Scratch beneath the gilded surface of the region’s more contemporary shop offering to reveal a wealth of unique shopping experiences steeped in local custom. Well the UAE’s bevy of super malls and grand shopping complexes rank high on the list for many tourists, and residents alike, there’s far more to this region’s shopping scene than meets the eye. Arabian bazaars have long been the venue of choice for trading and selling traditional wares, championing a rich tradition of retail, industrious enterprise and skilled craftsmanship. Today the many of the emirates continues to honour these charismatic markets of the past with a host of contemporary spaces that beg to be explored.
As the first communities began to settle along Dubai Creek in the 18th century, the old city became a major port where those from neighbouring countries, as well as Asia and the Far East, arrived with their wares by boat. The clamorous scene thronged with potters, weavers, butchers, fruit and vegetable sellers and merchants of precious metal and spices. Now better organised and with a broader range of modern goods, the marketplaces in Deira and Bur Dubai still remain a hive of vibrant activity. With over 300 retailers vying for attention, Dubai’s Gold Souk is a major visitor attraction and the ultimate destination for all that glitters. Jewellers from around the world are represented here and the souk offers countless choices in all shapes, styles and colours. Beyond the Gold Souk, there is so much more to discover in the labyrinthine markets that line the creek. The Spice Souk conjures a particularly evocative scene. Packed into narrow streets, shop fronts are filled with every imaginable herb and spice available and sacks burst with an array of colours. A heady mix of aromas fills the air, enveloping the senses with hints of vanilla, chilli, turmeric, saffron and cloves. Those who know their ingredients will be at home conversing with the friendly vendors and bartering over prices in the piquant surroundings. In addition to spices, visitors will find dates and other dried fruits, as well as incense, tea and shisha. Close by, the adjacent stalls sell all manner of cooking utensils. On the opposite side of the creek and just an abra ride away, Bur Dubai Souk is the city’s oldest and offers a wealth of treasures from colourful lanterns and intricate hand-woven carpets to silk scarves and traditional-style clothing.
Past meets present
For those who appreciate a less frenetic pace, elsewhere in the city, several retailers have embraced the authentic souk experience and added a modern twist. Souk Madinat Jumeirah and Souk Al Bahar have both been designed with a strong Arabic influence in a contemporary setting, offering local handicrafts with jewellery, art, gifts, clothing and interiors brands for an eclectic shopping trip.
Another of the city’s modern bazaars is Souk Khan Murjan at Wafi Mall. Modelled on an ancient underground souk in Baghdad, it brings together architectural influences from Egypt, Syria, Turkey and Morocco. The venue provides a creative community for artists and craftspeople, encouraging skilled individuals to break into the retail world and showcase traditional products. Peruse everything from bespoke calligraphy to oriental rugs and luxe pashminas.
Over in the capital, Souk Qaryat Al Beri is a must. Part of the Shangri-La Hotel, Qaryat Al Beri, Abu Dhabi complex, the popular souk features a blend of Arabic and Venetian architectural themes and a lovely mix of stores and stalls selling a variety of Arabian perfumes, antiques, clothes, jewellery and furniture. Another one to try is The Souk at World Trade Centre. A fusion of old and new its expansive public squares as well as a central atrium and rooftop gardens are radiate character thanks to the myriad of charming stalls and shisha smoking spots.
With the aim of reviving some of the capital’s more traditional retail offerings and preserving the handicrafts that were once vital to its people’s fortunes, Sougha has changed the lives of many skilled Emiratis across the UAE. Sougha, meaning ‘a traveller’s gift’ in Arabic, is a social enterprise initiative by the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development. Starting out as a small initiative in 2009 with just a handful of skilled Emiratis in the Western Region of Abu Dhabi, today there are over 100 artisans involved with this admirable cause. The organisation sells handmade products, including brightly coloured bags, tapestries, bracelets and even phone covers that are made in traditional sadou patterns. This style of weaving, using a floor loom, was originally used by Bedouins. Head to the gorgeous Central Market at The Souk at World Trade Centre to browse a wide selection of Sougha products. A fusion of old and new, the souk’s expansive public squares as well as a central atrium and rooftop gardens radiate character thanks to a myriad of charming stalls and shisha smoking spots making it the perfect place to while away the day.
Over in Al Ain
The Central or Old Souk is a good place to start with its ramshackle cluster of stalls selling exotic spices, colourful throws and intricate jewellery that offer a more rustic take on the souk shopping experience found elsewhere in the capital. Another place decidedly local in character is the Camel Souk, which offers a unique insight into Middle Eastern culture combined with an opportunity to witness camel auctions and see some of the prize animals with their owners. Souk Al Qattara in the city of Al Ain showcases handicrafts from local traders. Selling a variety of products from national clothing and perfume to incense and exotic spices, this weekend market takes place every Thursday, Friday and Saturday from October to May. Visitors can easily spend an entire day here as the souk is also linked to the redeveloped Al Qattara Fort, now home to a popular arts centre that features regular exhibitions and workshops, a library and café.