Old is gold for Deira's thriving souq

The opening of a modern new gold souq in Dubai Mall three years ago unsettled some of the shopowners in the smaller Deira Gold Souq, but they need not have worried.

DUBAI // It was something of a David and Goliath battle when Dubai's biggest mall opened its own gold souq to compete with Deira's much older, distinctly less comfortable equivalent.

But three years on, there is a clear winner. The Dubai Mall Gold Souq is now a general shopping area after many retailers complained of a lack of business and pulled out.

The Deira old souq, however, is getting hundreds of tourists every day, including some fairly serious buyers looking to purchase tens of thousands of dollars worth of the precious metal.

The souq plays a massive part in helping Dubai to live up to its City of Gold nickname. The Dubai Gold and Commodities Exchange says almost a third of the world's gold is traded out of Dubai, and a large part of that is done in Deira.

Despite the lack of air conditioning and personal space, and incessant mutterings of "Watches? handbags? Louis Vuitton? Gucci? Chanel?", it remains one of the city's most profitable and popular sites.

Kirti Kishor Dhanji, 56, was brought to Dubai in 1958 by his father to set up Shanji Motiram and Sons Jewellers, which he now runs with his own son Bimal, 28.

"Many Indians started coming here because the British were here and there were close connections," Mr Dhanji says. "This area was a small gold souq so my father decided to come and set up a shop.

"Many people come to buy here. There has been quiet times but now it is better. And this month the weather is good and the tourists are good, so we are hopeful. It is much better for us than India."

Growing up in Dubai, Mr Dhanji has mastered an impressive array of languages - Arabic, Urdu, Bengali, Farsi, Gujarati and English.

It has been necessary, he says, because the nationalities of people visiting the souq in vast numbers has changed over the years.

At first it was mainly people from Asian countries, he says, but now there is a large portion of Europeans and Africans, especially Nigerians, who bulk buy 22-carat pieces to resell in their home countries, usually at much higher prices.

The designs in the shop windows have also changed over time, with fewer pieces of Asian designs, and more emphasis on "western types", which are usually less detailed and lower in carat, Mr Dhanji says.

Recently there has also been more emphasis on ensuring the souq's business is above board. Each shop has a set of electronic scales that are checked by Dubai Municipality to make sure no one is fiddling with the quantities.

And just this year, three electronic screens were set up at the entrances to the souq tracking the price of 18, 21, 22 and 24-carat gold a gram. The price can change every hour, but not on a Saturday or Sunday when the international trading markets are closed.

"The televisions actually makes it easier for us," says Vishal Mandaliya, sales executive with Barakat Jewellery.

"Often people don't trust us when we tell the price of gold, so it makes it hard. With this they know the price, and then it is just how much they want to pay for the craftsmanship."

To some, gold is a just a pretty metal used to make delicate necklaces or bracelets, but to others it is much more than that.

In India in particular, gold is an investment, an asset. It could be a couple's pension or a child's education.

"The rate of gold is the same in India but the difference here is the purity," says Indian tourist Balsay Sharma, 63, in Dubai with his son and daughter-in-law.

"Our belief is that this is the purest gold. In India you are not sure if there is something wrong with it."

His daughter-in-law Nandita, 36, from New Delhi, is on the lookout for a few pieces to add to her family's collection.

"For us it is an asset," she says. "It can be used in difficult times. It isn't always just a piece of jewellery, it is much more for many people in India. It is our investments."

And when it comes to investments, it is imperative to get the best price.

"Everyone bargains, but not like the Indians," jokes Deepak Dhora, 30, manager of a Kanz Jewels shop. "It's not the language, but for them it is an investment so there is more in it."

The gold sold at the souq is imported from across the world, with most coming from Singapore, Italy and India. Each shop will buy whatever they know best suits their market. Some shops, for example, will try to cater more to the African market, while others focus on Europeans.

Many of the men have worked in the souq for years and have perfected their sales techniques. They can tell the difference between a genuine buyer and a curious window shopper within seconds.

"When someone opens the door we can tell instantly whether they will buy, whether you need to stand up or not," says Vipul Joshi, who has worked at Barakat Jewellery for nine years.

"If they are a real buyer they will have something in particular in mind. You can tell by the way they look at things. If they look at everything they are not a serious buyer, they just want to look."

In peak times, the gold souq draws hundreds of visitors each day. As well as tourists from far afield, it is also very popular with people from the region.

Fatima Al Otaibi, from Saudi Arabia, says she had heard the souq was a good place to buy gold but has so far failed to see what made it better than her home country. Her efforts were also hampered by her needing to avoid having her photograph taken by tourists.

"Friends told us about the souq," she says. "But I think in Saudi it is much better, the difference in price is minimal but I think it's a bit higher here."

On the narrower, quieter streets behind the souq are a number of doorways with security cameras and sophisticated locks. Behind these doors are workshops where the jewellery shops send their customer's pieces to be mended, altered or created.

Many of the men in the workshops have no official training but learnt their trade by watching others, usually their fathers. Tapas Kanrar, 30, has worked in Dubai for 12 years after moving from Calcutta, where his father worked in the same trade.

Each workspace has dozens has a small, beaten wooden blocks surrounded by an array of tools including pliers, tweezers, chisels, hammers and small blow torches.

Hung on the walls are calendars featuring photographs of pretty Bollywood actresses, and a few trump cards with images of Indian politicians.

The five men working in the Nirali and Mickey Diamond and Jewellery workshop each have a different skill. One is an expert in mounting, another in welding and another in engraving.

There is also machinery used to melt down pieces of jewellery so the molten metal can be reshaped into something new.

Hardip Soni, 28, the workshop supervisor, says 90 per cent of the souq's workforce are from the state of Gujurat state in western India. It is now one of the most industrialised states in the country and has dominated the gem and jewellery industry since the 1960s.

"They work for two or three years in India, then they come here," Mr Soni says. "It is a good place if someone has a skill in jewellery because there is so much trade. The business is very good."

But business was not so good in the larger gold souq in Dubai Mall, which reopened in May last year after a nine-month closure.

As many as 50 jewellers left the souq after complaining about low visitor numbers and impractical layout of the whole area.

"We had a shop there but we had to close it," says Nathan Sathya, 32, manager of Kanz Jewels. "It was basically in a place where customers wouldn't go, so it did not do good business."

Kanz Jewels has six successful shops in and around the Deira souq.

"It's the atmosphere here," explains Ukranian tourist Sasha Melnykov, 20. "It's not the same in a mall. This feels much more real."