The girl who sells me the lipstick is from Kyrgyzstan. Her associate is from Russia. The lipstick, YSL, from France. The store, Bloomingdales, from the US. The guy who directs me to the store is from Syria—a smart-talking Romeo who claims to have been to Goa and Mumbai in search of his “Jasmine”. The Noodle Factory, where I stop for a quick bite, has a medley of Malaysian, Thai, Chinese, Indonesian dishes on the menu. The server who takes my order is from the Philippines; the supervisor who comes to check on the food is from Myanmar. The salesgirl who helps me squeeze into the vacuum-tight blue dress is from Poland. The dress is from Alexander McQueen, the British designer who is sadly no more. The girl who packs me an assortment of stuffed dates—almond, pecan, candied orange peel—is from Africa. The dates are from Bateel, a to-die-for brand from Saudi Arabia. The store manager who rings up the bill is from Iran.
I have never encountered such a diversity of people and produce in an afternoon as I do at the Dubai Mall, a sprawling shopping centre that has more stores than there are stories in the Arabian Nights. I catch my breath over a cappuccino at Cacao Sampaka—a chain from Spain—and take in the swirl of nationalities around me. On my left, Godiva and Patchi stare at each other—both chocolatiers, one Belgian, the other Lebanese. On my right, a larger-than-life Julianne Moore (American) stares out of her Bulgari (Italian) glasses at Al Jaber Opticals (UAE). Next door, at Al Jaber Gallery, the portrait of the late Sheikh Zayed—the force behind Dubai’s transformation—stares benignly at the proceedings. I wonder if he knew the city he was creating would become a Noah’s Ark of men and women, brands and stores, with almost every country, race and religion on board. The Dubai Mall itself is a microcosm of globalization, a United Nations of retailers assembled under its roof.
This boundary-less marketplace leads to unusual competitors. While Tiffany may be used to being in the same neighbourhood as Cartier, the department stores Bloomingdales and Galeries Lafayette—two major anchors of Dubai Mall—are unlikely mall mates. Indeed, it is the first time Bloomingdales has ventured outside the US, and only the second time that Galeries Lafayette has stepped out of France. They may have decades of experience back home competing with their own kin—the likes of Macy’s and Saks in the US, or Printemps and Bon Marché in France—but it is the first time they are squaring off against each other. Throw in the British department store Debenhams, as also the Emirati one Paris Gallery (talk about mixed up names) and the competition could be as scorching as the desert sun outside.
Globe shop: Dubai Mall, home to brands and shoppers from every nation. Andrew Parsons / Bloomberg
There is something about Dubai—perhaps the vision of a promised land—that brings out first-timers. Take Waitrose, the British supermarket chain that was content operating within the confines of the UK for a hundred years, and then opened its first international store at Dubai Mall. Or Armani, which opened its first hotel in Dubai at the heady Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building and then some. Or the hotel’s Indian restaurant Amal, another first, which is Armani’s take on Indian cuisine—signature minimalist spacey design, food plated Western style, taste home-cooked as if they had gone minimalist on the spices too—but an extremely enjoyable evening, helped with a good wine list and attentive service. (In fact, the juxtaposition of so many cultures yields fabulous dividends on the food front—there is endless variety, price points, settings.)
The people-of-the-world-unite theme continues as I check out apartments at the stunning Burj Khalifa. The lady who takes me there is from Germany. The driver is from the Swat valley in Pakistan. The landlord’s agent is from the UK—long blonde hair, sky-high heels (little upside down Burj Khalifas) and spirits to match. I gulp as I walk into the majestic lobby, which is dominated by a spectacular art installation World Voices by the Spanish artist Jaume Plensa. 196 cymbals—like the ones you have on a drum set—are suspended in the atrium-like space on either side of the entrance. Sunlight streams in. Occasional drops of water magically fall on a cymbal every now and then, producing a gentle sound. Why 196? You guessed it—one for each country in the world.
I had always thought of Dubai as a place that’s high on hardware but short on soul, but now I see it as a bold experiment, a synopsis of the human race. It certainly doesn’t have the soul and spirit of a New York—where you also run into people from all over the world—but the unifying glue there is the fact that they are Americans first and from wherever they came from second. Dubai on the other hand is a place of transience, a temporary oasis for global nomads. In a land where transience has been the way of life for centuries, perhaps this is entirely appropriate.
Radha Chadha is one of Asia’s leading marketing and consumer insight experts. She is the author of the best-selling book The Cult of the Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair with Luxury.
Write to Radha at email@example.com