Travellers from the Middle East are often mesmerised by the high streets of Paris, Germany, London, New York, Hong Kong and Mumbai, searching the streets of Berlin for those small, family-run cafés or for designer brands adorning the Champs-Élysées. They yearn for similar retail experiences closer home.
If only they looked closer at their heritage of traditional bazaars and souksthat are culturally akin to high streets. In days gone by, these were the nerve centre of retailing in the Middle East. The vestiges remain. Dubai still has its Deira Souk and Meena Bazaar, next door is the Sharjah Souk and further afield we have the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul, Khan el-Khalili in Cairo and Downtown Beirut in Lebanon.
Shoppers in the region still find outdoor markets fascinating in a scenario dominated by plush, multi-focal malls. Maybe it’s the super-saturation of climate-controlled, glitzy malls that is now drawing them in growing numbers back to the open environment of the streets, especially during the cooler months of the year.
It’s got the makings of a new retail trend of pop-up markets, which are mushrooming across the UAE. The likes of ARTE (Artisans of the Emirates) and Ripe Markets popularised the format, with others following closely in their footsteps, including Market Outside the Box (MOTB), Street Nights, Urban Market, Marina Souq and Le Méridien Village Craft & Farmers Market, which run every weekend – and even on week days – during the winter season in the UAE.
Even the super-regional biggies are getting into the act, with malls now offering an ‘outdoors-in’ ambience. There’s the Virgin Megastore outlet at Yas Mall, the flurry of restaurants and cafés overlooking the Dubai Fountain at The Dubai Mall and The Beach stretching along the coastline of the Jumeirah Beach Residence (JBR), to quote a few examples. They merge the rustic souk with the sophisticated high street in a heady mix that revives old world charm with a touch of the west.