DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — At the Armani Hotel in downtown Dubai, Mohamed Alabbar, chairman of Emaar Properties, the second most powerful man in the emirate and possibly the wealthiest, holds court wearing a crisp white dishdasha, flicking his matching guthra like a Western girl might flick her long hair. Peeking from beneath his robe is a pair of buffed Gucci loafers paired with finely ribbed silk socks in soft Armani greige. The 58-year-old billionaire is discussing the success of the recent Vogue Fashion Dubai Experience, a three-day media and consumer event held at the beginning of November, created to raise the fashion credibility of the city, which in the last two years has become to fashion shopping what Las Vegas is to gambling. The malls open until midnight and, for the dedicated shopper, luxury hotels come attached via indoor walkways lined with shops, so one never need breathe the hot desert air.
It may come as a surprise to learn that Dubai is the second most popular place in the world to go shopping for fashion and luxury goods, behind only London and ahead of New York and Paris, according to commercial property and real estate services adviser CBRE.
Mr. Alabbar is the chief architect of this retailing success, being as he is the largest real estate developer and retail leaseholder in the region, responsible for, among dozens of other developments across the world, Burj Khalifa the world’s tallest building and the 3.7 million square foot Dubai Mall, the largest, glitziest and most successful of its kind, which attracted 58 million visitors in the first nine months of 2014 and a total of 75 million visitors last year. These numbers make it one of the most popular destinations on the planet.
This bears out when it quickly becomes apparent that the luxury and fashion brands trading in Dubai — and that would be all of them, bar none — including Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, Louis Vuitton, Coach and Dolce & Gabbana, to name just a few, continue to grow their presence in this emerging desert city, providing special collections and unique products suited to the market, in addition to their regular ranges.
The day of my visit to the Dubai Mall, Dolce & Gabbana is opening a children’s wear store, adding to their existing accessories boutique and mainline store for men and women. Roberto Cavalli, in town to launch his latest Cavalli Café, told me: “Dubai is an incredible place for fashion, the people in Dubai have a passion for it. I believe there is still a lot of growth and new opportunities for the city.” The week before, Nicholas Kirkwood launched a new space within Level Shoe District, the world’s largest shoe store. Both Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen have top-performing franchise stores in the city, stocking extremely glamorous yet modest pieces from their runway collections. That Chanel held their cruise show in Dubai earlier this year speaks volumes.
The mall business has become so successful in the last two years that Alabbar created a separate entity to run it, Emaar Malls, and floated 15 percent of the company in an oversubscribed IPO on October 2, 2014, which raised $1.6 billion and valued the company at $10.3 billion. In addition, a new, even bigger mall is in the cards and Dubai Mall is to be extended by a further one million square feet, with its luxury retail zone, Fashion Avenue, gaining new flagships and a valet parking service.
For 1.1 billion people across the Middle East, Africa, India… Dubai is their New York. Dubai is their Milan.
When this reporter sat down with Alabbar, who grew up simply in old Dubai as the eldest of 12 children and gained his break when he was granted a finance scholarship in the late 1970s, he is in full force, following a day indulging his latest hobby, one he shares with Dubai’s ruler HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum. “Myself and my son participate in something called ‘Endurance’ where we ride horses for 160 kilometres,” he reveals. “Yesterday we started at five in the morning. It was dark. And we had 180 horses. At the end, I had sand coming out of my eyes.”
His current ebullience is a long way from the devastation of the 2008 recession that saw billions wiped off the value of real estate in Dubai.
As the unofficial right hand man of Dubai’s ruler, Alabbar was widely regarded as the frontman for the emergence of Dubai as a serious player for real estate in the 2000s. Then came the banking crisis and Dubai folded like a pack of cards, leaving many residents no option but to flee the city, leaving their supercars at the airport, to escape the threat of debtor’s prison.
Alabbar was hit in four continents. “I was not just a UAE company, we were bleeding everywhere. I run 700 stores in the Far East. I tell you it changed my life. We’ve never been through a crisis like that and it was devastating.”
What has he learned from the crisis? “That I love my bankers but I want to stay away from them. Borrowing is something to do when you’re really sure, because we can all get too excited.”
Now the city has climbed out of recession with reports of real estate in the downtown area climbing by 173 percent in the first half of 2014, Alabbar is again being seen as a driving force for growth. But can it really be based on yet more shopping?
“For 1.1 billion people across the Middle East, Africa, India… Dubai is their New York. Dubai is their Milan,” he says. “They choose to come here rather than visit London or Paris. I don’t think the world can keep up with London prices. In reality, the world needs many hubs where people can come to do business and live a reasonable quality of life,” he continues. “That’s how Dubai will be — a global town people come to for inspiration, quality of life, modernity. Dubai’s location puts us in a catchment area of 2.5 billion people. The demographics of the region as a whole are that you have 60 percent below the age of 26. And of course, art, fashion, personal style and technology is critical for these people.”
But a city cannot run on empty-headed shopping alone. It needs a foundation in culture and the city is busy building cultural infrastructure ahead of it hosting the 2020 World Expo.
Indeed, to have even a remote chance of becoming a future fashion capital, in the the true sense, Dubai would need to grow world-class educational institutions, a manufacturing base, its own craft culture, and support systems that allow designers to flourish. A fashion week is decades away, if not a pipe dream. As it stands, Dubai has yet to open a single cultural venue, though an opera house is slated to launch in mid-2016.
Things are beginning to move, however, albeit slowly. In August, a royal decree prompted the inauguration of the Dubai Design and Fashion Council, with its first goal being the launch of a design school in the region within four years. Representatives from design schools in the US and UK have already made research trips to the area.
But the big-thinking approach to building Dubai still seems like a fantasy when seen from global metropolis like London. “Well, you come from a city that is nearly 2000 years old. We are 42 years old,” says Alabbar. “We are young. If you look at the total population of the Middle East and you take the total square footage of retail space available per person, we are the second lowest in the world.”
For the last year, Alabbar has worked from a stand-up desk, “because I need to get going quick. It’s about efficiency.”
He believes luxury is undergoing a transformation and is bringing his thinking into the extension of the Dubai Mall. “Soon you will see we are twisting our merchandise mix for the Fashion Avenue extension. You’ll see Gucci and some other names. I have seen a recent change in Tommy Hilfiger and Polo Ralph Lauren stores. Luxury is elegance, a way of living. It is a level of merchandising and environments, but it is not absolute upmarket,” he said. “I don’t think we should stick in merchandise which when you look at it, you get a heart attack.”