DUBAI // With his arm blocking the way, the security guard shouts "Stand back!" as the crowd gathering in the streets prepares to surge forward. It is 6am on a Friday. But as most of the country sleeps in on the first day of the weekend, a thousand people have wrestled themselves out of bed to mob Dubai's flea market - two hours before it opens.
That so many people would queue up for a chance to buy used goods for as little as Dh1 (US$0.27) is a sign of how residents of recession-struck Dubai are becoming more budget-conscious, said the market's organiser, Melanie Beese. "Last week, 1,000 people were queuing in front of the hall before 8am, pushing each other inside the door," she said. "People were panicking, wanting to be the first inside, and it got very dangerous. My friend could not hold them back. "They pushed her against the wall, I thought she was going to get crushed. The hall was overloaded. I decided I either had to cancel the entire idea or get myself some security guards." Miss Beese has hired 10 burly security guards at a cost of Dh150 an hour each for crowd control and to stop any injuries. They went on duty for the first time yesterday.
A recent report by the consumer analysis firm Datamonitor found that the current economic crisis means more people are trying to save money by spending more cautiously. Also, now the school year is up and jobless parents are leaving the country with their families, there are many more people desperate to sell goods in a hurry - leaving shoppers in a strong bargaining position.
And the flea market is a prime venue for this commerce. Helen Collinge, 36, a teacher, is leaving in a fortnight for her native Britain after three years in Dubai. She and her flatmate Hem Mistry, 41, a banker who was made redundant in November, were simply waiting for her school term to end. The three-bedroom villa they bought in The Springs for Dh2.8 million (US$762,000) and put on the market last year for Dh4.5m has just sold - for exactly the same price they paid for it. Now, they say, they must recoup their losses by selling every vase and picture frame from their former dream home.
By 11am yesterday, their stall, one of 120 in the flea market, had made Dh1,500. "We were hanging on until the end of the school year, but there does not seem to be any point in staying," Ms Collinge said. "I am looking forward to going home. It would have been pointless to pay to take everything back and probably cost more. I am hoping to get a good deal on shipping on the stuff I am taking home though, as people are abandoning goods rather than paying to take them."
Jimmy Ferrer, 47, who works in a shipyard, and Susan Prinas, 45, a housemaid, arrived at the hall at 7.30am, 30 minutes before it was due to open. "We wanted the best bargains but there was already a crush," said Mr Ferrer, a native of the Philippines. "It is good-quality stuff and priced low. Lots of the people selling are leaving Dubai, so some of the things they are selling are new. I got clothes, bags and trousers for a few dirhams and a duvet for Dh25."
Mrs Prinas, a Filipina who picked up a Dh50 sandwich toaster for a fraction of what it would cost in a store, added: "Most people shopping here cannot afford to buy these things when they are brand-new, and here they are only slightly used." Not all the goods are second-hand. Several traders set up in the market because the Dh300 cost is not as prohibitive as a shopping mall. Nadine Wells, Nadja Broadbent and Shirley Conlon were selling beach dresses, handmade silver jewellery and cotton kimonos. The women had made about Dh2,000.
Ms Broadbent said: "We normally sell from home but came here to see what the response is. It seems easier and less costly than running a shop. Most people here want bargains, but there is a small market for new products." One disgruntled stallholder, who did not want to be named, packed up and left at 11am because there was little demand for the new skirts and tops she usually sells in her store for Dh80 to Dh120.
In desperation, she began selling items for Dh5, but had barely broken even before she left. Her customer Lal Rodrigo, 50, a security guard, was somewhat happier after buying gifts for his daughters Apekesh, 17, and Navodi, 15. "You can get the cheapest things in Dubai here," he said. "I cannot normally afford items over Dh50, and these are good quality." Hamda Kasim, 20, her sister Hessa, 17, and their cousin Mariam, 16, were among a handful of Emiratis at the event, selling their unwanted jewellery, make-up and clothes.
Mariam said: "It is not a very Emirati thing to sell second-hand goods, but we don't care. We are making use of things we don't want anymore plus it is a lot of fun. Last time we had a stall, we made Dh1,800. People who cannot buy expensive things can find reasonable prices here." The flea market was a poignant occasion for Yasser Mohammed, 37, an engineer from Syria. Twenty-five of his friends, all of whom have lost their jobs, brought in their unwanted clothes. The proceeds will be spent on a farewell lunch before they return to Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.
"They are all going because of the financial crisis," he said. The huge cross-section of society at the market is a growing phenomenon, Miss Beese said. She started running monthly outdoor flea markets in Safa Park in April 2008. Numbers steadily grew from 70 stands and 1,500 visitors at the first event to 250 stands and 4,500 visitors last month. Because of the sheer volume of people leaving Dubai and looking to sell their goods, she decided to hold a bi-monthly indoor flea market during the summer from 8am to 3pm in Safa Hall, the first of which took place last week. "It began growing really quickly in January because lots of people lost their jobs and needed to sell things fast to leave the country, so I had to continue," she said.
"I get about 20 phone calls a day, and they all tell me the same story. I thought I could handle 5,000 people coming, but I was not prepared for them queuing from 6am." Alex Young, whose company resells departing expatriates' goods, agrees it is a bargain-hunters' market. He set up CashinDubai.com three months ago to help those leaving in a hurry dispose of the contents of their home, in return for a commission of up to 25 per cent.
Mr Young said: "You can get massive discounts of between 50 and 70 per cent on unused items still in their original boxes. I have sold a new, Dh30,000 sofa for Dh8,000. Shoppers are actively looking for second-hand furniture and are much more prepared to haggle. Those who are leaving are happy because they make back a bit of money and avoid paying for storage." But with websites like Dubizzle.com and Bazaar.ae flooded with offers of cheap furniture, many expatriates still are struggling to unload their goods at any price.
Dawn Petrella, 49, who has advertised her near-new furniture for half-price so she can return to the US, said: "I have not had a single phone call. At this rate, I am going to donate it to the church." email@example.com