall, home to the indoor ski slope that never was.

Despite the unique charms of each mall, the creeping monocultur­e of globalisat­ion is also much in evidence. Global brands go head- to- head for market hegemony in these Arabian malls, much as they do elsewhere in the world. There are the same shoe shops, coffee chains and fast- food eateries you would find in any North American mall or European high street. However, one particular feature of the Arabian mall is the prepondera­nce of perfumers: Hind Al Oud, Abdul Samad Al Qurashi and Rasasi to name just three. The local love of perfume and incense is profound. Dubai Mall is not only the biggest mall, but possibly the best- smelling one in the world too. Being surrounded by a sea of shops, however, will incline some towards unhealthy overconsum­ption. This has been documented as a problem in the UAE. One report by Abu Dhabi’s depart- ment of planning and economy suggests that conspicuou­s consumptio­n has led to a “hidden poverty” in the UAE, “where a certain segment of the society seek to possess luxurious items at the expense of essential goods”. That said, the explorer Ibn Battuta said something very similar about the inhabitant­s of the Gulf more than 700 years ago: “They too make great use of perfumes to such a degree that they will spend the night hungry in order to buy perfumes with the price of their food.”

If you have a gambling problem, don’t go to Las Vegas. If you have, what psychiatri­sts call a compulsive buying disorder (a shopping addiction), then perhaps the UAE is not for you. But the mall is a social space, not just a shopping space. The mall is where three generation­s of the same family take an evening stroll; the mall is where the Abu Dhabi Readers ( a book club) meet to discuss works of literature. The mall is my muse; much of my more creative work is undertaken in the mall.

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