Aptly known as a shoppers paradise, there is something for everyone to buy in the UAE. Bargains abound but you do need to know where to look.
A visit to any of the gold souqs or gold centres is an absolute must. All cities have dedicated gold souqs as well as an assortment of individual stores in upmarket malls. The range is largest in the souqs, and indeed many exclusive jewellery boutiques are based in the souq. You will find row upon row of shops with dazzling displays of gold jewellery in every conceivable design and purity: Eighteen- and 22-carat are common, but 24-karat is also available, although the deep yellow hue of the high-carat jewellery is not to everyones taste. If you wish you can also purchase kilo bars, ten tola bars, small minted bars and gold bullion bars. The basic cost of the gold is set by weight daily check the daily prices in the local newspapers. But be aware that the quoted price does not include making changes, the cost of which varies according to shop and style of jewellery. Most products are not necessarily as cheap as you would expect when comparing items of similar appearance in Europe to the UAE but pick the piece up and you will understand why the price is as it is, most jewellery made and sold here is solid and so you are literally getting twice as much, or more, gold for your money.
Precious gems and pearls, along with a wide selection of costume jewellery are also readily available.
Visit the extended Gold and Diamond Park in Al Quoz, Dubai (04 3477788 www.goldanddiamondpark.com). Apart from a spectacular array of gems and gold you can watch craftsmen at work. Located off Sheikh Zayed Highway at Interchange No. 4. The Gold Centre at Madinat Zayed Shopping Centre in Abu Dhabi also houses an extensive range of jewellery.
In the spice souqs, sacks of exotic spices spill out into the narrow alleyways, filling the area with a heady aroma.
Try some of the following:
Bezar - a mix of Arabian spices
Coriander(jiljalan) can be fresh greenleaves, seeds or ground.
Cardamom (hal) pick pods that are pale brown or green in colour. Good for flavouring gahwa (Arab coffee)
Saffron(zaffran), considered to be the most expensive spice in the world, is actually a crocus stigma. An important flavouring agent in Arabic cookery.
Rosewater and orange blossom water (myeward wa mye al-zahr) distilled from the flower petals a traditional Arab flavouring for deserts, pastries and salads.
Chilli powder(filfil ahmar ) used in moderation in Arabic cookery.
Ginger (zanjabeel) a popular ingredient in many Middle Eastern dishes; it is also served infused in milk as a night-time drink.
Pine nuts (sanobar)
Buying in bulk in the souq may not be practical for everyone, however you can divide amongst friends when you get home. Gifts of fresh spices are always welcome. Jars of mixed spices also make attractive gifts.
Sacks of frankincense line most alleyways in spice souqs. Frankincense was once more valuable than gold and the worlds most expensive fragrance, Amouage, contains the finest frankincense from Oman. The clearer the crystals the better the frankincense. Traditional burners make superb presents and its worth trying several different types of frankincense before choosing. Oud, the rare scented wood is also sold in perfume shops. It can be mixed with frankincense to waft a wonderful scent when burnt.
Fabrics and Textiles
Some of the finest silks from the Far East are to be found in the UAE. Fabrics are normally good value and high quality. Pashminas are a popular purchase and are readily available. Be careful, though, they can vary hugely in quality and price and make sure to bargain.
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No visit to Arabia is complete without a trip to a carpet store. There are carpet outlets in most shopping centres but, for the essential flavour of the region, a trip to the carpet souq is a must. The Blue Souq in Sharjah, offers the widest range of carpets at the keenest prices, but most carpet souqs will carry an assortment of ancient and modern carpets. The finest carpets come from Iran the traditional Persian carpets. Handmade from silk, an authentic carpet will bear the signature of its creator woven into the design. The designs are many, each individual and many specific to particular families or tribes.
Persian carpets are at the top of the price scale and many are so exquisite that putting them on the floor is practically unthinkable. There are many cheaper options, most just as hard wearing. India, Kashmir, Pakistan and to a lesser degree Afghanistan all produce high quality carpets. Many are copies of Persian designs but some are original. Most carpet traders are knowledgeable about their wares and will be happy to explain the difference between a machine made or handwoven carpet and describe in detail how carpets are made and from which villages they originate.
Check the knots per square inch, the higher the number the greater the quality; whether it is hand or machine made and whether natural or artificial dyes have been used. Do shop around, take your time, and remember to bargain.
If you are unable to choose the perfect carpet first time there is no need to worry. Most traders will buy carpets back or swap them for similar products. Traditionally carpets are intended to last a lifetime, indeed many on sale are far older.
Some souqs, especially the roadside versions, stock lurid copies of Persian designs but these are very easy to distinguish from originals.
Souqs and antique shops stock wonderful old oriental carpets, exotic wall hangings, elegant Arabic coffeepots made of hand-beaten copper, carved wooden chests, ornamental khanjars (traditional daggers), chunky silver jewellery, shishas, intricate jewellery boxes, woven camel-hair goods, worry beads and brass. Good quality antique goods are available. However many items are reproductions.
Asian tapestries are readily available and make superb wall-hangings and table runners. Embroidered Syrian cushions add a touch of luxury to all sofas and many come with matching tablecloths.
Some of the best buys are to be found in warehouse discount stores. Beware of paying inflated prices for antique furniture in shopping centres most are not truly antique and nearly all are available for far less in the warehouse stores. Try Khan & Sons (06 5681319), Al Barjeel Furniture (06 5621621), Pinkys (06 5341714) and Luckys (06 5341937), all in Sharjah. Most of the furniture is from Rajasthan, and it is advisable to phone for directions as all shops have huge warehouses full of stock.
Generally speaking electronic and computer products are considerably cheaper in the UAE. There are several superstores in major malls offering just about everything that plugs in and plays, as well as numerous smaller outlets that are extremely well stocked.
Some of the best bargains are to be found at the Carrefour hypermarkets in Dubai, Sharjah, Al Ain, Ajman, Ras al-Khaimah and Abu Dhabi. Plug Ins, with a number of branches in Dubai and Abu Dhabi is an Aladdins cave of electronic wonders while Jumbo Electronics, with several stores in Dubai, offers some of the best prices in town.
Those in search of computers and computer peripherals are also well catered for. As the home of Gitex, the Middle Easts largest IT exhibition held annually in October, Dubai, in particular,is a techno-shopping paradise. Most stores offer a good after sales service and pricing is so competitive between stores that shopping around has almost become a thing of the past.
All camera equipment is generally very good value in the UAE. Again, the major malls have well equipped camera stores. The stores most commonly frequented by professionals arein Dubai. Grand Stores (04 3523641) are agents for Nikon and Fuji, Salam Stores (04 3245252) sells the best range of photographic accessories in the UAE as well as being the agents for Pentax, Hasselblad, Tamron and Sigma. Central Stores are the Canon agents.
Watches of all sorts, shapes, sizes and prices are on sale throughout the UAE. The variety is infinite and the prices are good. If you are looking for a particular model or brand, it is a good idea to do some research at home before shopping in the UAE so that you have a price reference when you decide to purchase.
Designer goods from all over the world are readily available in shopping malls and boutiques. Clothes, shoes and bags are popular items. Again, it is worth pricing certain items in your home market before purchasing in the UAE.
Every conceivable perfume is available in the UAE. Large perfume stores sell all the Western brands at very good prices. Smaller shops in the souqs stock local perfumes, a fragrant mix of Arabian oil blended to suit your requirements, but beware they are strong! You can also purchase incense such as frankincense
Fresh Vegetables and Fish
The souqs specializing in vegetables and fish are well worth a visit to view the enormous selection of produce and drink in the atmosphere of the bustling marketplace even if you do not want to make a purchase.
Fresh fish from Gulf waters are landed in the early morning and late at night and the fish souqs are busiest on Thursdays, Fridays, and on public holidays. You will probably be approached by a helper who, for a small fee will carry your bags, bargain for you if you wish to purchase a fish and even arrange to have your fish filleted and scaled. Hamour (grouper), hamra (red snapper), zubeidi (pomfret), jodar (tuna), cigalees (similar to crayfish), lobster, prawns, crayfish and even shark are some of the varieties on offer. Be careful as the ground in the fish souq is usually wet and slippery.
Fruit and vegetables are both imported and home-grown try the local strawberries cultivated near Dhaid, they are absolutely delicious.
Frozen and pre-packaged goods from almost every corner of the globe are widely available. All of the large supermarket chains such as Carrefour, Spinneys, Géant and Waitrose stock a wide range of western brands whilst stores such as Choithram, Lulu, Al Maya and others cater to every nationality.