Scenes from the malls of DubaiWritten by Dan Johnson | | email@example.com
I’m not the world’s greatest shopper but it is hard for me to stay away from the shopping malls in Dubai. It is difficult to explain but the Dubai shopping malls are like magnets drawing people — hundreds of thousands of people daily — from all parts of the world and all walks of life to the miles of aisles that wind their way through the thousands of shops, theaters, restaurants, playgrounds, ice skating rinks, coffee lounges and scores of unique, even iconic attractions such as aquaria, waterfalls, ski slopes and historic interpretations of Arab civilization.
The first thing one notices as one approaches the malls is the bold, even extreme architecture of these mega shopping villages. The approaches are inviting with wide boulevards bordered by rows of palm trees and convenient drop-off sites with valet parking for those who don’t want to take time to park their own car in the acres of underground or above ground parking. The mall entrances themselves are mini-magnets that often take your breath away with their beauty, openness, grandeur and décor. Huge crystal chandeliers imported from Europe, marble tile floors from Greece or Italy, and works of art gathered from around the world greet you along with the cool breeze coming from oversize air conditioners working away silently from some unknown place.
The sheer size of these malls requires a stop at the concierge or information booth, many of which contain digital maps to guide you to your destination if you have any trouble with the old-fashioned paper maps that are free for the taking. These maps can be important, however, if you want to avoid getting lost or turned around as you navigate the multi-floor, asymmetrical, alcove-dotted landscapes of these places shoppers call “paradise.” For many, part of the fun is forgetting where they are and allow being lost lead them to serendipitous experiences or places off the beaten path, of which there are many scattered throughout the mall.
There are hundreds of malls in and around Dubai of which about 30 rise to the level of super- or mega-mall. After a year and a half living in Dubai, I think I’ve visited half of the really big malls and find myself returning to a few just so I can someday say I’ve seen the whole mall. Even after a dozen trips to the spectacular, new mall in Dubai — now the largest mall in the world — I still find whole floors and regions that I have not seen in previous visits. We attended the cinema at The Dubai Mall a few weeks ago and found our movie in one of the 22 theaters occupying a huge three-story region next to the acre-size game room filled with young people of all ages. The game room was next to a place for small children to play and be entertained, the entrance of which was announced by a real Boeing 727 airplane protruding into the walkway.
We seem to enjoy going to The Dubai Mall when we have friends visiting so we can share this unique experience with them. Depending on the occasion, we might try to get reservations at our favorite restaurant in the mall, a small Italian sidewalk café called Urbano. The food is quite good but the attraction is the spectacular view of Burj Khalifa (formerly Burj Dubai), the tallest building in the world, fully lit and towering above the mall, the City of Dubai and the coastal region. At the base of Burj Khalifa and just a few yards from our table, is the Dubai Fountain that combines a digitally choreographed water show with Arabic and classical music for an effect that has to be seen to be believed.
Leaving Urbano, we often take a stroll to see the Olympic-size ice rink with hundreds of young people skating like the Dutch on their frozen canals or kids from Minneapolis skating on the scores of frozen lakes that dot the parks scattered throughout the city. A huge television screen towering above the ice rink is showing images of nature and scenes of Dubai interspersed with commercials for products all of which can be found in nearby stores within the mall.
Glancing at my watch, I’m surprised to see that we’ve been at the mall for three or four hours and haven’t even left one floor or corner.
The other mega-malls have their special attractions that often create conflict when we are trying to decide which mall we want to visit this weekend. I especially like to visit the Ibn Battuta Mall named after an important and increasingly famous 15th century Arab explorer. The Ibn Battuta Mall celebrates and interprets the explorer’s travels to Persia, China, Egypt, Morocco, India and other regions of the Middle East, Africa and Asia. A stroll through the Ibn Battuta — the world’s largest themed shopping mall — combines a lesson in Arabic history with a unique shopping and entertainment experience that includes 275 retailers, 50 restaurants and food outlets and 21 cinemas as well as an IMAX theatre.
Then there is the Mall of the Emirates with its ski slope and year-round winter sports arena that attracts thousands of people every day to experience snow and ice here in the middle of one of the world’s largest desert regions. Our out-of-town guests often linger here taking pictures of this nearly unbelievable scene.
After visiting the Mall of the Emirates, the Ibn Battuta and The Dubai Mall, you realize that there are at least two dozen mega-malls left to visit and explore for their unique features. We find that these iconic shopping villages are packed with shoppers, strollers and sight-seers every time we venture another trip to one of Dubai’s malls. Thursday evenings the broad aisles of these malls are literally wall-to-wall people — young and old, Nationals and ex pats, locals and tourists.
Back at The Dubai Mall, one of the great challenges of spending an afternoon or evening at the mall is remembering how to find the correct exit to the region of the parking garage where you left your car. People have been known to spend hours trying to locate their car following their instincts or memories to little or no avail. It is all part of the experience.
Dan Johnson is provost and COO, Zayed University, United Arab Emirates and UT president emeritus.