Text: Ilona Marx, Photos: Nikolaus Grünwald
A twelve-lane highway, Sheikh Zayed Road, cuts through the city. This is the main traffic artery where sports cars whizz past the high-rise apartment buildings glittering in the dazzling sunshine. Dubai is the capital of the eponymous Emirate, which, together with another six, forms the federation of the United Arab Emirates. But only nine percent of the city’s inhabitants are Emiratis. The rest are expats, sent over to work here by their companies back home, or migrant workers from South-East Asia, India, Pakistan and North Africa, trying their luck as construction labourers or hotel staff. If you think London and New York are melting pots, you should visit the bustling microcosm of Dubai – you’d be hard pushed to find a more vibrant mix of cultures anywhere else.
But it’s not only the mix of nationalities that defines this metropolis, which meanwhile more than two million people call home. The motto they go by here is higher, faster, bigger, better – a mission statement that’s being received loud and clear around the world. Following an unprecedented building boom, the Emiratis are particularly proud of the structures they have built, including the Burj Khalifa, the world’s highest building with a breathtaking viewing platform, gigantic consumer temples like The Dubai Mall and The Mall of the Emirates, not to mention one of the most expensive and luxurious hotels ever, the Burj Al Arab with its own island and the architectural appearance of a billowing sail. These superlatives are magnets for up to 14 million tourists annually, making Dubai one of the top five most visited cities in the world last year.
However, most of these tourists, who tend to immerse themselves in the glitz and glamour of this consumer paradise, miss out on another side of Dubai that is equally as fascinating: the creative use of free spaces. In the former Al Quoz industrial area, for example, a flourishing art scene has developed in vacant warehouses, which has had a knock-on effect on the local fashion scene. The centre of activity is Alserkal Avenue, a compound in which meanwhile nine high-profile galleries have settled. Additional art spaces and artist ateliers, boxing clubs and bicycle stores have since opened in the surrounding streets. Pretty concept stores along Jumeirah Beach Road and buzzing events like the Ripe Food Market, which takes place every Friday at Zabeel Park and draws locals as well as an international crowd, also portray a different side to the city.
A city that doesn’t define itself solely by superlatives and its many different facets, but also by its energy-driven, business-oriented inhabitants. Flaunting your wealth is the norm here. Lamborghinis, Hummers, Rolls-Royces, Ferraris and Porsches can be spotted on most street corners. Young people, even students, are dressed from head to toe in designer brands. So the retail sector is booming; shopping is inextricably linked to Dubai. So it’s only logical that the store designs and mall architecture are especially lavish and grand, with every conceivable luxury brand represented. Brands here seem to be battling it out to have the most elaborate and sumptuous store.
This makes Dubai a dream market for store architects, as confirmed by Karl Schwitzke in our interview with him on page 56. The German retail specialist runs a branch of his shopfitting business in the city. And an interesting insight into the shopping culture in this part of the world was also provided by Nisreen Shocair, who, as President of Virgin Megastores for the Middle East & North Africa, is one of the most influential businesswomen in the Middle East and who J’N’C editor-in-chief Ilona Marx found not only to be very inspiring, but also incredibly hospitable and welcoming – attributes she shares with many of Dubai’s locals.
Thanks very much to Karl Schwitzke, Andrea Krsnik, Marcus Käss, Ornella Khattar, Abdullah Al Alawy, Kenzie Kingman, Roger Saad, Nisreen Shocair, Arundhati Sen from Air Charter International and Hassan.