Since ancient times, crossroads have been natural places for traders to buy and sell things. Travellers pause for breath, take refreshment and - suitably fortified - do business. Dubai, with one foot in the East and the other in the West, has the good fortune to lie at such a crossroads - a natural resting point for visitors from all points of the compass.
For many years, duty-free shopping - making luxury items such as perfume and electronic goods more affordable, and heavily taxed items like alcohol and tobacco less extortionately priced - made Dubai International Airport better known than the city itself. Even today, when the city is a tourist magnet in its own right, two-thirds of the people who pass through the airport are on the way to somewhere else. The few hours they spend in transit present the emirate with a great earning opportunity.
Before you even get to the baggage carousel, the shopping experience begins. The busy emporium is open 24 hours a day to accommodate the flights that arrive in the middle of the night. The backdrop to the duty free information desk is a trophy cabinet with an array of awards from business traveller magazines and airlines. Its sales figures are truly astounding. In the winter months, turnover averages more than £1m per day, and this figure looks set to rise as the airport expands, with another terminal under construction and direct services being established between Dubai and Europe, the United States and the rest of Asia. Only Heathrow and Seoul do more business.
The official explanation of why Dubai does so well is that, like everything else in the emirate, the duty free complex is owned by the government, which keeps prices to a minimum. In fact, based on this writer's sample of its wares, prices are not appreciably lower than at neighbouring airports (such as Abu Dhabi), the shopping malls in the city of Dubai itself, or even supermarkets in the UK. Chart CDs, for example, cost just over £8, as against £9.79 at home; DVDs are £12 (£13.99), and good Scotch whisky or French perfume are priced roughly in line with European duty frees. The only spectacular reductions I could find were cigarettes, at 66p per pack (£4.80), lacking only the SMOKING KILLS health warning to remind you that even at 66p, they scarcely represent value for money. Overall, though, Dubai Duty Free is a diverting and entertaining way of whiling away the hours before you're summoned to your next aircraft.
For those who venture beyond the airport, the shopping opportunities are limitless. The copy-writer who thought up the slogan "Do Buy in Dubai" was not over-taxing his or her imagination. At the last count, the city contained no fewer than 44 Western-style shopping malls, and nearly as many traditional souks. The top-end malls are not so much places to go shopping as mini theme parks. Most open from 10am to 10pm; only on Friday mornings and during the holy month of Ramadan does purchasing make way for praying.
The Wafi City Mall is among the market leaders. From the outside (ignoring the approach roads and multi-storey car park) it resembles an ancient Egyptian temple, with pharaohic statues, rows of sphinx and numerous obelisks. Inside, there are more than 200 shops, with fashion and jewellery strongly featured, and Marks & Spencer among its new arrivals. Also on the site are the largest health spa in the emirates, two swimming pools, squash and tennis courts, a climbing wall, roller-blading rink, virtual reality simulators, 3D cinema, two adventure playgrounds, a crèche, nearly 30 restaurants and a nightclub.
There's more of an Arabic presence at the Deira City Centre Mall, the largest in the Gulf. Among its 240 stores is a Carrefour hypermarket, which adopts the "pile 'em high, sell 'em cheap" approach, and is reputed to offer consistently lower prices than anywhere else in town. But you still pay what the price tag demands - only if you venture into the souks can you exercise your bartering skills.
Dubai has a souk for all seasons, all wares and all pockets. There's a gold souk, a spice souk, a carpet souk, and various all-purpose souks selling antique jewellery, furniture, pottery, souvenirs, kitchenware, toys, clothes and silks. Although some are modern and air-conditioned, most are labyrinthine and hectic - as close as you'll get in Dubai to an authentic whiff of Arabia.
The spice souk, with frankincense, nuts, dates and perfumes supplementing the spices, is aromatic and colourful. In the gold souk in Deira, the sheer quantity of the precious metal on display is breathtaking. All that glistens is not gold, but there are stringent laws to prevent counterfeit goods changing hands. There's less control over the dubious designer labels, watches and electronics on offer in the Karama district, where you should beware of items without a guarantee or warranty. Here, as in all the souks, bargaining is expected. Aim at a price of about half of the opening bid, and you won't go far wrong. The souks open between 9am and 1pm, close for the hottest part of the day, and reopen between 4pm and 9pm.
Dubai, the self-styled City of Gold, is now reinventing itself as the City of Shopping, with a month-long annual festival at the turn of the year. More than 2,000 stores take part, putting on themed entertainments, special promotions and competitions, and marking down their unsold Christmas stock by as much as 70 per cent. Even if you find nothing that tempts you to open your wallet, you can be sure to find plenty that will open your eyes.
The 44 shopping malls have their own composite website:
Wafi Mall: 00 971 4324 4555; www.waficity.com
Deira City Centre: 00 971 4295 1010; www.deiracitycentre.com
Dubai Shopping Festival (4 January to 4 February 2006): www.mydsf.ae
Gulf Air offers a Jumeirah Express service operating between London and Abu Dhabi with a complimentary private car transfer to Dubai. The connection from Abu Dhabi to Dubai takes 45 minutes and is available on Gulf Air's twice-daily services ( www.gulfairco.com; 0870 777 1717). With the introduction of a route to Scotland last year, Emirates ( www.emirates.com/uk) now offers a nationwide service from the UK and flies direct from London, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow. For further details or to book call Airline Network ( www.airlinenetwork.co.uk) on 0870 043 6531.
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