x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

The mall - globalisation's dystopia or an idyllic community?

The mall is more than a place to shop. It's almost a way of life.

This past holiday, Dubai Mall was busier than I had ever seen it. There was a different crowd of older aunties and uncles, and even the occasional grandmother. Infants in push chairs rolled alongside pensioners in wheelchairs, with three generations of the same family promenading through.

Added to this were the numerous tourists and a somewhat carnival atmosphere. If a mall is just a place to shop, why should we be drawn to it in such numbers? When did shopping stop being a chore?

Of course, malls aren't just about buying things these days, with friends packing the cinema, and others sitting around tables at the cafe. Increasingly, malls have become part of the social fabric. For some, it has become almost an extension of identity - are you a Marina Mall or an Abu Dhabi Mall type of person?

This recent visit caused me to reconsider my view. Rather than seeing the mall as a cathedral of consumption, I began to think of it more as a playground. In the case of Dubai Mall, this equates to 55 hectares of air-conditioned, immaculate floor space.

The space is used for entertainment, education and socialising, along with quite a bit of shopping. A fair idea about UAE consumer behaviour can be gleaned from international market-intelligence reports.

The UAE ranks highly in the top-shopper charts. The 2012 Neilsen Global Survey of Consumer Confidence ranked the UAE among the world's top 10 in "consumer confidence" and "spending intentions". The metrics came from a survey of 28,000 consumers in 56 countries.

An earlier Neilsen survey looked at how frequently consumers shopped, and their reasons for shopping. Eighty four per cent of UAE respondents admitted to occasional casual consumerism - that is, shopping just for something to do.

Mall size and shopping frequency are not everything. What of the quality and variety of the experience? In a classic work from the 16th century, Sir Thomas More, an adviser to England's King Henry VIII, wrote of a make-believe land he called Utopia: "He that knows one of their towns knows them all, they are so like one another."

Globalisation has, to some extent, made this aspect of More's Utopian vision a reality. Although, for me, absolute uniformity is actually dystopian. Walking through Dubai Mall, I'm struck by how much sameness there is: the same franchise coffee shops and fast-food chains, waging the same brand wars they began many years ago on distant shores. Standing at one end of the mall is Bloomingdale's, a retailing testament to Frank Sinatra's New York, New York: "If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere ..."

Thankfully, within the UAE mall experience, there are differences too. Traditional Gulf dress is on display, with even a golden burka or two making a welcome occasional appearance. Also, the mall smells distinctly Middle Eastern as sellers of Oud, Attar and Bakhour (Arabian perfumes) engage in generous olfactory advertising.

It's these two distinguishing features - local dress and perfumes - that were remarked upon by the 14th century explorer Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Batutta, on his visit to the region. In his great work A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling, Ibn Batutta writes of the sedentary city-dwelling Arabs: "Very elegant and clean in their dress, most of them wear white garments, which you always see fresh and snowy. They use a great deal of perfume and kohl.

"The [women] are extraordinarily beautiful and very pious and modest. They too make great use of perfumes to such a degree that they will spend the night hungry in order to buy perfumes."

If Ibn Batutta had joined me on my walk through Dubai Mall, he would at least have recognised some things. This is a testimony to the people of the UAE and the many distinct local traditions, in what is perhaps one of most globalised places on the planet.


Justin Thomas is an assistant professor at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi