- The city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates is known for its extravagant, newly built landmarks like the Burj Khalifa, the Palm Jumeirah, and the Dubai Mall.
- But those landmarks have little to do with Dubai’s history as a major trading city at a crossroads between Asian and Middle Eastern trading routes.
- To see that history, you have to visit the city’s many souks, or marketplaces, and talk to many immigrants – from India, Pakistan, Egypt, and elsewhere – that work in them.
- The craziest of the souks is the Gold Souk, where you can purchase elaborate, handmade gold pieces for tens of thousands of dollars. There’s even a 141-pound gold ring that sells for approximately $US3 million.
The city exploded in prosperity after United Arab Emirates discovered oil in 1966,, leading to a development boom that has resulted in the world’s tallest building, the second-biggest mall, the most luxurious hotel, and more skyscrapers than any city besides New York and Hong Kong.
But Dubai was settled as a port city in the early 1800s, where it became a center for fishing and pearling, and a crossroads of sea and land trade routes through Asia and the Middle East.
That trading history has left behind a legacy of souks, or open-air marketplaces native to the Middle East and North Africa. These are loud, colourful places where traders from dozens of nationalities hawk their wares, as your senses are attacked from every direction.
Dubai has a lot of them: one for spices, one for perfumes, and another for clothing. But the most extravagant is the gold souk, where people come from all over the world to get a deal on that sweet yellow nugget.
As Nada Badran, a Jordanian who has lived in Dubai for most of her life, told me, the souks are the key to understanding Dubai.
Here’s what it was like to visit them:
After a couple of days in Dubai, I felt like I was having a hard time finding the city’s local culture. So I met up with Nada Badran, who hosts “Wander With Nada” on CNN Arabic. Badran agreed to take me through Dubai’s many souks.
Dubai’s mega-projects like Palm Jumeirah, the world’s largest artificial island, and the Burj Khalifa, the tallest tower in the world, may be cool, but they have little to do with the culture.
“A lot of people visit and say that Dubai has ‘no soul’ but that’s so far from the truth,” Badran told me. “You just have to put in the effort to look for the culture.”
As Badran explained, the culture of Dubai doesn’t reside in thousands-year-old landmarks like Italy or Greece as Emiratis were historically a nomadic people. Instead, it resides in people, like Dubai’s immigrant populations, which make up nearly 94% of the city’s population of the city’s 3.2 million people.
To get a window into the real Dubai, you have to visit the city’s souks, or markets. Dubai has a long history as a port city and crossroads for trading routes that pass through the Middle East And Asia. It has since become a melting pot of Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos, and Arabs.
One of the most popular souks is the Gold Souk in Deira, one of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods.
Dubai is often called the “city of gold” due to its meteoric rise to wealth in a single generation, but the city could be called that for another reason: As of 2014, 40% and $US75 billion of the global gold trade flowed through Dubai. Much of it goes through the Gold Souk, the largest of the city’s jewellery markets.
The price of gold in the market is determined by three factors: the weight or karat of the gold, the design, and the labour needed to make the piece, explained Badran. While the karat and weight prices are government-regulated, everything else is negotiable.
The primary customers in the Gold Souk are Indians, Chinese, and Emiratis, Badran said. Purchasing gold in Dubai is so popular because labour is cheaper and, up until last year, there were no taxes. The Dubai economy has been so hard-hit by the newly introduced value-added tax that it is considering doing away with it for tourists.
You can see the influence of the customer base on the style of the elaborate jewellery on display. These pieces cater to Indian customers, Badran said.
“It is tradition to buy gold in some cultures, for special occasions such as weddings and births, and they don’t stop buying because of price changes,” Bhavin Sagar, the owner of Shantilal, a family-run business over 50 years old, told The National.
Source: The National
For Indian, Chinese, and Emiratis, gold often functions as part of a dower or “bride price,” by which the husband and his family pay the bride and her family for the marriage. The wedding pieces, like this one, can get incredibly elaborate and cost in the tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Dubai’s Gold Souk has the world’s largest gold ring on display. The 21-karat Najmat Taiba weighs 141 pounds and costs approximately $US3 million. There’s a lot of people trying to get a selfie there.
Source: Business Insider
The Gold Souk is far from the only market. Dubai has a long reputation as a commercial and trading port dating back to the 1800s. Deira’s souks are where the “story of Dubai started,” Dr. Hasan Al Naboodah, an Emirati historian, told The National.
Source: The National
A few minutes from the Gold Souk is the Spice Souk. It’s full of tiny alleyways full of tiny shops stocked with every kind of scent imaginable. It’s a kind of sensory overload. Like many of Deira’s souks, it’s a place for locals to buy everything from saffron and turmeric to sulphur powder (the yellow rods on the left) and natural indigo (the blue balls).
Badran had us stop in on a spice shop to get an education in the spice trade. As Badran explained, most shops in the spice souk are run by Iranian immigrants and most spices come from Iran.
Badran introduced us to Saeed Neamatpour, an Iranian immigrant whose uncle owns the Nasser Ali spice shop.
He provided us with a look at some of the shop’s biggest sellers, including dates (of which there are more than 120 varieties) and oudh, a smoky resinous wood used by Emiratis as a kind of perfume or cologne.
Iran is particularly famous for saffron, the most expensive spice in the world and one often called “red gold.” The best stuff can sell for as much as $US20 a gram, but in Dubai can be had for 15 dirhams, or about $US4, a gram. Iran produces a whopping 85% of the world’s saffron.
Source: National Geographic
You can tell the difference between the highest grade saffron and the lower grade by the colour. While the top stuff is purely red, this kind has orange and yellow mixed in.
The second most expensive spice is vanilla, which comes from orchids that are exceptionally difficult to pollinate. These ones, from Madagascar, smelled as intoxicating as you can imagine.
Oudh is an ingredient used since ancient cultures and popular today for Emiratis (as well as Indians and other southeast Asians) as a perfume or cologne. It is a type of resin produced by tropical Agar tree when it has been infected with a certain kind of mould. Of course, only 2% of Agar trees become infected so its very rare.
The Spice Souk is a pretty good place to try faloodeh, a traditional Iranian dessert of vermicelli noodles with ice and rose-flavored syrup.
In order to get to Dubai’s oldest neighbourhood, Bastakiya (now known as al-Fahidi), we had to cross the Dubai Creek. The best, and most scenic way, is on an abra, a traditional Emirati water taxi. It costs 1 Dirham for the ride.
Riding an abra with the wind at your back is one of the most beautiful ways to see Dubai. You can ride all the way to downtown Dubai, but we were only heading across the water to Dubai’s oldest souk, the Textile Souk.
The textile souk is also known as the Old Souk. It is a bit more touristy than the other markets, no doubt due to the fact that its goods (fabrics, souvenirs, and clothes) are the things tourists are most likely to buy.
You can find just about any touristy thing you might want in the Old Souk, from t-shirts to sandals and scarves.
One of the best things to do, however, is to pick out fabrics and patterns from a textile shop and have one of the tailors in the market fashion you a bespoke garment.
Badran introduced us to Abdul Rawof Khan, a textile seller originally from Afghanistan, for an education in traditional Arabian clothing.
As Badran explained, there are slight differences in the headscarf, or keffiah, and white robe, or kandora, that those from the Arabian Gulf wear.
Khan convinced me that I had to try on the traditional Emirati keffiah and kandora. The Emirati kandora is collarless and features a long tassel known as a tarboosh.
My travel partner Annie, meanwhile, tried on a traditional Emirati abaya. In contrast to the more plain black abaya and niqab worn in some other Arabic countries, the Emirati abaya is often decorated with sequins, patterns, ribbons, and embroidery.
A short way from the textile souk is one of Dubai’s two Hindu temples. The temple has long been one of the only places for Dubai’s approximately 500,000 Hindu-practicing Indian immigrants to worship.
It gets crowded on the big holidays. It’s not very big, as you can see from the alleyway you take to get there and the ceremonial washing station in front.
While it’s not exactly a souk, the alleyway to the temple is packed with small shops selling exactly the same thing: fruit and flower offerings to the gods.
And small figurines and other ornaments related to Hindu gods.
After a day exploring Old Dubai, it was clear that the heart of the culture is in the mix of traditions, foods, clothings, and histories that flow past one another in the souks.
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