Timeframe: how Dubai Shopping Festival became so much more than a retail event

It launched before many of Dubai’s malls were completed and went on to put the city on the map as the ultimate shopping destination

If there’s one thing we all know about Dubai, it’s that it's a shopper’s paradise.

Much of that is thanks to the Dubai Shopping Festival (DSF), an annual event that has become synonymous with the city itself.

To correct a common misconception, DSF is not a giant fair or exhibition where you can buy goods.

Instead it's an approximately month-long, city-wide event organised by Dubai Festivals and Retail Establishment, part of Dubai’s department of tourism, during which most major retailers offer huge discounts. There are also daily raffle prizes, firework displays, entertainment and more.

During that time, there is no one location you can visit to enjoy DSF, but scores of events, promotions and entertainment taking place throughout the city.

The first festival in 1996

The history of the DSF dates back beyond even the launch of many of the city’s leading shopping malls.

The festival launched in 1996 under the directive of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, now UAE Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, to position Dubai as a leading tourist destination and stimulate economic and tourism sectors.

The first festival of its kind, it was planned to cover three main aspects: shopping, prizes and family entertainment.

Dubai Shopping Festival is the world's longest-running retail event. Photo: DSF

“At that time, Al Ghurair Mall and City Centre Deira malls opened with the Dubai Shopping Festival, making them the first malls to participate in the festival,” Ahmed Al Khaja, chief executive of Dubai Festivals and Retail Establishment, tells The National. "High street retail, traditional markets and gold souq retailers had also participated in DSF since its inception and they continue to contribute to DSF."

In its inaugural year, there were 121 Lexus GS300 cars and 43 kilograms of gold up for grabs in various raffle draws. There was entertainment in the form of musical performances, as well as a city-wide carnival with street entertainment and sporting events such as the Dubai World Cup horse race.

Fireworks have been a regular part of the festival since its inception, and the 1996 DSF introduced Rashed Al Majed’s single Dubai Danat Al Dunya to the world.

Since then, there has been no looking back, with the festival taking place every year with the exception of 2006 when it was cancelled after news of the death of former Dubai Ruler Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid.

Introducing Global Village, themes and entertainment galore

In 1997, the second DSF introduced a shopping exhibition on the Creekside of Baniyas Street, featuring international pavilions with handicrafts, food and more.

This aspect of the festival became a huge crowd-puller – and is the origin story behind Global Village, now considered one of Dubai’s most well-known attractions. Global Village later shifted location to Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Road, where it remains, and grew to become the seasonal theme park we know and love today.

One of the defining features of DSF has always been its ability to innovate and introduce new features.

The third DSF, in 1998, was no exception. Its theme “children of the world meet in Dubai” set out to make it a more family-friendly affair.

In 1999, under the theme of “the biggest family gathering of the millennium", the festival expanded to street venues, with Al Riqqa, Al Muraqabbat, Al Diyafah and Al Seef coming alive with events such as Smurfs Village, Planet Pepsi, Toy City and other family-focused entertainment.

While shopping has always been at the forefront, other aspects were not overlooked. In 2003, for example, DSF hosted performers Whitney Houston, Bryan Adams, AR Rahman, Zakir Hussain and Jethro Tull. That same year, 32kg of gold was raffled, and Dubai Fashion, a weeklong event of fashion shows with top designers, was held as part of the event.

Photos of Dubai Shopping Festival's star-studded opening ceremony in 2021:

Another big year for DSF was 2009. With Dubai Mall opening in 2008, it was the first time the "world’s largest mall" was added to the roster, and it did so with much excitement.

"Themed Forest Show was one of the DSF 2009 highlights at the mall, with about 30 international performers putting on a spectacular show combining acrobatics and expansive stage settings,” Al Khaja says.

The Walk at JBR was another new venue added that year, with international artists displaying a variety of work, from sand sculpting to macro photography.

New milestones and records broken

Numerous boundary-pushing events have been announced as part of DSF. In 2013, the Dubai Metro turned into a catwalk for Bloomingdale's as part of a DSF event. The next year, in partnership with luxury retailer Etoile La Boutique, DSF held a first-of-its-kind vertical catwalk, with models gliding on the walls of Burj Khalifa using ropes and wires.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES,  January 23, 2013. The Fashion Train show by Dubai Shopping Festival and Bloomingdales where a fashion show was held on the Dubai Metro. (ANTONIE ROBERTSON / The National)

Other events were so successful they went on to become as famous as DSF itself. In 2010, for example, the Dubai International Jazz Festival was a key component of the festival with a line-up that included the James Taylor Quartet, the Brand New Heavies, David Gray and James Morrison.

That same year, the Gulf Bike Festival was born with a Harley Davidson parade.

In 2012, DSF arguably kicked off the tradition for breaking world records with pyrotechnics when its opening ceremony featured the longest synchronised musical fireworks display that took place over six kilometres.

This spirit to launch new avenues and events shows no sign of slowing either: this year, DSF launched its inaugural TunesDXB festival, with free live music and entertainment planned for 11 locations across the city, featuring Abu Dhabi's very own America's Got Talent contestant Peter Rosalita.

Holding strong during a pandemic

In 2020, while the world was battling Covid-19, DSF played its role to boost tourism in the Emirates. To counter the unsteady travel conditions, hotels and resorts stepped up, launching staycation packages, offering discounts on food, free upgrades and booking flexibility.

“As one of the first few cities in the world to restart the events sector, Dubai is committed to leveraging its festivals and events, such as DSF, to enhance the domestic tourism market,” Issam Kazim, chief executive of Dubai Corporation for Tourism and Commerce Marketing (Dubai Tourism), said at the time.

A moving timescale

Today, having Dubai Shopping Festival fall in December, ahead of Christmas, seems natural, but that hasn’t always been the case. In fact, the very first DSF was held in February.

“Dubai Shopping Festival has always aligned itself with the global retail calendar, and has taken place as the autumn/winter sales season begins,” Al Khaja says.

Market Outside The Box, an outdoor pop-up championing homegrown brands is also part of DSF. Photo: Dubai Shopping Festival 

“The festival is now also aligned with the commencement of the school holidays, which is a period when large numbers of international tourists from across the world arrive in Dubai. The festival has also just recently coincided with the World’s Coolest Winter Campaign, which was launched in 2020 in the UAE.

"All of these adjustments came in efforts to refine the offering of the festival to achieve the best possible outcome and results for the retail and tourism sector in Dubai.”

The overarching theme has changed, too. DSF was initially billed as “One World. One Family. One Festival”. “The aim was to treat families of diverse nationalities and family members of all ages to the best shopping and family entertainment in the region,” Al Khaja says.

Since then, however, the theme has shifted to “Celebrate, Spend, Win” and the tagline for the 2021-2022 event, which ends on January 29, is “The World is Here, Let’s Play”, in line with the Expo 2020 Dubai.

Updated: January 21, 2022, 6:05 PM