Friday, June 5, 2009

Malls! Malls! Everywhere!

One thing for sure about this wacky little emirate is that there is an incredibly high number of malls per capita. The wife and I recently decided to hit a new mall each week, and counting off just the ones we know, that list is going to take quite a long time to get through.

One thing I've read in blogs and in the news is speculation that this massive overdevelopment of retail space in Dubai was going to have negative repercussions during the economic crunch. But so far, I can't say that I've seen any evidence that this is happening at all.

Today we went to Times Square, one of the newest shopping centers built on Sheikh Zayed Rd. Times Square has only open been for a year or so, but already it draws in a good number of affluent larger families on account of the disproportionate number of kids stores, and places for children. One spot in particular, Fun Square, is an absolutely brilliantly executed kids zone. Birthday parties there need to be booked weeks in advance, and for those who just drop by, it is worth every single dirham to chuck the kids into the multilevel padded play palace. You can literally see a line of mums, slumped thankfully against the wall in chairs, finally getting a moment of rest while their little devils burn up enough excess energy to ensure early bedtimes later on. And with a Caribou Coffee downstairs, a massive Sharaf DG electronics store, and a large after-market car parts store, it's like Mom and Dad crack city.

On the way out of Times Square, we decided to stop at the new Oasis Centre, just one interchange down the road. We needed to pop into the nice Carrefour Express they have, but when we came in close to the place, found that they had no parking whatsoever. There were over 800 spots underground, and maybe 100 above ground, the place was jam packed. This centre, which had burned down years ago, and only just reopened a few months ago, was already teeming with customers, enough so that we had to head on down the road. And in doing so, I noticed something I hadn;t really thought about before.

As it stands right now in Dubai, you can find a large mall, almost literally at every interchange along a stretch starting at Ittihad Rd. in Sharjah, heading on through to the other border of Dubai. Start with the Sahara Centre in Sharjah, and after crossing the border into Dubai you have Century Mall. Go up Ittihad a few minutes and you pass the Deira City Centre. The next major interchange, Garhoud Bridge, is next to Festival City. After that, at the Al Wasl interchange, is Wafi City. Then, passing by the interchange near Karama, is Lamcy Plaza. At the World Trade Centre roundabout, where Ittihad Rd. becomes Sheikh Zayed Rd., you won't find a mall, per se, but you will find one of the longest, and by far the tallest, strip malls in the world. On Sheikh Zayed Rd., at that point, is an unbroken line of skyscrapers that stretches for a full mile on both sides. At the next interchange, you can hit the Dubai Mall or the Mazaya Centre. After the next interchange is the Oasis Centre. The next interchange brings Times Square, and the next interchange after that is where you will find the Mall of the Emirates. Past there, is the Dubai Marina Mall, and then further down the road, near the border between Dubai and Abu Dhabi is Ibn Battuta Mall.

Each mall is no more than a five minute drive, as the crow flies, from the next one down the road. Back in Canada, I can remember driving quite a ways to get to any mall of note. In Ottawa you start with Bayshore Shopping Centre in Nepean, go on to the Rideau Center downtown, and then the Place D'Orleans on the other side of the city. Over roughly the same distance, in both cities, cities with comparable populations*, you go from three malls along a stretch in Ottawa, to fourteen in Dubai. That's about a mall every kilometer and a half. And those fourteen? They aren't doing too badly.

Almost anywhere else I can imagine, in Canada, and even in the United States, that many major retail centers, strung along over such a short distance, would be a disaster for the developers and owners of those malls. You just can't support that much retail space concentrated in such a small area. Yet for some reason those same economic realities don't seem to function here.

Could it be population density? Maybe, but I don't think so. The population density of Dubai is 25% higher than that of Ottawa, but in Ottawa, on the whole, the standard of living and per capita income is leagues beyond what Dubai can boast. For all the extravagant development in Dubai, the city itself just isn't that built up. There are few sidewalks, the metro system is yet to open, and outside of the few major arteries like Sheikh Zayed Rd., there are really not very many major roads. And as for wealth, the extravagant wealth that Dubai is known for really is concentrated in small percentage of the population. Which nixes the next question - are people richer? Not on the average, no.

Which leaves the question as yet unanswered. How can Dubai have so many malls, yet not face a massive retail sector meltdown? Is it because, outside of going to the mall, there isn't much to do in Dubai? Is it because Dubai lacks the massive power centers that litter than landscape in North America - the massive expanses of parking lot filled in with a few big box stores like Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and Best Buy? Is it because Dubai is pretty much the shopping center of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Oman?

Any ideas?

*Dubai's population figures also include hundreds of thousands of laborers who live, for all intents and purposes, outside of the city. Those same laborers also do not figure into the plans of retailers, as their salaries are a) exceedingly modest, and b) are usually tied up by monthly remittance commitments.

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