Once upon a time in Dubai there was not a single shopping mall. International brands were inaccessible and often unknown; ‘high fashion’ was the sole preserve of those privileged enough to vacation in London, Paris or Rome – while ex-pat wives had to content themselves with shopping ‘expeditions’ that took them no further than the sofa and a mail-order catalogue. It was 1980 and Dubai was indeed a fashion ‘desert’. But things were about to change

On the Deira side of Dubai Creek cranes were standing sentinel over a cacophony of construction activity, carving out the foundations of a landmark project. It was one that would not only revolutionize the retail concept but set Dubai on the path to being the international shopping hub that it is today. ‘It’…was Al Ghurair Centre.

It is hard to exaggerate the impact when it first opened its doors to an excited public in 1981. After all, it was not only a new shopping experience for the local population – it was the very first Shopping Mall in the entire Middle East! Many a resident still testifies to the wonderment of shoppers who came, not only from Dubai, but from all over the UAE and beyond.

Before Al Ghurair Centre, shopping was uneventful, dusty and hot. The souk, the corner shop, the street markets; little stores dotting little neighbourhoods. All had their charms no doubt, but shopping was a necessity; an essential chore – not an ‘experience’ and rarely a pleasure.

In contrast, Al Ghurair Centre was a revelation – an air conditioned ‘people’s palace’ offering a hitherto unknown variety of shopping delights in a bright, beautifully designed environment that many came simply to see. An Aladdin’s Cave for choice-starved consumers. Al Ghurair Centre was the new place to be.

Today, more than 30 years later, it is still the place to be. Constantly improving its facilities; expanding its services; enhancing the customer experience at every turn. Few properties truly deserve the description of “iconic landmark” – but Al Ghurair Centre is that and much more. It was part and parcel of the development of early Dubai and set the benchmark for Mall development throughout the Middle East.

But there’s something else. When the much-anticipated new extension opened its doors in 2013, it brought back fond memories for many parents who came along with their excited kids. For they remembered being brought along by their own parents to the opening of the original Al Ghurair Centre in 1981.

These children became the patrons who ‘adopted’ Al Ghurair Centre as their own – not only as a shopping and entertainment centre, but as the social hub of a growing community in what, even today, many regard as the ‘Real Dubai’. For sure there are bigger malls on the ‘other side of the Creek’ – malls of a grand, even cavernous, scale.

But how many are at the centre of an authentic city environment? How many are street-facing malls in the heart of a genuine community – buzzing with the sights and sounds of everyday street life as taxis whiz by and doorstep metros spill out happy residents, shoppers and tourists into another sunny afternoon? How many have the bustle and ‘easy-urban feel’ of pavement cafes to laze and chat and watch the world go by?

The French call it ‘joie de vivre’ – the joy of life. And perhaps, more than anything else, that’s what Al Ghurair Centre represents. A place of unique ambience and character that has enchanted and enthralled and enhanced lives for a generation and more. How many like it? Only none.