Dubai’s retail journey from traditional souks to luxury powerhouse

July 6, 2022 | By RetailME Bureau

The souk, or marketplace, has stood as the beating heart of ancient cities in Arabia for millennia, serving as the cradle of traditional urban culture in many societies.

Intrinsically linked to the development of cities, architecture and a sense of place, the souk is more than just a mere mode for commercial activity, it was, and remains, an economic institution – if not a way of life.

Woven into the fabric of Arab societies due to their mercantile nature, it is no surprise that Dubai, a century old trading hub, has managed to stake a firm claim in the global luxury fashion arena.

For trade and commerce are not only embedded within the city’s DNA, but they are also essentially the foundations upon which it built its glistening global retail reputation.

From Dubai to the world

It was the opening of the first modern shopping mall, Al Ghurair Centre in 1981, that truly marked the beginning of the Emirate’s retail fairy-tale.  One that would see Dubai Festivals and Retail Establishment (DFRE) go on to curate Dubai Shopping Festival (DSF) in 1996, which has now become the world’s longest running retail festival.

Now home to over 62 per cent of the world’s leading brands, Dubai’s retail industry is thriving and despite current global challenges, is a major contributor to the UAE’s GDP – roughly 14 per cent, superseded only by the extractive industry.

Dubai’s wholesale and retail trade sector accounts for around 27 per cent of the Emirate’s own GDP, making it one of the largest contributors to its economy, producing value added of AED 105.1 billion (US$28.6 billion), surpassed only by the tourism sector.

And from the opening of City Centre Deira in 1995, which was then the largest shopping mall in the country, to the opening of the world’s largest shopping mall – The Dubai Mall – amidst the global financial crisis in 2008, Dubai’s retail sector has reached global heights. Now synonymous with luxury brands and super-sized malls, Dubai is simply a shopper’s dream.

The only way is up

What sets Dubai apart however, as one of the world’s luxury fashion hubs is the guarantee of an experience. With global brands focusing not only on the GCC region, but Dubai in particular, for bespoke collaborations.

With a year-round retail calendar of activity and activations, the Dubai Festivals and Retail Establishment’s Spring / Summer season for instance, brings brand activations with global luxury names including Cartier, Christian Dior, Louis Vuitton, Balenciaga, Christian Louboutin, Jimmy Choo, Salvatore Ferragamo, Stella McCartney and more.

From the unveiling of Louis Vuitton’s world-wide travelling exhibition and Jimmy Choo’s exclusive Ramadan collection to Balenciaga’s limited-edition pieces available only in Dubai and other select locations; Dior’s exclusive pop-up stores and Stella McCartney’s exclusive capsule collection launch in Dubai; it is clear that the city has become the destination of choice for many luxury retail brands.

Up-and-coming luxury designers from the UAE and around the world are equally heralded in Dubai, with for instance the recent addition to DSF in 2022, which saw the launch of the Ladies’ Night Markets. Essentially, a series of pop-up events championing female-led businesses and products made in the UAE; where shoppers could purchase one-of-a-kind luxury items ranging from Abayas and travel wear to gowns, bags and handicrafts.

Whatever shoppers are after, whether it’s vintage collections or the latest trends, they will now find it in Dubai.  Because despite the massive transformation underway within the GCC’s luxury market, as brands continuously evolve to cater to young, informed and hybrid consumers; the region’s luxury market, with Dubai at its heart, is going nowhere but up, and is expected to reach $11 billion next year alone.

And whether it is tourism driving Dubai’s retail sector, or retail driving tourism, one thing is for sure, Dubai – born as a quiet Gulf trading hub – is now one of the world’s largest luxury fashion powerhouses.


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