The Dubai Mall: Postcards From The Biggest Mall in The World

Ever since stone-age man first propped up a palm-leaf awning between two commercial mud huts, stuck a fountain in the centre and posted a sign for ‘toilet’ and ‘food court’ next to it, mankind has had malls to go to. A civic space that provides some place for Madame to shop, Sir to ogle, Young Master to gorge and fourteen-year-olds to stand around in groups trying to look cool (and failing en masse to do so).

There are of course the ubiquitous palm treesAnd, like most things we’ve invented, over the subsequent thousands of years we have been attempting to make ever greater, more elaborate versions of the two-shop-fountain-and-food-court model we know as the shopping mall. Take the great pyramids of Giza, for instance; a quirky design whose unique architecture and indecipherable signage had led to it long being mislabeled as a place of worship, and even a tomb! Well let me tell you, the pyramids now have serious competition.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I have been to the Dubai Mall, and I have lived to tell the tale — with pictures!

1.Kinda, Sorta The Biggest Mall* Evah!

By now the legends of Dubai Mall have spread far and wide. Its gargantuan size, the unending traffic leading up to its arcane parking, its humongous goldfish bow–er, aquarium. This, my friends, is The Biggest Mall in the World™.

Or is it?

Our most trusted source for modern information tells us that while the Dubai Mall is a massive 12.7 million square feet big — the term ‘50 football fields’ is bandied about here and there — the actual shop space (Gross Leasable Area) is only 3.8, the same as the once-largest West Edmonton Mall, and paling in comparison to the South China Mall’s 6.5 million (if only in theory and not in practice).

A typical hallway in Dubai Mall, with vast spaces over several levels and colourful LED screens everywhereBut getting back to Dubai Mall, you can’t help but be reminded of this ratio of 3.8 to 12.7 when you’re walking around it massive hallways. And I do mean massive. The ground floor hallways are as wide as the city street I live on. This is the kind of place where you soon start to plot out your route to maximise efficiency, favouring corridors on the inside curve of the direction you’re headed. Take the wrong path and your destination might be an additional few hunded metres away than you expected. A lot of this is down to how the place is laid out, but more on that later.

Of the 1200 stores set to open, about half are ready right now, but despite this there are entire sections and stretches where all you can see is boarded-up shopfronts with the words ‘opening soon’ painted on them. Several stores aren’t even booked yet, with a generic ‘new store’ sign stuck on the plywood. Right now, the chief function of these unopened storefronts is as signage, such as, ‘Aquarium’, ‘Gold Souk’ and — my favourite — ‘More Shops’.

No, really.

2.Big Fish Story

The Dubai Mall Aquarium, home to over 33,000 creatures and tourists.
It’s safe to say that the big attraction that draws crowds to the Dubai Mall is its aquarium. Since the mall was announced the aquarium has featured heavily in the hype, and indeed in the finished mall it is set dead centre in the structure. At this point I should rattle off the usual list of achievements like it housing 33,000 marine creatures behind the world’s largest single acrylic panel that keeps 10 million litres of water from flushing unuspecting tourists away. There’s that done with.

The acrylic panel has a wicked level of distortion when you get up close to it. I’m sure I’d end up with a headache if I stared at it for too long. There’s even a clear-walled tunnel that goes through the tank, but they charge Dhs 15 (nearly $4) or something for it and it most definitely seems like it isn’t worth it, because it’s a scant few metres from the other (publicly accessible) side. Despite this there was a healthy crowd waiting in line, so what do I know?

For a feature that’s meant to be a showstopper, there’s very little sense of drama to it. “Oh look, some fish,” you say as you pass by a darkened part of the mall. Sure, when you step back and take it all in for the first time it is impressive, but doesn’t take your breath away. Then that shark you saw swimming by twenty seconds ago comes back from doing a lap of the tank, and if you stay for a few minutes longer you’ll see it again a half dozen times. It’s then that you realise just how small the tank must be to a creature used to dozens if not hundreds of square miles of territory to swim around in. And it’s not just the sharks, everything in the aquarium just sort of swims around in a circle, aimlessly and endlessly (and with 33K things in there, trust me, it’s quite crowded).

Maybe it’s because I’m particularly biased: I detest zoos and aquariums, and even feel uneasy with the idea of keeping dogs and cats as pets. The hundreds of people around me were ooh-ing and aah-ing no end, so I’m sure it’s quite a treat for most folk.

It’s just not for me.

Crowds of people view the Dubai Mall AquariumA close up of the reef structures within the Dubai Mall Aquarium

3.Fashionably Late

A panoramic shot of the atrium in Fashion Catwalk
The other big concept that defines Dubai Mall is that it’s not just one gigantic monstrosity — oh no — it’s six or seven of them. Malls within a Mall, the building split into several architecturally distinct sections, some of which are semi-detached from the main flow of things. One of these is the haute-couture hub, Fashion Avenue and Catwalk.

Very few stores in this section are open (even compared to the rest of the mall), and you go there just to marvel at the cavernous hallway. Being off the beaten track means that this section is — save for a couple of very bored-looking security guards — completely empty and quiet as a tomb. The interiors are straight out of a science fiction film, with white light panels everywhere. It’s like being transported to an Imperial hangar bay in Star Wars — The Death Star Mall!

Fashion Avenue in Dubai Mall. Interiors by Darth VaderAn under-construction shopfront, which actually looks quite pretty in its industrial state

The couple of shops that are open are manned by near-comatose salespersons who look like they haven’t seen a human being all day, let alone made a sale. As you pass by the look at you with a lazy blink, and you wonder if they think you’re even real or some figment of their imagination. An uneasy feeling starts to creep upon your shoulders then. All these lights. All this air-conditioning. All these millions poured into building a place like this, into renting a shop and stocking it and manning it, and there’s just nobody here, and there probably won’t ever be a crowd of thousands descending upon what basically amounts to a side-lane.

It’s just… bonkers.

The floor-level view of Fashion Catwalk Atrium

4.Atrium Overload

The fancy light fixture in the so-called Grand AtriumThe chandelier in Souk Atrium, at one end of the Gold Souk
So you get back into the regular section of the mall, back into the even brighter lights and the corridors which are as wide as a four-lane highway, and consult a map. It looks simple enough, a quarter-circle with a few lines bisecting it. You spot the little ‘]’ shape latched onto the circumference which is Fashion Avenue, and then head to a place called Grand Atrium.

“Oh, this must be it!” you say as a few minutes later you end up in an atrium. Except the Grand Atrium you saw on the map is three whole atriums away, and when you get there it isn’t any bigger — certainly not Grander — than the ones you passed on the way here (actually it’s much smaller than the one in Fashion Catwalk), but it just happens to be near the main taxi-drop. There are around six or eight minor and major atria dotted around the mall, and while each is pretty to look at, they’re scattered around with such abandon as to completely confuse first-time visitors. For instance, if you call someone and tell them to meet you at the Gold Souk atrium, do you mean the one placed at the centre of the Gold Souk area, or the similar looking one that’s at one end of the Gold Souk (and not a short distance away)?

A Dubai Mall atrium with a club themeAnother shot of the same dance-themed atrium

5.The Ice Rink Cometh

The Dubai Mall ice RinkThe Hallway overlooking the Dubai Mall Ice Rink
Most malls find a centre of usage, i.e. a place where people tend to spend most of their time. This is usually the Hypermarket or near the cinemas, the places most likely to see traffic in the hundreds and thousands. For now, it would seem, the Dubai Mall’s centre is the Ice Rink.

Sure, so the aquarium has more people around it at any given moment, but the ice rink is near the (pathetic) food court, and near the eventual 22 screen cinema; it has large, wide corridors with space for retaurants to spill their tables onto, it has ample space for 14-year-olds to mill about and show off their hair to each other. This is even where management has decided to keep the often dozens-long queues for taxis. And most importantly, it has a big-ass TV.

Now, the Dubai Ice Rink is not exactly a handsome looking venue. It’s an olympic size rink set against a bright red yet somehow bland wall, with jello-coloured round nooks in the ceiling above it, and that’s about it. The lighting on the halls around it is so bright and uniform that the one restaurant that is open — the usually sublime Dome cafe — with probably never attract my coin because it’s saddled with the least inviting ambience of any cafe I’ve ever seen. It would be like having coffee in an operating theatre.

You know why it has a big-ass TV? Because something has to relieve the tedium of skating round the most boring rink in the world.

The Big-ass TV overlooking the Dubai Ice Rink


My father goes against all the Rules of the Male by consulting a mapThe floor plan of the Dubai Mall
One of my favourite Dubai malls is called Mall of the Emirates, the largest one before Dubai Mall opened. It’s a model of efficient mall design, with very few wasted or out of the way spaces. The whole thing is set up in a very simple elongated loop with a central atrium. Despite this, I know that hundreds of people find it confusing, and often get lost there.

Boy, would I like to see what they make of Dubai Mall.

I explained its basic structure before, that of a quarter circle with various bits attached to and within it, and that’s basically what you can see in the map above. The scale of it doesn’t quite come through in the image, and I’m sure very few visitors will ever see all of Dubai Mall. They’ve tried to make things easier by providing both interactive touchscreen maps like the one above, as well as large manned wayfinding & info bureaus dotted throughout the complex. The former are clunky to use and their touchscreen systems are both slow to respond and innacurate, (repeatedly selecting W when you want V on a shop-listing, for instance), and the latter are helpful but currently unreliable.

For instance, the thing that swayed me to go to Dubai Mall in the first place when I read that a massive bookstore was already open there, from the Japanese chain Kinokuniya. So, not having spotting it yet I approached the desk, and they helpfully pointed me in the right direction, more or less. It helped that I knew which exact atrium I was looking for, because had I taken their basic instructions of left, left, up, up, whatever, I may have ended up somewhere else. Anyway, along the way I spotted several more signs on unopened shops that pointed vaguely towards Kinokuniya, and even noticed an LED display proclaiming “Now Open on Level 3” — only when I actually got there the shop was far from open.

It wasn’t even open on my second or third visit to the mall. The last time I went there it was, and oh boy was it worth it. Enormous, intelligently stocked, well-priced — one of the few things that justifies the Dubai Mall’s existence at this point.

7.Parking Lot Hero

The very large and very empty parking lota helpful sign that isn’t very helpful at all
But all of this is irrelevant if you can’t ever get to the mall in the first place. I’m generally adept at wayfinding, especially in the kind of silly tangle of bridges and loops that comprise most modern city road systems, but Dubai Mall’s parking really does take the cake.

Getting into it through one of several little entry-ways is easy enough. The parking wraps around three sides of the mall on several levels, but once you’re in there, good luck making any sense of it. Because, while parking is ample and the structure big enough, they’ve laid it out in the most bizarre way possible. Instead of simple rows and trunk-roads to get in and out, you enter a series of clusters and nested loops, some containing a hundred spots, some containing a dozen.

And there’s no simple 1,2,3 progression of levels either, with Gm and G and ‘cinema’ written here and there, but not really meaning much. Here too the signage is crazy. Do I really need a sign that cheerfully proclaims ‘More Parking’ every few metres?

Getting out is not exactly easy either. There was one section — I can’t even remember where — after ten minutes of leaving our space where we, following any sign marked ‘exit’, were led into an infinite loop. Luckily that area was empty and I could see where it was we eventually were supposed to go, but if there were cars blocking my view I would probably still be there, stuck in that parking building.

8.The Souk That Sends You Mad

Map of the Dubai Mall Gold Souk
As above so below, we’re told, and I’m fairly sure that extra-twisty section of the parking lot was directly under the area known as the Gold Souk. I have no pictures of this area. I don’t have a picture of the kitsch gold horse statue, or the several more quaint fountains, or the atrium, or the floors, because you couldn’t pay me to go back into that hell-hole.

Look at that map. Look at that twisty mangle of corridors, and imagine yourself at the left end thinking, “Ooh, a gold souk, this looks interesting.” Now imagine youself walking down that infinitely long single corridor of gold shops (most unopened) for fifteen whole minutes, only to emerge at the end and realise that you’re only halfway through. Imagine setting off down the rest of it and wondering with a chill down your spine if you’re just headed back the way you came.

Argh! It’s all the same! And. There’s. No. Way. Out.

9.Waitrose Dungeon

Now Descending to Level Purgatory
All of which makes the dungeon a bit of a breeze, really.

I call it a dungeon because it’s on a level below the ground floor, and unlike the shiny marble floors everywhere else they’ve decided to lay down a drab brown brick job here in this labyrinthine place. There are about three forks that lead off from the easiest way to get there; one of them has a bunch of nondescript stores and promising looking cafe and boulangerie names, and the other ends up in a second food court that is open for business, but is so off the beaten track there were about five people eating there. Signs pointing towards it from the rest of the mall are not going help when it take a fifteen minute walk to just get there.

The main attraction down here is a branch of the British supermarket chain Waitrose. It’s hidden somewhere behind an assortment of less-than-flagship stores (these must be the megamall’s equivalent of the cheap seats) and nick-nack stalls, and looks impressive enough from the outside.

Except it’s a Spinneys. Sure, so it says Waitrose on the outside, and Spinneys has been stocking some Waitrose products on their shelves for years, but this is exactly a big Spinneys. It has the same pasta salad in its deli, the same types of bread in its bakery — it’s a Spinneys (but surprise, surprise, the prices are higher). Why should I trek all the way there when there are dozens of them conveniently dotted throughout the city? And if there is a large stock of specialty Waitrose items in that store alone, why make it so big? Does Dubai really have a burning demand for more greasy, overcooked pasta salad?

10.The Good, the Bad and the Retail

It’s hard to really like Dubai Mall. I know it sounds silly to complain that the Biggest Mall in the World is, well, too big but yes, it is.

It’s big, but in the sense that morbidly obese people are big; it’s bafflingly laid out with several features that must have sounded cool in theory, but don’t work in practice; the signage tries to be cute rather than helpful; the food court is underwhelming and there’s a severe dearth of sit-down restaurants and cafes elsewhere in the mall; there’s no real ‘killer app’ sure-fire draw store like IKEA to bring crowds in… and have I mentioned that it’s huge?

For all my love of design I can’t for the life of me imagine spending hours looking at hundreds and hundreds of me-too pret-a-porter dress stores, because that’s what makes up the bulk of shops. The one major attraction, Kinokuniya bookstore, is only really going to satisfy book nerds; it’s set up in one long spiral curve and I swear the end of it is in a different country than the entrance, and that’s just going to annoy anybody who isn’t a complete bibiomaniac (also it doesn’t have 85% of its shop-space dedicated to greeting cards and sparkly pencils like other, real bookstores, harrumph!).

Most of all, there’s just no elegance in it. The lighting is severe, the air-conditioning freezes you to the bone. It’s loud and big and silly and strange — everything a mall should be — but it just doesn’t come together.

Still, one hell of a bookstore.

And you can keep your bloody half-crazed fish.