Shopping is something of a national past time in the UAE and one of the major attractions for visitors. Elegant state-of-the-art malls abound, but have not replaced traditional souqs (markets). The result is a thrilling mix of old and new where twenty-first century retail co-exists with ancient family run businesses that trade as they have done for centuries.
Traditionally souqs were as much meeting places as trading centres; a hotchpotch of sandy alleys crammed with individual stalls interspersed with tea and coffee houses where men would gather to discuss the day’s events over a shisha pipe or a gahwa ( Arabic coffee). Throughout the country souqs have been preserved and refurbished carefully so that they retain their traditional charm. In some emirates it is possible to buy anything in the souq, from a bag of frankincense, to a gold necklace or a camel. A visit to the souq is one of the quickest ways to immerse yourself in the country’s cultural heritage. In recent years the range of goods sold has increased dramatically to include everything from electrical goods to spare car parts. Generally souqs are divided into areas selling similar items and many are named after the goods they stock – such as the spice souq, the fabric souq and the plant souq.
Shopping malls offer an incredible array of international brands – American, European and Asian. The shopping capital of the country is undoubtedly Dubai, hailed as ‘the shopping capital of the Middle East’, but Abu Dhabi is catching up fast, a number of high-end souqs having opened up recently. Sharjah, Ajman and Ra’s al-Khaimah have also opened new malls. Many malls include multi-screen cinema complexes, all have numerous coffee shops and many have childcare facilities and child-centred entertainment. In twenty-first century Gulf living, the shopping mall has become a social outlet replacing the role of the souq in earlier times.
Prices are generally competitive. Bargaining is expected in souqs, but major outlets in shopping malls quote ‘fixed prices’.