Dubai's giant bazaar of luxuries, bargains

Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Consumerism is sometimes seen as a psychological disorder that makes sufferers compulsively buy things they don't need.

But I'm not sick. I really needed the 18-karat-gold earrings and little black cocktail dress I bought here last week just as the Dubai Shopping Festival was getting underway.

How could I pass them up, when shopping in this great, big bazaar, or souk, of a city for the 21st century is tax-free and, more than that, encouraged?

The 32-day festival started last week with Sheik Mohammed ibn Rashid al Maktum attending a massive fire- and water-works display at the Dubai Festival City mall.

Last year the festival attracted 3.5 million visitors, chiefly from Europe, the Gulf States, Russia and India. Together they spent almost $3 billion.

This year, 40 malls and many other shopping venues are participating, slashing prices up to 75%. There will be concerts, dance performances and prizes that beggar anything offered on "Wheel of Fortune," including two 2008 Lexus automobiles awarded to one person every day of the festival, plus the chance to win 100,000 in any of 32 currencies. A few years ago, an 11-year-old girl from South India won 100 kilos of gold -- about 220 pounds -- in a raffle. At $900 an ounce, that's about a $3.2-million windfall.

"This is the festive season in Dubai for locals too," said Laila Suhail, the event's chief executive.

It is not surprising that shopping is a reason for celebration in Dubai, where aggressive consumerism isn't a sickness or even just a pastime but a way of life. People spend all day in the mall, window-shopping, enjoying the air conditioning, eating in food courts, turning their kids loose in play areas, seeing movies and meeting friends. At the Mall of the Emirates, you can indulge in a little indoor alpine skiing. The Ibn Battuta Mall has a virtual magic carpet ride.

When the Mall of Arabia opens in 2010, it will be the world's biggest shopping center. It will be in Dubailand, a huge new development east of town with seven theme parks.

Commerce is the lifeblood of Dubai, a port city on the Persian Gulf made wealthy from trade between East and West. About 60% of the goods that arrive here are shipped on to someplace else, but plenty are left to fill the shops: handicrafts from India, Southeast Asia and Africa; a range of luxury, brand-name items; and jewelry, especially that made with 18- and 22-karat gold.

I'm just a bush-league shopper, but I felt my heart racing as I set out to bag some bargains.

I started at the small but snazzy Boulevard mall, which links the Emirates Towers, a pair of architectural landmarks in Dubai's international business district on Sheikh Zayed Road. The atmosphere in the wide-aisled, two-story shopping center was as cool and cold as a diamond. Women in long, black abayas floated past shop-window mannequins that wore skin-tight jeans and low-cut gowns.

There were sales, yes, but even at half-off, that Balenciaga cocktail dress was out of my reach, and the Stella McCartney, at about $250, was more than I wanted to pay.

For something different, I cruised through the cut-rate department stores in the Meena Bazaar downtown, settled by Indian immigrants. There I found arm bangles and pashminas (only in Mumbai would I have found them more cheaply) that I would have bought if I were a certifiably compulsive consumer.

Then I went on a city bus tour that ended at the Gold Souk, a complex of more than 200 shops, dazzling with Christmas lights and the glint of precious metal. Luckily, a petite Indian American woman in my group who had the bargaining chops of a great white shark took me under her wing. At the counter of a shop where I found a pair of simple, 18-karat, gold-loop earrings weighing 1.46 grams, she talked the clerk down from $70 to $44.

On Thursday, the day the festival began, I found that little black cocktail dress at the Magrudy Centre, one of the mini-malls that line Jumeirah Beach Road, the Rodeo Drive of Dubai. The dress was a Marilyn Anselm design for Hobbs of England. Originally priced at $200, it was on sale for $60.

It looks great with the earrings.