Why the 'mega mall' is so important in the UAE
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 kick-starting 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”, but for him there is more to it than a desire to spend money. “The real attraction of malls is they serve as a public space that can work in all kinds of climates,” he says.
But he also sees a clear link between the traditional souqs, once prevalent across the Arab world, and the modern mall – what he refers to as “cultural resonance”. “We don’t separate the idea of trade from our everyday social interactions,” he says. “Going to the mall, like going to the souq, is not purely a matter of utility; it is a way to meet other people.”
During a recent visit to Riyadh, Sharro asked an Uber driver what there was to see in the city. “He said to me, ‘There’s nothing to do except go to the shopping mall’,” recalls Sharro. “You can hang out with your family, you can hang out with your friends, as a young man you can go there to meet girls,” he adds. “There are so many layers to it, and across the Middle East it’s shifting a lot of the traditional ways of doing social interaction.”
“You look at the malls in Dubai — they are internal worlds. You can go to the cinema, you can go ice skating, you can even go skiing. In the heat of the summer, when you can’t go to the beach, the mall is the only option you have for a viable public space, and a lot of the time it’s not about buying anything, it’s just an air-conditioned place where you can hang out and interact with other people. They have become social hubs in their own right.”
David Macadam agrees, and he sees a key difference between the social function of malls in North America and the Middle East. “In North America, I would say children escape their homes to go and hang out with their friends in these shopping environments, to get away from their parents,” he says. “In this region there is more of an obligation to go with your family unit.”
Jalal Abuthina returned to Dubai in 2004, following his stint at boarding school in Australia and several years studying for a degree in international business in Montreal, Canada.
He worked in real estate during the Dubai property boom, witnessing the opening of Mall of the Emirates in 2005, Dubai Festival City Mall in 2007 and The Dubai Mall in 2008.
“Post-2000 it’s not enough to just be a mall,” he says. “There’s such tough competition. They are like amusement parks. They are all super-duper. ‘Normal’ just doesn’t seem to fly.”
In the wake of the global financial crisis of 2007-2008, Abuthina quit real estate, setting up his own photography business and producing Inside Dubai, a series of three books featuring photographs of the older parts of Dubai taken over a 10-year period, billed as “an alternative to the city’s PR-driven and overtly commercial representation”.
Meanwhile, what he refers to half jokingly as “the battle of the malls” continued apace. Deira City Centre had prepared the battle ground in the mid-1990s, but it was Mall of the Emirates, opened a little more than a decade later, that didn’t just throw down the gauntlet but slapped the Middle East retail industry across the face with it, awakening the world to the possibilities of a what a modern mall could be.
Hussain Moosa, Director for Mall of the Emirates at Majid Al Futtaim Properties refers to it as “the region’s first shopping resort”.
Ski Dubai, the Middle East’s first indoor ski resort and snow park, which boasts “real snow all year round”, rightly made global headlines in 2005, and continues to be an iconic symbol of Dubai’s emergence as a thoroughly modern metropolis and a player on the world stage, but in 2018 Mall of the Emirates also houses a family entertainment centre, Magic Planet; two five-star hotels, Kempinski Mall of the Emirates and Sheraton Dubai Mall of the Emirates, opened in 2006 and 2013, respectively; 10,500sqm of retail space dedicated to fashion, Fashion Dome, opened in 2010; and the 24-screen Vox Cinemas. In 2015, an AED1 billion 26,000sqm expansion was completed.
It would be hard to disagree with Moosa’s assertion that, “Mall of the Emirates has redefined the shopping mall.”
While Mall of the Emirates was riding high, construction of the structure that would supplant it as the foremost mall in Dubai, and the Middle East as a whole, had already begun.
“From the outset, the vision of Emaar Properties was clear — The Dubai Mall is to be a mall ‘unsurpassed by any other’,” says May Chan, a Director at DP Architects, the firm responsible for designing The Dubai Mall. Chan was involved in the process from the initial design phase through to the opening of the mall, and beyond.
It was the largest project DP Architects had ever taken on. “The mall had to operate at a scale comparable to an urban centre rather than that of a single building,” says Chan. “It was an exercise akin to urban planning.”
The Dubai Mall is the heart of Downtown Dubai, a 500-acre development marketed by its developer Emaar Properties as “The Centre of Now”, which also incorporates major Dubai landmarks such as Burj Khalifa, Dubai Opera, The Dubai Fountain and the 3.5km Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Boulevard.
The largest mall in the Middle East, it boasts more than 1,300 retail outlets, including two department stores — Galeries Lafayette and Bloomingdale’s — and more than 200 food and beverage outlets. Entertainment options include Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo; KidZania, a children’s “edutainment concept”; the 22-screen, 2,800-seater Reel Cinemas; and the Olympic-sized Dubai Ice Rink. This year saw the opening of VR Park, a virtual reality theme park, and the expansion of The Fashion Avenue, where Dolce & Gabbana recently held its first catwalk show in the Middle East.
There’s also a five-star hotel, The Address Dubai Mall, and the mall has its own stop on the city-spanning Dubai Metro Red Line.
For the past four years, more than 80 million people per year have visited The Dubai Mall. The average “dwell time” (the amount of time visitors spend in the mall), is an astonishing four hours and 20 minutes. To put that statistic in context, the average dwell time for malls in the United States is two hours and 18 minutes, according to the ICSC.
Patrick Bousquet-Chavanne has been CEO of Emaar Malls since August. He is the man responsible for the next stage in the evolution of The Dubai Mall — a challenge he is eager to meet head on — and he has a compelling and nuanced take on the mall’s place in contemporary Middle Eastern culture.
“The mall does play a unique role in the Gulf countries,” he says. “Historically there were a certain number of guardrails we didn’t see in the West, both in terms of how society lived and, most importantly, how the youth could express themselves. The mall has become, especially in the last 20 years, a place of personal expression, a place that is freer, where the youth and the community at large can interact and socialise — as society has become more open, the mall has been the activator, the place where this social transformation has materialised.”
In 2017, a research note from the multinational investment bank Credit Suisse Group predicted that 20 to 25 per cent of the 1,100 malls in the United States would shut down by 2022.
Technology — specifically the rise of online shopping and a growing tendency for people, especially young people, to live in the digital rather than the physical world — has been cited as a major potential threat to shopping malls in the United States, and Karl Sharro warns that it is only a matter of time before that starts to threaten the supremacy of the mall in the Middle East too. For Sharro, the question for Bousquet-Chavanne and others in the retail industry in the Middle East is going to be: How do you retain the social function of the shopping mall in the digital age?
For Bousquet-Chavanne, it is a matter of focusing on the idea of the mall as “a place of connection”. “I believe there is a universal need to have a [public] forum, a place where you meet others and engage — and not just a digital forum, not just Facebook and Instagram, but a physical place where those connections you are making digitally become physical,” he says. Bousquet-Chavanne has numerous ideas for achieving this, most of which play into his concept of the mall as a public forum.
“We have been a little bit conservative, in terms of opening up the doors to younger, fresher brands,” he says. “We have a lot of amazing brands at The Dubai Mall, but I would like to be more of an incubator of trends.”
He also wants to “experiment more” — with pop-up exhibitions, for example — and make The Dubai Mall “a place for art and culture”. There are also plans to introduce co-working spaces. Sharro, who is currently working on a book titled The New Arab City, scheduled for publication in mid-2019, would go even further. He says malls have provided a model for how public spaces can be created in the harsh climate of the Middle East, but they are going to have to evolve.
“You can’t build all your social interaction on commerce, on buying and selling — there has to be a civic component,” he says. “You can put libraries in there, you can put government institutions in there, you could build a municipal swimming pool… You can start to reconfigure [malls] so they function as part of the city that is not just designed for shopping.”
Sharro’s dream of a public space focused on living life rather than spending money might yet come to fruition, but with Nakheel’s AED6.1 billion Deira Mall, part of its Deira Islands development, with its state-of-the-art retractable glass roof, promising to become the UAE’s largest in terms of leasable retail space — a whopping 1.6 million sqm – when it opens in 2021, the battle of the malls is set to continue. As it turns out, the era of the mega mall is still very much now.