As time and progress march on, the golden days of an endearingly ramshackle Hatta institution may be numbered. In 1990, the mountain town of Hatta stood more or less as it had for centuries. Primarily a farming community, its families lived in the same houses and worked the same land their ancestors had. That year, a young local man named Saeed al Badwawi opted for a different career path, opening the Red Dress fashion outlet in a squat, narrow building next to the Hatta Fort roundabout; it has been the town's most popular shopping destination ever since.
Over the years, Badwawi's clothing store has evolved into more of an everything store: a chaotic array of evening wear, inflatable pool toys, hair-removal cream, accounting ledgers, basketball shoes and perfume, all crammed into every available inch of space. It's as if someone took Carrefour, compressed it, then shook it up and threw it down. The surrounding area has changed, too. Today, old Hatta is dotted with half-built luxury villas, suburban-style housing and Damas and Dnata outlets. It's unclear how scruffy, kooky little Red Dress will fit in with the new and improved version of the town.
In a way, Red Dress - with its sequinned dresses, lingerie and lipstick - heralded the town's lurch into the era of Western-style shopping. It's probable, back when it opened, that the shop raised a few eyebrows in the town, although this didn't stop locals from flocking to it. According to al Badwawi, every resident of Hatta has shopped at Red Dress, or at least owns something that was bought there. Until recently, if you found yourself in need of a pair of eyebrow tweezers, a bouncy baby swing, a girlie-T or some shampoo, the shop was basically the only game in town.
Thanks in part to its prime roadside location - opposite the Hatta Fort Hotel, en route to the Oman border - Red Dress has also enjoyed some success with people who are just passing through. "We always have good comments from the tourists," al Badwawi says. "They tell us that we sell good garments at good prices." It's true, you can pick up a pair of socks for less than you'd pay for a cup of coffee. This, though, is only part of the appeal. While locals go to Red Dress to buy stuff they need, many out-of-towners stop by to look at stuff they don't; if you enjoy browsing and have a taste for the cheap and cheerful, it's the perfect place to while away an air-conditioned half-hour. (You invariably buy something: a recent visit made me the owner of a salmon pink, short-sleeved shirt from the not-so-famous Ambition brand.)
The problem with prime locations, as al Badwawi recently discovered, is that eventually others want to get in on the action. In September 2007, Red Dress suddenly found itself standing in the shadow of the Emirates Cooperative Society, a modern, multi-levelled shopping centre that opened up next door. The new Co-op boasts not only a relatively wide array of shops, but also a food court and a children's arcade, which puts a dampener on Red Dress's selection of colouring books.
But al Badwawi is surprisingly sanguine about the arrival of the new mall. "Of course, now there is more competition," he says. "But it will be good for business." The hope is that the opening of the Co-op, and other malls that may follow, will have a rising-tide effect: "Many people who live in Hatta now work in other cities, so all week there's nobody here - only the old people and the children. If more people come to Hatta, more people will come to our shop."
Al Badwawi, a 42-year-old Emirati, has lived in Hatta all his life. He can still remember when ordinary families lived in the old houses at the town's Heritage Village museum complex, when kids played football in its narrow streets, long before it became the centrepiece of Hatta's transformation into a burgeoning tourist hot spot. "The government has built new houses for the citizens," he says, referring to the faux-traditional villas that are increasingly replacing the town's old residences. "They have been careful with the style of the houses, the heritage style."
Hundreds of the new houses extend in orderly ranks along the base of the Hajar mountains. At night, from the Hatta Fort Hotel, you can see their lights twinkling, just beyond the garish neon sign atop the Emirates Co-op. Al Badwawi says he mostly approves of the changes he sees around him, although some locals fear that the town's identity may be at peril. Red Dress, anyway, seems almost certain to disappear - at least in its current form.
For a while now, day-to-day operations at the store have been handled by the owner's 25-year-old-son, Hamad, who, like all young people, has his own ideas about the future. "We want this to last, but I think it will be difficult," he says. "Today, everything is too old at Red Dress, there is not enough space. So we are looking for a place to build a new Red Dress, a bigger shop with good design." * Chris Wright