Dubai’s retail story from the eyes of an Emirati


August 28, 2023 | By RetailME Bureau

Laila Mohammed Suhail, CEO, Strategic Alliances and Partnerships Sector, Dubai’s Department of Economy and Tourism

From the traditional bustling souks and marketplaces to the modern, technologically advanced shopping malls, the evolution of retail in this region has been nothing short of incredible with Dubai right at the forefront of this remarkable change. Dubai’s retail story began centuries ago when its strategic location between Europe, Asia, and Africa made it an important trading centre. Traditional souks and markets served as vibrant hubs where goods from around the world were exchanged.

Then came Al Mulla Plaza in 1978, the city’s first multipurpose property featuring retail stores, stalls and cafés, followed by the opening of the region’s first purpose-built modern shopping mall, the Al Ghurair Centre in 1981, laying the foundation for the city’s future retail growth. BurJuman Centre opened a decade later, elevating the shopping experience to a new level.

But on February 15, 1996, an extraordinary concept revolutionised the retail landscape of the region forever – the Dubai Shopping Festival (DSF), which entered the retail universe with great fanfare, and hope and more importantly, offering the promise of revitalising trade in Dubai. 

I was fortunate to be there at the right place and time, supporting the founding team of DSF to start a retail revolution in Dubai. As it turned out, the trailblazing initiative of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and the Ruler of Dubai, became an overnight success. An event that was conceived to boost local businesses, grew into one of the world’s most spectacular retail success stories and a pillar of economic growth for Dubai. The launch of DSF was truly a ground-breaking moment for retail in the region and from it emerged the powerful public-private partnership model that until today remains the engine that drives Dubai’s year-round success across sectors.

Momentum in Dubai’s retail sector accelerated with the opening of the iconic Mall of the Emirates in 2005, providing an unrivalled retail experience with a wide range of international brands under one roof, and featuring the renowned Ski Dubai, an indoor ski resort, an unprecedented winter wonderland in the desert, highlighting Dubai’s penchant for pushing boundaries and creating unique attractions, and an impressive testament to Dubai’s vision and ambition to diversify its tourism offerings.

A few years later, in 2008, we witnessed the grand opening of the Dubai Mall, the largest mall in the world. Dubai Mall became synonymous with luxury, boasting prestigious fashion brands, upscale boutiques and opulent dining options. Additionally, its centrepiece, the Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo showcases Dubai’s ability to seamlessly blend retail, attractions and entertainment to create an ideal family destination.

From humble beginnings to astonishing achievements, the transformation of Dubai’s retail sector mirrors the dynamic growth and unwavering dedication of our city, making it a shopping destination like no other.

Words by Laila Mohammed Suhail – the first woman to be appointed Chief Executive Officer of the Dubai Festivals and Retail Establishment, the organiser of the iconic DSF and other annual festivals of Dubai. Currently Suhail is the CEO, Strategic Alliances and Partnerships Sector, Dubai’s Department of Economy and Tourism.

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