Over the years, Dubai has become the world capital of retail therapy. Not only does it have some of the largest malls in the world, the older parts of town are full of the atmospheric souqs that will keep you occupied all day long. Then there is the Dubai Shopping Festival when you can buy some of the best brands in the world at discounts you did not even think existed.
If you ever find yourself in one of Dubai’s souqs or neighbourhood markets with a pocketful of cash, here’s some stuff you can buy:
Bedouin jewellery is brilliant in Dubai and makes a great gift. Look for elaborate silver necklaces and pendants, chunky earrings and rings, and wedding belts, many of which incorporate coral, turquoise and semiprecious stones. Very little of the older Bedouin jewellery comes from the Emirates; most of it originates in Oman, Yemen and Afghanistan.
Dubai is a carpet lover’s paradise. Fine Persian carpets, colourful Turkish and Kurdish kilims, and rough-knotted Bedouin rugs are all widely available. Dubai has a reputation in the region for having the highest-quality carpets at the best prices. Bargaining is the norm. If you can’t secure the price you want, head to another store. When you buy a carpet, ask for a certificate of authentication guaranteed by the Dubai Chamber of Commerce & Industry, so you can be sure that the carpet actually comes from where the vendor says it does.
Back in the day, the ultimate kitsch souvenir used to be a colourful mosque clock with an irritating call-to-prayer alarm. Now the souqs and souvenir shops overflow with wacky, kitsch gifts – glass Burj al-Arab paperweights, wooden Russian dolls painted as Emiratis, Barbie and Ken dolls in Emirati dress, key rings strung with miniature towers, camel-crossing-sign fridge magnets, and coffee mugs and baseball caps with Sheikh Zayed or Sheikh Mohammed waving to the crowd.
Perfume & incense
Attars (Arabian perfumes) are spicy and strong. Historically, this was a necessity: with precious little water, washing was a sometimes-thing, so women smothered themselves in attars and incense. You can find Arabian-perfume shops in all Dubai’s malls, but we highly recommend you visit Deira’s Perfume Souq, a small stretch lined with perfume stores along Sikkat al-Khail and Al-Soor Streets in Deira, just east of the Gold Souq.
Shopping for perfume can wear out your sense of smell. If you’re in the market for Arabian scents, do what top perfumers do to neutralise their olfactory palate: close your mouth and make three forceful exhalations through your nose. Blast the air hard, in short bursts, using your diaphragm. Blowing your nose first is probably a wise idea…. Some people incorrectly say to smell coffee grounds, but all this practice does is numb your sense of smell.
Vendors at Bur Dubai Souq and along nearby Al-Fahidi Street carry vibrant, colourful textiles from the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. They’re remarkably cheap, but quality varies. Silk, cotton and linen represent the best value. Dubai’s tailors work quickly, and their rates are very reasonable. Prices start at around Dh35 for a shirt or skirt. Draperies may cost as little as Dh10 apiece.
If it plugs into a wall you can buy it in Dubai. Because of minimal duties, Dubai is the cheapest place in the region to buy electronics and digital technology. The selection is huge. Research products of interest before hitting the stores though; sales staff don’t always know enough. For the lowest prices and no-name brands, head to Al-Fahidi Street in Bur Dubai and the area around Al-Sabkha and Al-Maktoum Hospital Roads, near Baniyas Square, known as the Electronics Souq. If you want an international warranty, shell out the extra money and head to a mall, Carrefour or Jumbo Electronics.
Gold & gems
The City of Gold’s glistening reputation grows from low prices and the sheer breadth of stock. There are a whopping 700 jewellery stores in Dubai, with nearly 300 at the Gold Souq and about 90 at the Gold & Diamond Park.
Arabian handicrafts & souvenirs
Arabian handicrafts are as popular with Dubai visitors as carpets, gold and perfume. The Oriental decor of the city’s top-end hotels and restaurants seems to inspire travellers to pack away little pieces of exotica to recreate their own little genie bottles back home. Head to the souqs for Moroccan coloured lanterns, Syrian rosewood furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl, Arabian brass coffee pots, Turkish miniature paintings, and embroidered Indian wall hangings and cushion covers dotted with tiny mirrors.