The malls of Dubai: Skiing, scuba diving, and shopping

Dubai Malls

Every country has its own culture of shopping. Italy has the pedigree, with worn estate leather goods from Tuscany and glittering catwalks fueling Milan’s couture. America boasts 5th Avenue, the biggest week in fashion, and the cookie-cutter malls of middle-America. Shopping in Paris is as elegant as it is expensive, where visiting the temples of Chanel, Dior, and Hermes is like a Hajj for fashionistas. Getting fitted for a suit on Savile Row in London is a gentlemanly apex, one that is best achieved while gently pulling on a cherry-wood pipe and commenting on cheeky matters from a pink-tinged page of the Financial Times.

In Dubai, The malls are king. Vast expanses of high end extravagance, these oases from the draping emirate heat are stocked with Gucci, Tom Ford, Louis Vuitton, and any other brand that peddles four-figure handbags to the jet set. Just as America brought the shopping mall to retail prominence, Dubai has perfected the art, blown it up, and put it all back together with megatons of glitter, pomp, and reckless luxury. But more so than brands and shine, the malls of Dubai also have other extraordinary features. A skating rink and a movie theater? That is so 20th century. How about scuba diving, snow skiing, and visiting the tallest building in the world? Welcome to the malls of Dubai.

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The Dubai Context
Dubai is a culture of shopping. From its historical role as a trading port, the city has grown out of the sand on the back of traders traveling from South Asia to the markets of Europe and beyond. With this came an understanding of the international ebb and flow of trade. It became a hub for the trading of gold, spices, and pearls. Many of Dubai’s souqs still operate as such, and wooden cargo ships from Bengal line Dubai Creek.

Dubai Malls

Still today, Dubai poses a dominating presence in international trade, and by 2013, little known Al Maktoum International Airport could become the busiest cargo airport in the world. With this sort of action, over time, any city will grow up. But a city like Dubai did so almost overnight. The malls are a symbol for this explosion of excess and success, however fleeting it may or may not someday be.

The Dubai Mall
At almost 12 million square feet (3.77 million square feet of retail space), Dubai Mall spreads out across downtown Dubai in the shadow of the world’s tallest building – the Burj Khalifa. By total area, Dubai Mall is considered the largest mall in the world – a claim made all the more believable during long strolls through its massive never-ending corridors. With its size and elegant trappings, this is unmistakably THE mall of the Middle East and a temple to the newest religion of the region – shopping. This is where wealthy Emirati, Saudi, and Qatari women come to purchase the designer duds that remain cloaked under burqas. This is where the Middle-west meets the Middle-east.

dubai malls

The mall boasts twelve hundred shops, the tallest building in the world, and a massive aquarium filled with sharks, tropical fish, and corals. The Dubai Aquarium is great to look at, but why stop there? For scuba divers, a mall dive site may seem contrary to the spirit of exploration. But, after suiting up and hitting the tank, the unique experience will win over even the most pessimistic diving purists. Flanking a reef shark while, just meters away, robed shoppers grasp Fendi clutches is a surreal exercise in atypical diving. A dive in Dubai Mall costs roughly $170. For a much cheaper and dry option, check out the Aquarium tunnel and underwater zoo for $14.

“At the Top” is a spirited jaunt to the observation tour of the stratospheric Burj Khalifa. Access to the attraction is located on the lower ground level of the Dubai Mall, and it costs about $27. After checking in (making reservations is hypercritical during busy days), the world’s fastest elevator rockets patrons to the 124th floor at 30 feet per second. The observation deck is only 55% up the Burj, but it hardly feels that way as you glance out at the curvature of the earth. The view is second to none, and just moments later, you can be back in the mall, at the food court dining at Hot Dog on a Stick, Fatburger, or any other of the random western eateries seemingly plucked from Middle America.

dubai malls

Just outside the mall entrance is a daily impromptu car-show of Ferraris, Bugattis, Lambos, and Porsches, each representing offensive and loud corners of the rainbow. Of course, it is just a parking lot, but in a country where license plate numbers routinely fetch 7 figure payouts, the parking lots are more colorful than a Skittles commercial. Banana yellow, Qatari royal blue, and hellfire red are just some of the colors blasting eyes with candy hues. Indeed, Dubai is a place that appreciates fast Arab horses and faster Italian cars.

If you wish to stay near the Dubai Mall, the Armani Hotel in the Burj Khalifa is a great though expensive option. The interiors are minimalist, the halls are spaceship chic, and the beds are cloud-like. Rooms start at a painful $454. For cheaper options, search aggregator sites like Kayak for a slew of sub $100 options in downtown Dubai. For an interesting and delicious dining option, check out At.mosphere on floor 122 of the Burj Khalifa.

Mall of the Emirates
The original Dubai super-mall is beginning to show her age, at least relative to the newer and larger Dubai Mall. Only in Dubai can a half a decade old mall look dated, but 5 years feels like 20 years in Dubai time. Fast change makes for faster obsolescence. But, the Mall of the Emirates has a weapon that even time cannot rob – a winter wonderland complete with ski slopes, tubing slides, and snowfall in a city that receives about 5 inches of rainfall per year. Here, Emirati children engage in snowball fights while their parents carve down man-made ski runs. This is Ski Dubai.

dubai malls

It is easy to forget you are in the middle of the desert as you don a down jacket and boot up to hit the slopes. Complete with a ski lift and a mountain chalet, Ski Dubai is as strange as it sounds. Whether you are hypersensitive about 21st century water shortages or you run sprinklers mid-day in August, gazing out at the indoor slope will incite a WTF moment. It is surreal, magnificent, and, perhaps most surprising to your desert adjusted body, very cold.

Beyond the wintery attraction, the Mall of the Emirates boasts a ridiculous amount of high end shops. From Audemars Piguet to Brioni, the shopping center is no slouch in the luxury department.

Connected to Dubai Metro on the red line, the Mall of the Emirates is very easy to visit.

The Future
Dubai seems built to embrace the impossible. The buildings soar above clouds, islands magically appear just offshore, and the malls are built to the exacting standards of this patented Emirati creative indulgence. It is Disney meets Arabia, with just a pinch of batshit insane. In the book Alice in Wonderland, the Queen muses on impossibility, telling Alice “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” A similar approach to the impossible has carved the skyline of Dubai out of the rolling desert dunes. It will be interesting to see if shifting sands and global economics will allow these impossibilities to stand the test of time.

dubai malls

All photography by Justin Delaney @justindelaney

Support for this program was partially provided by DTCM, with no limits on editorial or photographic content.