From Deserts to Smart Suburbs: A Historical Look at Dubai’s Retail Transformation

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Dubai retail landscape

The rising demand for suburban living and consumer insights gathered through our recent research have unveiled a unique demand in Dubai’s retail landscape – a craving for suburban community malls with a twist. Dubai, renowned for its world-famous malls, boasts nearly 100 shopping malls of varying sizes, purposes, and styles, with more continually in the making. As Dubai continues to evolve as a global metropolis, the dynamic interplay between suburban living and mall culture is reshaping consumer experiences.

In this article, first, I delve into the historical relationship between suburban living and malls by tracing back their origins to 1950s America and 1980s Dubai. Then, reflecting on current Dubai, I explore the intriguing relationship between suburban living and mall culture in Dubai, paving the way for new possibilities and opportunities for businesses while addressing the diverse needs of local communities.

Dubai stands as a diverse metropolis is home to over 200 nationalities. As a market researcher, working with such a diverse population is always very exciting and provides an extensional cultural knowledge of the society. Understanding each segmentation and the ways they overlap, differentiate, relate, and connect are equally crucial for understanding Dubai and UAE population. However, for the sake of this article, I’ll focus on a specific demographic: middle-class, white-collar expatriates residing in suburban gated communities with a car and a disposable household income exceeding 30,000 AED, representing the presumed average expat profile in Dubai.

First Malls and Consumer Culture in a Historical Context

Mall culture, in the broader historical context, has deep-rooted origins dating back to the 18th century. The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul and the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan, for some, serve as the world’s inaugural malls. These early establishments were more than centers of trade; they were bustling hubs of daily life where cultures and identities intermingled.

The 19th-century European landscape witnessed a transformative shift as galleries and arcades took center stage, shaping everyday life and fostering a distinctive street culture, inviting strolls as acts of cultural expression. While remnants of these early “malls” still stand in historic European neighborhoods, their functions have evolved, now attracting tourists with an offering that extends beyond goods, encompassing culture, history, and identity.

Yet, the invention of the first modern indoor mall (as we know it today) initiated in the 1950s was not a mere response to consumer needs but rather a product of the so-called American Dream. To provide a brief context, the United States experienced a surge of consumerism driven by a thriving postwar economy in the 1950s. That decade, the country, with 37% overall economic growth, had the strongest economy and wealthiest citizens in the world. The population growth during this period, along with increased median family income and the growth of the gross national product, fueled the development of a distinctly American consumer-based culture.

Accordingly, for the first time, credits were made available, leading to a spending spree among middle-class families. Everyday objects, from tableware to toys, were transformed into visually expressive items, while manufacturers flooded the market with a wide range of products. Televisions, through marketing and advertising campaigns, advised American citizens to buy the newest, latest, and best products constantly.

Inventing Suburbs as a Housing-Retail Mix Model

On the other hand, new highways were built, and the number of cars doubled between 1945 and 1955, reflecting the consumer culture’s focus on automobiles. The availability and popularity of cars led the American lifestyle to shift towards the suburbs. Real estate developer William Levitt seized this opportunity, translating his model of mass army development into an affordable mass-family housing project called Levittown, located in the suburbs of New York.

Levittown, the first suburb community in the United States, was constructed as a set of identical family houses that were based on four types of layouts. This model has aroused enormous interest among real estate developers, instantly applied, which resulted with a 75% of home expansion to the suburbs. The suburbanization of the country meant a suburban lifestyle with an anticipated demand for shopping, cultural activity, and social interaction within the proximity of the housing. Consequently, the first modern indoor mall, Southdale Center (1956), was envisioned as a community center (Gruen & Smith, 1960).

Southdale Center, designed by Austrian-born architect Victor Gruen, located in suburban Minnesota, has become an architectural model for car-centric America, and for decades, numerous malls were built with the same principle: to bring community together by “gathering art, culture, and entertainment under one roof with retail”. Since then, Southdale Center has gone through multiple renovations and extensions, and although it had some bad years, is still open for business and attracts investors.

The First Mall and The Growth of Dubai as a Global City

The location of Dubai’s first mall stands in stark contrast to the American narrative. In Dubai, the creation of suburban communities necessitated the prior establishment of a city center, with malls emerging as pivotal symbols that define the heart of the city. Even today, the city’s primary and colossal malls are strategically situated within the urban center, offering convenient access via the Sheikh Zayed Road, which serves as both the city’s primary artery and a major national highway.

The underlying reason for this intriguing paradox is rooted in Dubai’s history. It was once a vast expanse of desert, a seemingly endless void that, through visionary and innovative projects and architectural endeavors spanning less than four decades, transformed into a bustling metropolis. Much of this transformation has primarily started in the 1980s and unfolded during the 2000s.

In 1981, a significant milestone in the history of Dubai occurred with the opening of Al Ghurair Centre. Located in the Deira neighborhood, the city’s oldest residential area, this pioneering project played a pivotal role in creating a central hub for the city. It marked the commencement of a new era in Middle East retail.

Before the advent of Al Ghurair Centre, retail in the region relied heavily on traditional souks, where individual traders offered a diverse range of goods, from essential food items to clothing. This traditional approach to commerce had been the norm for generations, deeply ingrained in the city’s cultural fabric.

Al Ghurair Centre, however, emerged as an innovative venture that would go on to set new standards for retail, much like the city of Dubai itself. The mall’s significance is highlighted on its website, where it is described as follows: “Built on an empty plot of land in 1981, Al Ghurair Centre was the first modern shopping mall project of its kind in the Middle East. Within a concise span of time, it rose to prominence, mirroring the city of Dubai’s rapid ascent and reshaping the retail landscape.”

Dubai and its inaugural shopping mall experienced a symbiotic growth, evolving hand in hand. The mall was not merely a retail space; it represented a transformative shift in the way commerce and consumer culture were perceived in the Middle East. This marked the beginning of a paradigm shift that would set the stage for the development of Dubai’s world-renowned mall culture.

The opening of iconic landmarks like the Burj Al Arab solidified Dubai’s image as a luxurious tourist destination, offering tax-free shopping. The 2000s marked the rise of two famed malls: The Mall of the Emirates (2005) and Dubai Mall (2008), which became not just shopping destinations but cultural landmarks. These successes spawned a wave of projects, from luxurious hotels like the Royal Atlantis Dubai (2008) to architectural wonders like the Burj Khalifa (2010) and cultural attractions like The Dubai Frame (2018), in addition to numerous malls of varying sizes.

Dubai, within the first decade of the millennium, developed a thriving city center, complete with towering malls, hotels, and landmarks. Simultaneously, suburban communities began to take shape, starting with Arabian Ranches 1 in 2004, targeting high-income European expat families. Since 2013, suburban communities like Damac Hills, Mira, The Villa, Serena, and Town Square have flourished.

A Paradigm Shift for Suburban Community Malls

Suburban living in Dubai offers spacious layouts, gardens, access to nature, tranquility, and affordability compared to city-center options. It caters to large families, young couples, and families, with the pre-pandemic consumer demand accelerating in the post-pandemic era, given the prevalence of remote or hybrid work arrangements. Most of these communities offer free to low-cost leisure and sports activities, along with community centers or souks that cater to basic daily needs, including supermarkets, pharmacies, flower shops, beauty salons, and cafes. However, current suburban malls in Dubai fail to fully meet consumer needs due to limited stores, brands, and services, with limited opportunities for social interaction.

As the city transforms, venturing inward toward the desert and diversifying its economy and population, the future of suburban living in Dubai holds immense promise. The current demand for suburban living is not merely driven by the need for larger living spaces but also by a desire for eco-friendly environments that prioritize family values and community life. The future suburban communities will likely incorporate more eco-friendly features such as renewable energy sources, recycling facilities, and green spaces. Imagine suburban developments designed with walkable neighborhoods, reducing car dependence and promoting a sense of community. In line with the wider sustainable vision of the UAE and many “Smart Dubai” projects to be launched soon, “smart suburbs” are also around the corner.

Dubai’s evolving landscape is witnessing a profound shift in the relationship between suburban living and mall culture. The historical context of malls, tracing their roots as social hubs to their current role in suburban settings, as well as the eco-friendly future of the city, offers crucial insights for businesses and investors in Dubai.

Malls, in general, are considered the backbone of global consumer culture. However, in Dubai, the function of malls extends beyond consumerism. Due to the extreme climate, the limited availability of outdoor public spaces, and the city’s car-centric structure, retail has evolved within shopping malls. Consequently, despite the rise of e-commerce and online shopping, the average UAE resident visits malls as often as three to five times a week, if not more. They typically opt for the nearest mall for convenience, such as proximity to home (reducing time spent in heavy traffic) and ample parking (minimizing time wastage). Additionally, they significantly choose malls to feel a sense of belonging to a community by regularly seeing familiar faces and places. Since walkable neighborhoods are scarce in Dubai, UAE residents use malls as spaces to interact and foster a sense of community.

Accordingly, to complement the growth in suburban living, there is a need for a paradigm shift in suburban mall development. In line with the trending lifestyles and urgent consumer needs, these malls should evolve from mere shopping destinations into community hubs.

To cater to Dubai’s multicultural population, suburban malls should offer a diverse retail mix, including international and local brands, ensuring a wide range of products and services to meet the unique preferences and needs of the city’s residents. This diversity not only attracts a broader customer base but also promotes inclusivity and cultural acceptance within the community. In addition, promoting local and regional brands within suburban malls is vital for boosting entrepreneurship and enhancing the shopping experience. Consumers suggest that most malls in Dubai offer similar brands within each category, resulting in a relatively monotonous shopping experience. Supporting these businesses not only contributes to the local economy but also adds a unique flavor to the mall culture, allowing shoppers to discover exclusive products and experiences.

Suburban malls can foster community and belonging by offering open and inviting social spaces, such as cozy cafes, expansive play areas for children, dog parks, cycling and walking paths, and community event spaces for gatherings and celebrations. Since Dubai is not inherently pedestrian-friendly, there is a significant demand for the design of walkable and inclusive green suburban communities. These areas promote social interaction and contribute to developing a neighborhood with a robust sense of local identity and unity. Incorporating entertainment, sports, and cultural attractions in suburban community malls adds another depth to the shopping experience. This can include art exhibitions, performances, sporting events, and interactive displays that celebrate the diverse backgrounds of Dubai’s residents. Such attractions help malls become not just shopping destinations but cultural hubs that are productive.

Suburban living and mall culture, when thoughtfully combined, have the potential to create a harmonious and thriving urban experience in the heart of the desert metropolis.

Author: Billur Dokur, Phd

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