UAE retailing had humble roots

40 years of the UAE: The UAE is known as a major shopping hub, which isn't bad given the industry's humble beginnings.

Dubai, 25th February 2010.  Jashanmal shop at Mall of the Emirates.  (Jeffrey E Biteng / The National)
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Tony Jashanmal was a wide-eyed 16-year-old boy when he touched down on "a patch of sand" to help his uncle open the first department store in Abu Dhabi.

The year was 1963, and the Jashanmal store was set to be the family's second shop in what would become the United Arab Emirates.

"I remember landing in Abu Dhabi and I did not see anything," says Mr Jashanmal, the executive director of the eponymous retail empire in the Middle East, which now operates 100 stores across the region.

"The Jashanmal store was right on the Corniche and the second or third brick building in Abu Dhabi. The rest were made of mud," Mr Jashanmal explains.

In 1956, his uncle had already set up the first department store in Dubai on Al Nasr Square, known today as Baniyas Square.

"We were one of the first main stores [in the UAE]," explains Mr Jashanmal. "We sold everything from food to diamonds. You could buy anything at Jashanmal."

The two stores sold electrical and household goods, food, and books and magazines - some of the firm's most well-known products today.

"At that time there was some activity in Deira but the real life was in Bur Dubai, where there was the original markets and a few banks," says Mr Jashanmal.

Mohi-Din BinHendi, the chairman of the Retail Business Group, an industry trade body, says he remembers going to Jashanmal as a child to buy clothes. Alongside Jashanmal, two other stores - Al Nasr Novelty and Akhound - were all the other major retail outlets in Dubai in the late 1960s, Mr BinHendi says.

"Retail was mostly bazaars. But there was no other retail market other than Dubai at that time," he explains.

Following the formation of the UAE in 1971, the industry slowly began to develop, with international brands entering the market. But it would still be 10 years before the country had its first mall.

Mr BinHendi, who is also the president of one of the biggest retailers in the Emirates, BinHendi Enterprises, opened his first store in 1973, a Pierre Cardin clothing boutique.

The store was the first single-branded store in the country and in 1978, Mr BinHendi had to switch to a multi-branded store because Arab countries had agreed to boycott any business associated with Israel, which Pierre Cardin was at the time.

Retail was flourishing at that time and in 1981 the Al Ghurair family opened the Middle East's first mall.

"Someone had the good idea of putting everything under one roof and it was replicated here [in the UAE]," says Mr BinHendi.

What has followed in the past 30 years is the rapid development of the retail industry to the point where the Emirates now has the widest selection of international brands of any country, except the UK.

Government initiatives such as the Dubai Shopping Festival and investment in infrastructure for tourists, as well as attractive malls, such as Mall of the Emirates, have established the UAE as one of the world's major shopping destinations.