Saturday, June 13, 2009

Desert Notes: Let's Go Shopping

My daughter E, who is one year old, doesn’t speak very much. One of her few really clear words is “shopping”. Its not surprising really, since the national pastime of the UAE appears to be just that – shopping.

Whether you fancy haute couture or bargain buys, Abu Dhabi offers the shopping experience you are looking for. Apart from the many malls that are found all over the island, there are small mini-retailers on the ground floor of most apartment blocks. There are also the traditional markets or souqs (or souks).

The souqs are the places to go if you like bargain hunting, and of course, if you like to haggle. In Abu Dhabi there are a few options: the Central Market, the Fish Market, the Fruit & Vegetable Market, the Livestock Market, the Carpet Souq and the Iranian Souq. There is also a Camel Souq but that’s out of town, somewhere near the camel-racing track.

The Central Market sells just about everything you could possibly imagine – from small household appliances to souvenirs. You can even buy a fake Rolex if you wanted. It was here that I made my first attempt at haggling. I bought a couple of very touristy type items to send back to the family at home – a fluffy camel that sings in Arabic and some Abu Dhabi t-shirts. The t-shirt vendor was the most fun to haggle with. It worked something like this:

I examined the t-shirts I was after, put them back and started to walk away. The enthusiastic vendor stopped me with an exuberant “Good day madam” and offered me another t-shirt to look at. I put on my most skeptical face and asked how much? The vendor pulled out a giant calculator and hastily tapped in some numbers then presented it with a flourish saying “For you madam, I give you the t-shirt at a very special price – only 45 dirhams”. I responded with a polite “No thank-you, that’s too much” and walked away slowly. The vendor called me back and pulled out the giant calculator again. More finger tapping and another offer - “Only for you madam, I make a price. For today only. 30 dirhams.” Now it was time to get down to real business. “How much if I want to buy 3 t-shirts then?” I asked. Out came the giant calculator again and after much to-ing and fro-ing, with some extravagant finger tapping and dramatic calculator flourishing we settled on 30 dirhams for all three t-shirts. And both the vendor and I walked away happy.

The general rule of thumb for tourists is to settle for half of what the vendor originally offered.

Unfortunately there was a rather large fire in the market recently, and many of the shops were destroyed. However, the mini-retailers are still at it, even though there are some sections of the market that are decidedly unsafe. Plans are in place to rebuild the market, this time fully covered, with air conditioning and designed more to look like a traditional Arabic marketplace.

While most of the other souqs are fairly self-explanatory, you may be wondering what an Iranian souq is. And no, unlike the Fish Market selling fish, the Iranian market does not sell Iranians. It sells everything else. A lot of plasticware – like garden tables, chairs, dustbins, much like what is sold alongside the roads in Johannesburg. There is also the usual assortment of small household appliances and electronic toys. Mostly manufactured in China. But the Iranian souq is actually more well known for its terracotta pots – lovely big ones!

If you don’t fancy sweating it out in the sun at the souqs, and are after a little more style and class, along with air conditioned comfort, then you can choose from the many malls around the island.

By far the biggest mall in terms of floor space and retail outlets is the Madinat Zayed Shopping Centre and its neighbour, the Madinat Zayed Gold Centre. The Gold Centre itself is dedicated almost entirely to jewelry stores. The only exception is a food court, a homewares store and the Daiso (a Japanese value chain). The entire first floor is dedicated to gold. Unfortunately you are not allowed to take photos inside, but it really is quite phenomenal.

The next two biggest are Abu Dhabi Mall and Marina Mall. These are the malls to visit if you are in to well-known brand names like Guess, GAP, Alfred Dunhill, Tiffanys, Bvlgari, Ikea, Radioshack, Starbucks et cetera. You mention a big brand and you will probably find a store to match it. It’s a dedicated shoppers paradise. For homesick expat South Africans, there is a Mugg & Bean at Abu Dhabi Mall and a Woolworths (regrettably no Woolies Foods) and a Truworths at Marina Mall.

There are plenty of other malls, mostly of the mini-mall variety – it all depends what you are looking for. Some malls focus exclusively on a particular area. There is one dedicated to traditional souvenirs, antiques, and carpets. Another is primarily clothing and shoes.

Almost every apartment blocks first two floors are taken up by some kind of shops. Whether it be the Rolls Royce dealership, a Marks & Spencer or your local corner grocery and hair “saloon” (more on these in a later column) there are shops everywhere selling almost anything you could possibly want. Except maybe for alcohol!

And I haven’t even BEEN to Dubai yet – which, from all accounts, is an even greater shoppers paradise! So if shopping is your passion, the UAE is definitely the place to be.

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