x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Counter intuition

Feature When Dubai Mall opened, a small army of cheerful, intelligent staff manned its 18 guest service desks. One year on they are still smiling.

When Dubai Mall opened, a small army of cheerful, intelligent staff manned its 18 guest service desks, offering guidance and advice to shoppers lost in its labyrinth. One year on, Helena Frith Powell finds they are still smiling. In order to become a London taxi driver, or cabbie, you have to do what is called "the knowledge". This means you have to know every back street in London, every convoluted route, every major landmark. It seems the staff at the 18 guest service desks in Dubai Mall have been through a similar process. They are consistently the most pleasant and helpful people you could hope to meet. And they know their way around the mall as well as any London cabbie knows London.

There are 110 guest service staff at Dubai Mall, occupying 18 desks. They come from 21 countries, including Zimbabwe, Uzbekistan and Sudan. A total of 30 per cent of the staff are UAE nationals. According to Angela Bak, a spokeswoman for Dubai Mall, the qualifications required are a university degree or college diploma, computer skills, two years in a customer service role and "to be personable, outgoing, compassionate, well-spoken and willing to help".

The staff work in two eight-hour shifts, plus one hour for lunch. "The staff are all passionate about the mall and so love what they do," Bak says. A year after Dubai Mall opened, M asked five of the guest service staff how their first year had been and whether they really are as perfect as they seem. We find Ashraf Younes, a 30-year-old worker from Egypt, at the lower ground floor waterfront atrium desk. He has worked at Dubai Mall since it opened, after completing the obligatory three months of training, during which he learned "how to be welcoming and the map of the mall". He is happy in his job. "I mainly get asked about events, the fountain and the aquarium," he tells us.

We decide to put him to the test and ask him where the ice rink is. He pulls out a map and shows us the quickest way to get there. We get the feeling he could have shown us in his sleep. At the ice-rink desk, we meet a 36-year-old Kenyan named Mohammed Abdalla Omar Bathef. Happily, my colleague speaks Swahili, so she is able to test him on his language skills. He tells her he came to Dubai for "greener pastures, madam" and has been working at the mall since it opened on November 4 last year.

He explains that they are rotated from desk to desk each day, which means they get to know the mall well. "I like the busy desks [at the cinema and the ice rink] best," he tells us. Which is the worst desk, we ask? He laughs. "There are no worst, just best and good." And what is the most stupid question he has ever been asked? "There are no stupid questions: if someone doesn't know something, then they don't know."

Wahida Jumal is a 23-year-old Emirati who is working at the cinema desk today. This is her favourite desk as it is "fun talking to people and very busy". She has worked at Dubai Mall for seven months; prior to that she was a telephone operator. "The most common questions are for fashion, parking and food. Indian people mainly ask for the aquarium," she tells us. "Some people get upset that there is no music shop that sells CDs in the mall." In fact, the only place that does sell popular music CDs is the media section of Waitrose. We tell her we are looking for a tutu for my daughter, and she suggests Mothercare, which she doesn't even need to look up to locate.

At the grand entry first floor desk, we interview Jamal Ahmed Mohammed Osman, who was born in Ajman but is of Somali origin. He is 22 and also has worked at the mall for a year. "One of the most consistent questions I was asked was if there were golf carts to drive around the mall in. So now, as a result of this question, they have introduced golf carts," he says. You can get them from any guest service desk but, for obvious reasons, they only operate on the ground floor.

Ahmed is taking business classes in Dubai and hopes to be the chief executive of a big business one day but "slowly, slowly". For the moment, he is content to work at Dubai Mall. "I love my job. I love to talk and laugh." Down on the lower ground floor at the Waitrose store desk is Afra Sultan, an Emirati from Dubai who is 19. She has been working at the mall for a month. "This is my second job," she says. "Before this I was a teller at Emirates Bank. It's a good job and I like it. I also love shopping after work."

Afra's favourite desk at the mall is the gold souk desk because the "décor is so pretty". Has she been asked any stupid questions? "I was once asked if the Cartier store here sold products made by Cartier." We ask her the way to the fashion car park and she gives us easy-to-follow directions. Dubai Mall is the biggest shopping mall in the Middle East. In the year since it opened, M magazine has visited it countless times. But to be honest, most of us still don't know how to get from Marks & Spencer to Jo Malone, or from Kinokuniya to Louis Vuitton. Happily, we will never need to, because there are 110 helpful guest service staff on hand to show us the way.

Additional reporting by Elizabeth Pearson