The Promised Land

Retailing in the UAE

The transformation of the United Arab Emirates from a cluster of small towns and Gulf fishing villages into a shining, buzzing oasis in the desert has been decades in the making.

Grand designs like these don’t tend to pause for a temporary blip. Even when demand for oil, the lifeblood of the Gulf, goes down globally – and local consumer spending with it, as is happening now – or when all the signs are that the retail market might already be oversupplied.

Some 1.5 million square metres of mall space is currently under construction in Dubai alone – that’s 50% of the total amount of retail property open today. Just one of the projects in the pipeline – the Deira Mall, opening in 2021 – will offer almost half a million square metres across 1,000 units.

With so much space coming through, landlords will be pulling out all the stops to get their malls filled. Sweet deals are always tempting, but with the combined factors of the introduction of VAT at the beginning of 2018, an extended era of low oil prices, the shift in the UAE’s demographics, and the digitisation of retail, quality – not quantity – will be the key to the next phase.

There is plenty of space in which to grow your business. The big question is, what about the brand? And how do you stand out in such a huge crowd?

Simon Parkes, creative director at London-based design and branding agency Public, which has just completed a successful multiple-store retail launch in the region, says that as the UAE market grows and gets more crowded, maintaining a strong, distinct identity is crucially important.

“The received wisdom in this market is often for brands to follow the same trends,” he says. “But we’d argue that they need to stop being followers and start leading. Retailers should offer more of an experience and better services; they need to be bold and innovative, and to stand for something.”

Leem, the brand that Public recently launched in the UAE, is part of the burgeoning global modest fashion sector (see boxout). The brief: to create beautifully crafted physical spaces that reflect Leem’s unique identity in a growing area of women’s fashion. With their long, slim uncluttered rails and display tables, elegant curved glass frontages and partially transparent cocoon-like timber structures, the six stores now trading in the UAE and Saudi Arabia are unique spaces in the market. 

The brand’s stores and graphic identity have been designed by Public and built entirely around the customer, with the future in mind. Reflecting the brand – and the wider sector – the 150-200 square metre stores are comfortable, calm, tasteful boutiques; oases in the world of fast fashion and shiny retail interiors that have become ubiquitous in the UAE.

Simon makes the point that the project revealed some fundamental truths about doing business in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, where Leem is now trading.

He says: “There’s an opportunity for modest fashion brands to be bold in their brand direction and really own the market. Too many retailers are trying to do a bit of everything and be everywhere. The key in this sector is to be specialist: develop a clear proposition and communicate it; focus on the customer; establish a strong brand identity and maintain it across all channels of the business.”

The UAE is a promised land for retailers. The developers creating millions more square metres of space will hope it remains so. Setting up shop is the easy part; maintaining quality in the face of such sheer quantity is how the smart retailers will keep their businesses, and their brands, on top.

Spotlight on modest fashion

Leem is one of the newest names in a global phenomenon in women’s fashion. With style-conscious women all over the world espousing their choice to dress in a way that reflects their values as well as their love of clothes and accessories, and huge multinational retail brands from Nike to H&M getting on board, modest dressing continues to be one of the big news stories in fashion.

Public’s work with Leem came from a starting point of getting into this mindset. To some, modest fashion might sound like nothing more than a synonym for conservative dress. In reality, it’s a way for women to express their personal style on their own terms; to dress in a way that celebrates their values, rather than bends them to an accepted fashion aesthetic.

As the UAE and the wider Middle East opens its doors to the West, fashion brands pour in with their home-grown looks. Modest fashion brands like Leem offer women a way to blend traditional Middle Eastern clothing with fresh, contemporary styles: to keep their identity in a changing world.

5 quick wins for success in the Gulf

1. Stand for something: have a clear brand identity, differentiate from your competitors, and don’t just try to fit in.


2. Own the space: in a market as abundant with retailers as the UAE it’s vital to own everything from the brand identity, the look of the store, the range of clothing and the sector you’re in: be bold and innovative and make an impression.


3. Remember service is king: no matter how good your product is, how chic the store is or how well the brand is positioned, retailing is about service. Always keep your unique customers in mind and deliver what they want.


4. Embrace new tech in modern retailing: it’s essential to empower staff to utilise all the most powerful tools at a multichannel retailer’s disposal. Hand staff these keys and they will keep the customers happy.


5. Engage customers: modern retailing is a two-way process. Social media has handed retailers and e-tailers the most powerful tool of all: information. Engage your customers, listen to them, encourage social media interaction and you will be hugely rewarded.