Mall vision

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A new day, a new dawn. From the wind swept sands, a new legend rises,” read the introductory text on one website I came across last week. It was intriguing. Would this dramatic passage go on to describe a particularly heroic chapter in world history? Was it the deadpan voiceover for the trailer of a Hollywood blockbuster?

Wrong on both counts. It’s talking about a mall. Not just any mall, mind you, but “a mall of epic proportions that is named The Dubai Mall,” and an edifice which when completed will be the largest shopping center on earth. That is, if its rival — the Mall of Arabia — doesn’t get there first.

Now, shopping malls are already big in Dubai. They’re big metaphorically, in that they make piles of cash and attract millions of visitors every year, and they’re big literally. Acres of space in this ever-expanding city are devoted to helping people consume or purchase products in air-conditioned indoor areas, and plenty more acres are being prepared for this purpose as we speak.

It’s not surprising that this should be the case, nor that malls should be so popular and successful here. They’re a haven from the heat and the construction work, there’s no natural outdoor city center for shoppers to congregate in, and there are lots of consumers with hefty disposable incomes who have nothing better to do with their spare time than buy things.

But I’m afraid that doesn’t stop most of the city’s malls from somehow being extraordinarily depressing places. Please don’t get me wrong: I could think of far worse places to spend my time (prison, for instance), and once you’ve battled your way around the labyrinthine car parks, the initial sensation upon entering a mall is not unpleasant. The arctic wave of air-conditioning is a blessed relief after the outdoor heat, everything is clean and shiny, and there are lots of potentially enticing products.

Then, after about half an hour or so, something strange begins to happen. I start to tense up and become agitated. Other people bump in to me. They stand on both sides of an otherwise empty escalator that I would like to walk up. The incessant muzak being piped from every shop drills into my brain. Overdressed salespeople lurking near promotional stalls try to accost me about buying an off-plan property. The smell of nachos or fries, so appealing at first, now makes me feel sick.

Soon my nervousness turns to rage. Everyone is now my enemy and I must immediately leave. I keep my head down and stride as quickly as I can towards the exit, desperate to escape this fridge and re-enter real life, even if it is smelly and hot and dusty and doesn’t have a Dunkin’ Donuts.

Yet what amazes me is that people seem to spend hours in Dubai’s malls without incurring any of the brutal psychological side-effects that seem to afflict me. Even more amazing is that many of these people are visitors from the UK or Europe, where they can purchase exactly the same things as they can in Dubai, at almost exactly the same prices. But fly them halfway around the world on a $900 flight and they appear to temporarily lose their senses.

Lots of British tourists, for instance, are quite clearly dumfounded by the fact that Dubai has many of the same shops that you would find on the UK high-street. “Oh, great”, they say, “there’s a Marks and Spencer’s. We’ll just pop in and have a look around — I wonder if they have the same things as they do in England? And look — there’s a Boots too! Wow, this place is fantastic — let’s spend our holiday time buying the same items that we could buy at home!”

Maybe I’m being a bit cruel. I guess there’s a kind of “wow” factor to Dubai’s malls which draws in people, just in the same way that the Burj Dubai or the Burj al-Arab are tourist sights in themselves. Plus, of course, the retail developers have been clever in coupling the retail side of things with standalone attractions — like the ski slope at the Mall of the Emirates.

No one knows just how big the mall developers’ profits are, as they don’t open their books, but it’s safe to assume that they’re not losing money. And that purely commercial reason, as well as the various social ones, is why malls will always be central to life in Dubai as the city grows out into the desert and along the coast.

The trick now will be to dream up fresh unique selling points to attract all these new and hungry consumers. Dubai Mall, for instance, is set to feature an Olympic ice-skating rink and the world’s largest gold souk. Slightly more dubiously, the Mall of Arabia is partly basing its future allure on housing the world’s largest Starbucks. Call me a bore, but I can’t think of anything less likely to cure my allergic reaction to malls.