What would Ibn Battuta make of the mall that bears his name?

Ibn Battuta would find a mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar if he had the chance to visit the Dubai mall named after him, writes Justin Thomas.

Dubai Shopping Festival is entirely honest about its purpose. Photo: Pawan Singh / The National
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In a young nation as cosmopolitan and energetic as the UAE, festivals abound. One of these is the Dubai Shopping Festival (DSF), which stands out for its absence of a pretext.

The DSF is not touted as a time for family, nor is it sold as the remembrance of some significant long ago event. No, the DSF – now in its 20th year – is an honest, pure and unashamed celebration of consumerism. The message is seductively simple: “Do buy in Dubai.”

This direct, no nonsense, approach to promoting a retail extravaganza has undoubtedly contributed to the UAE’s winter-sun tourist boom. That said, shopping in the UAE strikes me as being almost a mirror image of the increasingly globalised shopping experience I could have anywhere, be it Manchester or Manhattan.

It is not just the same shops often in the same sequence – with coffee shops always apparently sited near lingerie shops – there are also the same familiar tribes of teenagers. This is symptomatic of a creeping cultural homogenisation. These adolescents are the local equivalent of mall rats anywhere, patrolling the shopping centres of Europe and North America.

I wonder if Victor Gruen, the father of the modern shopping mall, could have ever envisioned that one day, his brainchild would take root and bloom in the Arabian sands.

Despite the familiar stores, there is a striking distinction in malls here: small groups of culturally self-confident Emirati men dressed in immaculate white kanduras, and larger groups of Emirati women, elegantly wrapped in timeless black.

The exotic, attention-arresting fragrances that waft through malls is also very distinctive. Often, these pleasant odours issue from the only set of shops unfamiliar to most western tourists: the Arabian perfumers.

These two uniquely Arab features of malls in this part of the world chime with the observations of the great-great grandfather of all travel writers, Ibn Battuta. Among other attributes, this 14th century Moroccan explorer traversed more than 120,000km – far more than his near contemporary Marco Polo – then recounted his adventures in A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling.

Writing about his stay in the Gulf, he described the locals as “very elegant and clean in their dress, most of them wear white garments”. He noted that these were “always fresh and snowy”.

He wrote that “They use a great deal of perfume and kohl [eye make-up] … The [women] are extraordinarily beautiful and very pious and modest”.

He added that “They too make great use of perfumes to such a degree that they will spend the night hungry to buy perfumes with the price of their food. When one of these women goes away the odour of the perfume clings to the place after she has gone.”

If Ibn Battuta were in Ibn Battuta Mall today, nursing a Venti Frappuccino, he would probably have no difficulty recognising the fragrances and the snowy white garments. They are a testament to the longevity of some customs.

But with mall-shopping being a relatively new thing, will this custom survive? I used to naively like to think that every time a new mall opened, an old one closed. In the UAE at least, this is certainly not the case.

In the past decade, I have seen the proliferation of malls but have yet to witness the closure of any, although a few do seem to be in terminal decline. In the US, by contrast, malls do close and some commentators, perhaps prematurely, talk about “the death of the mall”.

One of the main reasons cited for the demise of these shopping centres is the growth in online shopping.

Will it also affect malls here and the DSF?

In 20 years time will the DSF still be all about shoppers on the ground, or will it be focused on driving web-traffic towards UAE owned businesses and brands?

For now at least, the sprawling malls here seem alive and well, and the indefatigable hunt for bargains is well under way.

Justin Thomas is an associate professor of psychology at Zayed University and author of Psychological Well-Being in the Gulf States

On Twitter: @DrJustinThomas