Shopping tips for United Arab Emirates

Dubai is shopaholic heaven. This is the city that boasts the world’s largest shopping mall and whose major annual event is the Dubai Shopping Festival – even its name sounds suspiciously like “do buy”. The seriousness with which Dubai takes its retail therapy is evident in the lavishness of many of the spectacular modern malls that dot the city, some of them virtual tourist attractions in their own right, attracting an eclectic crowd of local Emiratis, Western tourists and bargain-hunting Indian and Filipino expats. Alternatively, there’s still plenty of old-fashioned Arabian shopping to be found in the souks of Deira and Bur Dubai, piled high with traditional items like gold, perfume and spices at cut-throat prices – which can often be lowered still further if you fancy a spot of good-natured haggling.

Opening hours for mall shops are usually 10am to 10pm; some stay open until midnight between Thursday and Saturday, while a few remain closed on Fridays until 2pm. Opening hours in souks are more variable: in general most places open daily from 10am to 10pm, though many close in the afternoon from around 1 to 4/5pm depending on the whim of the owner, and some places don't open on Friday mornings. Bargaining is the norm in the souks; prices in mall shops are fixed.

What to buy

Pretty much everything, is the answer. Gold, diamonds and other precious stones are cheaper here than just about anywhere else in the world. Dubai is also good for cheap spices and Middle Eastern food, purchased either in the Deira souks or a local supermarket; dates are a particularly good buy. Other bargains are local perfumes, clothes and shoes, including pretty little Arabian-style embroidered slippers – or you could go the whole hog and kit yourself out in a traditional dishdasha or abbeya (male and female robes). The city also has a thriving carpet trade (though you might want to check the Blue Souk in Sharjah too) ranging from inexpensive kilims to heirloom-quality Persian rugs. Arabian souvenirs are another obvious choice and there are heaps of collectable antiques such as old coffee pots, khanjars, wooden boxes and antique Bedouin jewellery, along with shisha pipes and frankincense, not to mention plenty of memorably awful toy camels, mosque alarm clocks and Burj al Arab paperweights. Recordings of Arabian music are another interesting buy, although for a quintessentially Dubaian memento, check out some of the vast array of fake designer stuff on offer in Karama and Bur Dubai.

For (genuine) contemporary fashion, all the world’s top brands are represented in Dubai’s malls. In fact, label fatigue sets in pretty rapidly during any shopping tour of the city and you might prefer to forego looking at yet more Armani in favour of searching out some of the city’s small number of more interesting independent boutiques like S*uce or Ginger & Lace – or just take your revenge on the dominant brands by buying a pile of fakes from Karama. Most major labels have their own stores; alternatively, check out what’s available at one of the city’s increasing number of flagship international department stores, which now include Harvey Nichols, Galeries Lafayette, Bloomingdale’s and Saks Fifth Avenue.

Shopping for fakes

Despite ongoing government clampdowns, Dubai‘s vibrant trade in counterfeit goods (bags, watches, sunglasses, pens, counterfeit DVDs and so on) is still going strong, and for many visitors the acquisition of a top-notch fake Chanel bag or Gucci watch at a fraction of the price of the real thing may be the shopping highlight of a visit to the city – although the brands and city authorities won’t thank you for saying so. Spend any amount of time in Karama Souk, the Gold Souk or around Al Fahidi Street in Bur Dubai and you’ll be repeatedly importuned with offers of “cheap copy watches” or “copy bags”.

Fakes are often on public display in shops, although they may be kept in backrooms away from prying official eyes. Many fakes are still relatively expensive – you’re unlikely to find bigger-ticket items like bags and watches for much under US$50, and plenty of items cost double that, although they’ll still be a lot cheaper than the real thing. Many fakes look pretty convincing at a casual glance (it’s been suggested some counterfeits are actually manufactured in the same factories that produce the genuine items and aren’t really fakes at all, but just seconds or “overmakes”), although longevity varies considerably; some fakes can fall to pieces within a fortnight, while others might last just as long as the real thing. It’s essential to check quality carefully – particularly stitching and zips – and you should also be prepared to shop around and bargain like crazy. Don’t be afraid to walk away if you can’t get the price you want – you’ll have plenty of other offers.

Tailoring in Dubai

Although not as well known for its tailoring industry as places like Hong Kong, Bangkok or India, Dubai is a decent place to get tailor-made clothes run up at fairly modest prices. A good tailor will be able to copy any existing garment you bring in or, alternatively, make up clothes from a photograph or even a hand-drawn design. The best place to head to is the Meena Bazaar area of Bur Dubai, particularly Al Hisn Street (off Al Fahidi Street near the Dubai Museum), where you’ll find a line of tailors along the west side of the road.

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