The young French woman was dressed appropriately for the sub-freezing cold. Although she was relatively new to the slope, she had worked at ski resorts from Europe to Lebanon and now she was leading classes here. In Dubai. As in the United Arab Emirates city where the temperature can top 103 degrees in August.
In a world of superlatives, Ski Dubai at the $800 million Mall of the Emirates ranks as the world's largest indoor ski mountain, with four runs, a ski school and two sliding hills. The longest run measures 1,312 feet, just under a quarter-mile.
Ski Dubai was an impressive engineering feat for Dubai-based Majid Al Futtaim Group, the developer of the mall. As an attraction, it brings in about 1,500 to 3,000 people on weekends, which only confirms its real purpose, to boost consumer traffic at the 2.3 million-square-foot (not including the skiing facility) center.
The mall, which opened in 2005, will only have a short window of opportunity to consolidate a consumer base. That's because within the next four years, its ranking as the city's largest shopping center will be eclipsed as more giant malls fill the desert landscape. In just the next year, the United Arab Emirates will experience a 145-percent increase in gross leaseable retail space, bringing the total to 27 million square feet, according to the Middle East Council of Shopping Centers. Dubai added 12.7 million square feet of retail space in 2005, according to Gulf Business magazine.
As amazing as it is, Ski Dubai may not be enough of a long-term draw to keep the tourists and locals happy. The Persian Gulf states, while transforming themselves into a tourist and shopping destination, are in danger of out-building demand.
With only 1.5 million people, Dubai, counts on tourists. About 5 million visited last year, according to the Dubai Department of Tourism. The city expects 10 million visitors by 2007 and as many as 40 million by 2015, says Abdullah bin Suwaidan, executive of missions with the government's Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing.
At the moment, says Sophie Llewellyn, an associate director with CB Richard Ellis in Dubai, demand still exceeds supply. In fact, no older shopping mall has closed there. But some malls have had to “reassess their positioning,” she says. “There are so many new shopping centers coming on that if you don't succeed very quickly, then you have to find a different type of tenant. In effect, you have to downgrade, which is happening to some of the older centers.”
That may indeed be the fate of some of the new malls, because even if expectations about tourist visits prove accurate, many are expected to come from the nearby Persian Gulf and Middle East regions — all of which are building more malls also. In 2005, reports Gulf Business, the city of Muscat in neighboring Oman completed 2.1 million square feet of retail space; Saudi Arabia's Riyadh added 8.5 million square feet and Jeddah 8.4 million square feet; the other United Arab Emirates cities of Abu Dhabi and Sharjah built 5 million square feet and 2.2 million square feet, respectively; Doha in nearby Qatar constructed 2.8 million square feet; and even Kuwait City cobbled together 2.6 million square feet.
In short there is a retail building boom going on in the region, which means the competition for tourist shopping dollars has increased immeasurably.
Take, for example, Doha, the capital city of Qatar, another Persian Gulf nation just to the northwest of United Arab Emirates. Four years ago, there was one small shopping center in the city of 600,000, and now “there are five big shopping centers with another three to four under construction in the metro area,” reports Ismail Sayed Hashin, business director for NAI Qatar and NAI Kuwait, from his home base in Kuwait City.
Like Dubai, the government of Qatar wants to make Doha a center for events of all types, political, sports and economic, says Hashin. “They are building shopping centers not only for the people of Qatar, but also for visitors.”
Doha, a sleepy backwater compared with Dubai, boasts about 40 high-rise buildings but has 120 more either under construction or in the planning stages. It's also pumping $5.5 billion into upgrading its airport. Its event-driven tourism platform will kick-start this year when the city sponsors the 2006 Asian Games, and Doha already hosts major women's and men's tennis tournaments
Today, Doha's biggest shopping mall is called City Centre. Its 3.1 million square feet is constructed on four stories with an ice rink as its entertainment feature. Two hotels are under construction at both ends of the mall. Inside, the department store anchor is the British retailer Debenhams, and the in-line shops are a mix of strange and familiar names to U.S. shoppers. On the known side are stores such as The Body Shop, Nine West, GNC and individual-brand stores such as Hush Puppies, Adidas, Reebok, Gant and Tommy Hilfiger, plus familiar eateries such as McDonald's, Subway, Cinnabon, Pizza Hut, Seattle's Best and Starbucks.
Even with its aggressive plans, Doha will only chip away at Dubai, which has had a roaring head start and is considered an extremely liberal environment by Middle East standards: in the malls, bare midriffs are as common a sight as burkhas.
“In regard to tourism, Doha may take some share away from Dubai, but it will not be a major competitor,” says Hashin. Still, Dubai really doesn't need its tourism business chipped away by neighboring countries.
Tourism, shopping, development of a financial center and even Dubai Ports World's failed acquisition of the port management business at six U.S. seaports are all attempts by the government to expand its economy, instead of relying on oil.
In Dubai, the center that will probably first see light of day will be the 10 million-square-foot Mall of Arabia, which will have four levels, about 1,000 outlets, a 15-screen cinema, two hotels, 24 rooftop chalets and the Restless Planet, a Jurassic-age replica replete with robot dinosaurs. It will all be part of the multibillion-dollar Dubailand theme park to be developed by locally based The Ilyas and Mustafa Galadari Group.
“The mall is about 75-percent preleased,” says Vishal Mahajan, manager of the retail division for Asteco, a Dubai real estate service company. The first phase is expected to open around 2008.
The Mall of Arabia will need to get all its dinosaurs in a row to compete with The Dubai Mall, being built by Dubai-based Emaar, the premier Persian Gulf builder. Even at an expected 12 million square feet, the Dubai Mall will be just one element in the Burj Dubai Development, which will include the tallest high-rise in the world as well as residences and 60 acres of landscaped parkland.
All this new development is mind-boggling especially considering that the first major shopping mall, Deira City Centre, opened in 1996 with 800,000 square feet, says Mahajan. “It became immediately popular and until now was the best of its day.”
The Dubai Department of Tourism lists about 40 major shopping centers, but Mahajan says only about six or seven of those can be considered major malls. The older ones have had to retool, because each new mall has brought in a new concept. Deira City Centre has already expanded to 1.3 million square feet and now boasts a Carrefour superstore and Dubai's only Ikea outlet.
In Dubai, there have been two ways to compete: on entertainment value or on quality. BurJuman Centre opted for high-end solution and brought in a Saks Fifth Avenue along with individual stores by such luxury brands as Louis Vuitton, Donna Karan, Prada, Kenzo, Cartier, Ralph Lauren and Chanel. As one local magazine reported, “over time, it became almost a ritual for Dubai yuppies to be seen hanging about at BurJuman.”
Going the other direction was Ibn Battuta mall, which opened in 2005 with 5.4 million square feet (including a 5,000-car parking lot), in the New Dubai region. It offers a different geographically themed area in a single-story structure.
The variations may not be enough as the market gets even more crowded. “In the area between Ibn Battuta and Mall of Emirates there is a lot of supply coming on board. And, there is a lot of ancillary shopping besides the new malls,” says CB Richard Ellis's Llewellyn.
There are no real statistics as to how the malls are doing. “You walk around the mall and there is constant traffic, but it's difficult to say how it all translates into sales,” adds Damian Harrington, also an associate director with CBRE. “A lot of traffic is climactically driven — people coming in from the heat of the day. “With the themed shopping malls it tends to be a family experience rather than a shopping trip,” he says.
With no recorded average sales-per-square-foot measures, Dubai tends to use foot traffic to determine how well malls are doing, which even CBRE says is not a great indicator of success.
As to occupancy, CBRE reports there are few mall vacancies. The mix has become increasingly international with a lot more European and American stores and brands being represented. At the Mall of Emirates, as an example, a Western visitor would spot many familiar names: Virgin Megastore, Kenneth Cole, Nine West, Body Shop, Carrefour, Lacoste, Levi's, Lucky Jeans, Guess, Columbia Sportswear, Ecco, Nike, Timberland, The Athlete's Foot, Swatch and Naturalizer.
What can't be found in Dubai are some of America's good-ole' reliables, such as Gap, Urban Outfitters, Limited, Victoria's Secret and Footlocker. Wal-Mart is not even represented, although Europe's superstore competitor, Carrefour, can be found in a few of Dubai's malls. Different American and Europe stores are needed, so the malls aren't all cookie cutters.
Whether that will be enough to save all the new shopping centers remains to be seen. When asked if the market is capable of handling all the centers that are planned, Llewellyn says, “some will succeed and some won't.”